Sunday, October 4, 2009

Simhat Torah: A timeline


In a fascinating book, Avraham Yaari (1964, re-printed 1998) 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 ha-bracha 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 Tosafot 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). In Bavel, they recited a piyyut, asher beglall ha-avot, which ends with a reference to Moshe's death, and initially this was recited within the blessings on the haftorah (pp.166-168). (The piyyut can be found in the Machzor Rinat Yisrael for Sukkot, Nusach Sefard, 1981, p. 507.) When this piyyut was recited, there was a custom to dance (pp. 24,319, quoted in Mishnah Berurah 699:11), but there was no dancing by hakafot since there were not yet hakafot. Also, after finishing reading the Torah and apparently also after the haftorah, a blessing was recited for the whole congregation and for the people who worked and contributed to the congregation (p.180).

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). Mordechai Akiva Friedman spoke in Beit Knesset Yakir Efrayim in Modiin (where I go), on parahsat shekalim 2011, and he said that the custom of reading the three year cycle ended in 1211.

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 hatan 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 hatan Torah was written before the time of the Crusaders since it describes conditions in Israel, while the reshut for the hatan Bereshit does not refer to these conditions. Also, in the initial reshut for hatan Torah there is no mention of the term hatan, which suggests that this reshut was written before the reshut for hatan Bereshit. Question remains was the reshut for hatan 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 sifrei 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, and it is not mentioned by the Shulchan Arukh, but by the 16th century it had become accepted in Sefat (p. 266). Machzor Vitry also mentions that everybody in the congregation including the children would get aliyot on Simhat Torah (p. 92).

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). Tosafot (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 33:26, the last four verses of chapter 33 (p.72). Rokeach also thought that the hatan should say shehechiyanu (p.150).

13th century – The custom of the Maharam Rutenberg (1215-1293) was that the last aliyah starts with 33:27, the last three verses of chapter 33 (p.72), which became the accepted Ashkenazi practice.

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 ha-Manhig) custom to sing songs for the hatanim as is still done today for real hatanim by Sefardim (p.141). The custom of taking out all the sefrei Torah from the aron at night on Simhat Torah in first mentioned in Germany (by communities on the Rhine), though Yaari notes that the Maharil (15th century) did not mention this custom (pp. 262,263). Also, in the 17th century in Worms (which is on the Rhine), they did not take out the sifrei Torah at night (p. 264).

Tur (1275-1340, Orah Chayyim 669) records that Bereshit is read as the third sefer Torah apparently after the haftorah was read. Yaari (p. 156) deduces from the Tur’s language that Sefardim had not yet accepted the custom of the 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-yachulu, and the chazzan says the next three verses, 2:1-3 (p. 81). Maharil tried to limit the number of aliyot to six (5 plus hatan Torah), 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 kol naarim, to call all the children together for one aliyah (pp.93,161). ( I am not sure how this fit into the six aliyot.) R. Isaac Tirna (1385-1450? Trnova, Czech Republic) also quotes this custom and that the reading for the children is from me-oneh, 33:27, but Yaari (p. 161) notes that later the custom in Germany was to start from u-ledan, 33:22. (The Levush, R. Mordechai Jaffe, 1535-1612, Poland, also writes that the aliyah for the 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 the custom to read from the sefer Torah at night (p. 194). Ve-zot ha-bracha was not read, but other sections that were called nedarim were read, see Rama (669), Mishnah Berurah (669:15) and Yaari (pp.194-200). 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 (pp. 201,202) notes that today the Perushim communities in Jerusalem who follow the Gra do not read at night, but the Gra himself would go up for an aliyah in his beit midrash! Yaari (p. 202) also writes that this was only an Ashkenazi custom, as the 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- The Shulchan Arukh (R. Yosef Karo, 1488-1575, Orah Chayyim 669) does not mention any special customs on Simhat Torah other than reading three sifrei Torah, Ve-zot ha-bracha, Bereshit and maftir. On the other hand, the Rama (d. 1572, Cracow, Darkei Moshe and Orah Chayyim 669) lists many customs on Simhat Torah. One example is that he writes that the aliyah of the children is ha-malach ha-goel, (Bereshit 48:16). He writes that this reading is from a sefer Torah, which would require another sefer Torah or a lot of rolling of the sefer Torah (p.162). Rama also writes that both at night and at day there was a custom to circle the bimah, and Yaari writes that he meant only once (p.265). It appears that in the Middle Ages, prior to the development of the custom of hakafot by the kabbalists, the Ashkenazim seemed to have more celebrations on Simhat Torah than the Sefardim.

End of 16th century - R. Chayyim Vital (student of the Ari, R. Isaac Luria) writes that he saw the Ari dance seven hakafot on the night after Simhat Torah (pp. 266, 267). (The Ari moved to Sefat in 1569 and died shortly afterwards in 1572, at the age of 37/38.) This sighting by R. Chayyim Vital 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 Berurah (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). With the development of hakafot, dancing became a prominent feature of the day. Yaari (pp. 319-327) notes that while people might have danced from the time of the Geonim until the 16th century, there is no written reference to dancing in this period, but starting from the end of the 16th century, there are many references to dancing on Simhat Torah. In Sefat, they also had the custom that the chatan makes a meal for friends and family (p.156).

17th century- Europe – Custom began that the congregations recited Bereshit 2:1-3 prior to the baal kriah reading this section, and afterwards there developed the custom for the congregation to say “it was night and day” for each day of creation (p.82). In some places in Israel, Syria and Turkey, the congregation would accompany the hatanim either to the synagogue or to their homes with torches. This custom of 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 hatanim would be the gabbis and would have special chairs (pp.121,122). R. Ephraim Zalman Margolis (1762-1828, Brody) writes that at night some communities would read the sections called nedarim, while others would read Ve-zot ha-bracha with five aliyot (p. 200).

18th century – In Europe, the custom began to do hagbah by switching the hands (p.75). In Yerushalayim and Hebron they 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).

19th century – In the Chatam Sofer's beit midrash in Pressburg there were three chatanim, as the maftir was also called hatan (p.95). In the Young Israel of New Rochelle, where I went to for many years, they also followed this practice, and I was called hatan maftir in 1988.

End of 19th century, early 20th century – The Mishnah Berurah (669:15, also see Arukh Hashulchan 669:2) writes that the custom was to read Ve-zot ha-bracha at night with only three aliyot and they would recite kadish afterwards. However, in Russia, the custom of reading nedarim at night remained, as R.Zevin (1888-1978, Moadim be-Halakhah, 1956, p.139, Yaari, p.201) writes that men who were eligible to be drafted in the Russian army would bid for the aliyah, ha-malach ha-goel, Bereshit 48:16, since it was considered a good omen that they would not be drafted.

Late 20th century – When I was 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. I was told that this was also done in Australia (by Paul Kloot) and in Paris (by Fredrick Duetsch).

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