Sunday, October 4, 2009

Simhat Torah: A timeline

In a fascinating book, Avraham Yaari (1964) explains the history of the numerous customs on Simhat Torah. I have derived a timeline of the celebration of the holiday from the book. (All pages below from Avraham Yaari, Toldot Chag Simhat Torah, Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1998)

Torah – no mention of the holiday.

Talmud – Megillah 31A records that on the day after Shemini Atzeret, one reads Ve-Zot habracha and Va-yamod Shelomo, (King 8:22) for the Haftorah. This ruling was only relevant for Bavel, who had two days of Shemini Atzeret, and who completed reading the Torah once a year. However, in Israel the Torah was finished once every three or three and half years, see Rambam, Laws of prayer 13:1. Thus, only in Bavel could there have been an annual holiday to celebrate the completion of the reading of the Torah. However, in Israel, not only was the reading of the Torah not completed in a year, but also communities in Israel finished reading the Torah at different times. When each community would finish reading the Torah they would celebrate, but this was not necessarily near the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. Yaari (p.16) notes that one cannot find one piyyut from the land of Israel from the era of the paytanim that was specifically written about Simhat Torah because the holiday was not celebrated in Israel.

Geonim – The day was called Yom Bracha (p.20), ten people were called to the Torah (p.21), there was no special title for the person who received the last aliyah, and some places began the custom to read Yehoshua 1 for the Haftorah instead of Va-yamod Shelomo (see also Rambam, Laws of prayer, 13:12, and Tosfot Megillah 31A, le-machar). Some communities completed the reading of the Torah by Yom Kippur, and some had a custom to read the first day of Bereshit by minhah or neilah at Yom Kippur, either by heart or from the Torah (pp.18,19). The last aliyah was the last 8 verses of the Torah (p.71). Also, there was a custom to dance when saying piyyutim praising the Torah (p.24, quoted in Mishneh Berurah 699:11), but there was no dancing by hakafot since there were not yet hakafot.

1099- The Crusaders captured Israel, and massacred the Jewish communities of Jerusalem and Hebron. This effectively ended the custom of reading the Torah in a three year cycle, though the custom continued for some time in Egypt, see Rambam, Laws of prayer, 13:5, completed 1180 or 1178, and Binyamin Tudela’s visit in Egypt in 1170 (p.15).

End of 11th century, beginning of 12th century - first mention of the name Simhat Torah amongst Sefardim (R. Yitzhak Ibn Gais, Spain 1020-1089, p.29) and in France (Rashi, 1040-1105, p.30). In France, everybody had an aliyah, which seems to have included children (pp. 92,160).

Machzor Vitry (R. Simhah of Vitry, d. 1105, student of Rashi, grandfather of the Ri) records the custom to read from sefer Bereshit with a sefer Torah. He also mentions, apparently for the first time, the term chatan both for the last aliyah and for the aliyah by Bereshit and the reshut to call up the chatan (p.64). Yaari (pp. 64,138) argues that the reshut for the chatan Torah was before the Crusaders since it describes conditions in Israel, while the reshut for the chatan Bereshit does not refer to these conditions. Also, in the initial reshut for chatan Torah there is no mention of the term chatan, which suggests that this reshut was written before the reshut for chatan Bereshit. Question remains was the reshut for chatan Torah from Israel when they celebrated every three/ three and half years the finishing of the reading of the Torah or was it written in France based on their understanding of conditions in Israel? The Sefardim still do not recite the reshut but instead they recite rhymes and songs, see below.

Machzor Vitry also records custom to take out all the sefer Torah in the day just like they did for Hoshana Rabbah, and to recite piyyutim when taking out the Torah and holding them (p.261). This custom of removing the Sefer Torah was not done by Sefardim, as it is not mentioned by the Shulchan Arukh, but by the 16th century it had become accepted in Sefat (p.266).

12th century- The custom in some places in Spain and many places in Provence was to read Bereshit by heart (pp. 37,38). This custom of reading from the Torah spread except in Italy, where until recent times the custom was still to read the first three verses of Bereshit by heart (p.49). Eshkol (Ravad II, 1110-1179) records that the chatan made a meal for the congregation (p.155). Tosfot (Megillah, 21B, Tana) records that the last aliyah starts from the beginning of chapter 34, va-ya’al Moshe. However, the Rokeach (Germany, 1160-1238) writes that the last aliyah starts with the last four verses of chapter 33 (p.72). Rokeach also thought that the chatan should say shehechiyanu (p.150).

13th century – The custom of the Maharam Rutenberg (1215-1293) was that the last aliyah starts with the last three verses of chapter 33 (p.72), which became the accepted Ashkenazi practice. First mention of taking out all the Sefer Torah at night on Simhat Torah, though Yaari notes that the Maharil (15th century) did not mention this custom (pp. 262,263).

14th century – R. Aharon Hakohen of Lunel (Provence) writes that after the Haftorah and ashrei, the Sefer Torah were taken out, and kinot were said about Moshe’s death (p.262). Also mentions (also see Hamanhig) custom to sing songs for the chatanim as is still done today for real chatanim by Sefardim (p.141).

Tur (1275-1340, Orah Chayyim 669) records that Bereshit is read as the third sefer Torah. Yaari (p.156) deducts from the Tur’s language that Sefardim had not yet accepted custom of chatan to make a meal. Abduraham (Seville, early 14th century) records that Bereshit is read from the second sefer Torah (p.40), there were five aliyot (p.91) and the person who received the last aliyah read the entire parasha, which became the Sefardi custom (p.73).

15th century- Maharil (1365-1427, Germany), the aliyah by Bereshit is the first chapter until va-yaclu, and the chazzan says the next three verses, 2:1-3 (p.81). Maharil tried to limit the number of aliyot to six, but this was only accepted in a few German communities (p.93). However, later other communities tried to limit the number of aliyot since it takes so long to call everybody up (pp.94,95). Maharil also mentions the custom of calling all the children together for one aliyah (p.161). R. Isaac Tirna (1385-1450? Trnova, Czech Republic) quote that start the reading for the children from me-oneh, 33:27, but Yaari (p.161) notes that later the custom in Germany was to start from u-ledan, 33:22. However, Levush (R. Mordechai Jaffe, 1535-1612, Poland) also quotes that aliyah for children starts from me-oneh, p.162. Yaari (p.164) writes that most Sefardim, except in Israel, never accepted the idea of a communal aliyah for children. R. Isaac Tirna is the first to mention custom to read from the sefer Torah at night (p.194), but did not read Ve-zot habracha, but other sections called nedarim, see Mishnah Brurah (669:15) and Yaari (pp.195-200). This custom to read the Torah at night was not accepted by everybody. R. Avraham Danzig (1748-1820, Hayyei Adam, 153:7) writes that in some places, such as Prague, they took out the sefer Torah and rolled it, but did not read it (pp. 201,202). Yaari (p.202) also writes that this was only an Ashkenazi custom, as Sefardim did not accept it. There was a custom in Italy and later in Germany to put a lit candle in the aron after taking out all the Sefer Torah. This custom was abolished by the Taz, 17th century, Orah Chayyim 154:7, (p.265).

16th century- In Sefat, they had the custom that the chatan makes meal (p.156). Rama (d. 1572, Cracow, Darkei Moshe and Orah Chayyim 669:1, also quoted by the Levush) writes that by the aliyah of the children, we say ha-malach hagoel, Bereshit 48:16, p.162. Yaari understands that Rama’s custom was to read ha-malach from a sefer Torah, something which he does not understand since this would require another sefer Torah or a lot of rolling of the sefer Torah. Rama also writes that both at night and at day there was a custom to circle the bima, and Yaari writes that he meant only once (p.265).

R. Chayyim Vital (student of Ari) writes that he saw the Ari dance seven hakafot on the night after Simhat Torah (pp.266, 267). Yaari points out that this sighting was changed to being on the night of Simhat Torah (p.268), and then the custom of hakafot spread in the 18th century to Europe (p.275). However, even up to the time of the Mishnah Brurah (1907, 699:10), some places only did three hakafot. In any event, this new custom changed the nature of Simhat Torah from reading the Torah to doing hakafot (p.276).

17th century- Europe – Custom began that the congregation recited Bereshit 2:1-3 and afterwards developed the custom for the congregation to say “it was night and day” for each day (p.82). In some places in Israel, Syria and Turkey, the congregation would accompany the chatanim either to the synagogue or to their homes with torches. This custom was taking torches was later abrogated due to fear of desecration of the holiday when one had to extinguish the fires (pp.123,124). In the Sefardi congregation in London, the chatanim would be the gabbis and would have special chairs (pp.121,122).

18th century – In Europe began to do hagbah by switching the hands (p.75). In Yerushalayim and Hebron did hakafot on the night after Shemini Atzeret, which is Simhat Torah in the Diaspora (pp.281-283). Hemdat Hayamim writes that even people in the Diaspora should do hakafot on Shemini Atzeret. This opinion was accepted by Hasidim, who did hakafot on the night of Shemini Atzeret, though some also did during the day of Shemini Atzeret, in addition to doing hakafot on Simhat Torah (pp. 277,278).

End of 19th century, early 20th century - In Russia, the men who were eligible to be enlisted would bid for the aliyah, ha-malach ha-goel, Bereshit 48:16, at night since it was considered a good omen that would not be drafted, Zevin, Moadim be-Halakhah, 1956, p.139.

Late 20th century – Some places in America call the person who has maftir also a chatan. Yaari, p.85 mentions earlier customs of having three or four chatanim, but not related to maftir. I also remember as a child that there was a custom for the children to tie the talitot of the adults, but I have not seen this done in years.

We see that in the Middle Ages, prior to the custom of hakafot, the Ashkenazim seemed to have more celebrations on Simhat Torah than the Sefardim, as the Shulchan Arukh (Orah Chayyim 669) does not mention any special customs on Simhat Torah. The Sefardim only had five aliyot (p.91) they did not have aliyot for children (p.160), and they did not take out the sifrei Torah at night (p.194).

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