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Simchat Torah: Why Do We Rejoice Over the Law?

Simchat Torah-flags-rejoicing over the Law

On Simchat Torah, children carry flags that are reminiscent of the tribal flags the Israelites marched under in the desert. (Photo by Ron Almog)

At 8 a.m. this morning, the synagogues here in Israel were packed as we read the last pages of Devarim (Deuteronomy 33:1–34:12) and the beginning of Bereisheet (Genesis).

The reading of the yearly Torah cycle comes to an end with the blessings that Moses pronounces before his death over each of the twelve tribes of Israel.

These blessings echo Jacob’s blessings over his 12 sons five generations earlier. With them Moses prepares each tribe with its role within Israel.

Moses Viewing the Promised Land (Illustration from Our Day in the Light of Prophecy and Providence, 1921)

Moses Viewing the Promised Land  (Illustration from Our Day in the Light of Prophecy and Providence, 1921)

In this Torah portion for Simchat Torah, which is called V’zot Habrachah (and this is the blessing), Moses ascends Mount Nebo.

From that summit, he is allowed to see the Promised Land, but not enter.  He dies in the Land of Moab, and to this day, only Adonai knows where he is buried.

Though Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land, this Torah portion testifies to the high calling of Moses:

“Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face…  For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”  (Deuteronomy 34:10, 12)

Immediately following the conclusion of the Torah cycle, we begin a new one.  Hallelujah!  Though we cycle through the study of Scripture every year, it always remains fresh and exciting.

Simchat Torah services last about three hours, as the men and women delight in the Book given to our people by God Himself through Moses—the most treasured Book in the world—the Torah (Five Books of Moses)

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All the Torah scrolls are taken out of the Aron Kodesh (Torah ark) on Simchat Torah.  (Photo by Shlomi Kakon)

In every synagogue throughout Israel this morning, the men joyfully danced around the bema (raised platform for reading the Torah), proudly and joyously holding the sacred Torah Scrolls.

In our synagogue, there are 11 Torah scrolls, and as the silver crowns (ketarim) were removed from the Holy Parchment Scrolls, they glistened in the sunlight.

As the Rabbi and cantor sang from the Holy Word of God, the whole congregation gathered in one accord singing in Hebrew.

All the men took turns reading from the Torah.  And the faces of the children, women, and men were beaming with smiles, rejoicing in the honor of the Holy Book that the One God of Israel entrusted to His Chosen People.

Birkat Cohanim-Sukkot

The Torah scroll is raised for all to see at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.  (Photo by Uzi Yachin)

Today, here in Israel, it is still both Shmini Atzeret (Eighth Day of Assembly) and Simchat Torah (Joy of the Torah).

Elsewhere in the world, however, the wonderful holiday of Simchat Torah begins at sunset tonight at the conclusion of Shmini Atzeret (Eighth Day of Assembly), a Biblically mandated assembly celebrated the day after Sukkot ends:

“For seven days present food offerings to the LORD, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present a food offering to the LORD.  It is the closing special assembly; do no regular work.”  (Leviticus 23:36)

Tonight at around 7:30 p.m., thousands of people will gather in each city and village square, throughout the Holy Land.  Hopefully, most of Israel’s eight million people will be rejoicing in the Word of God.

For the second time in 24 hours, they will dance around the Torah Scrolls, this time, throughout the night.

“Oh, how I love Your Torah; It is my meditation all the day.  You through Your commandments, have made me wiser than my enemies….  Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”  (Psalm 119:97–98, 105)

The Feast of Rejoicing of the Law, by Solomon Alexander Hart

The Feast of Rejoicing of the Law, by Solomon Alexander Hart

Simchat Torah is a joyous holiday when the Jewish People express their gratitude to God for giving us His great gift of the Torah.

On Simchat Torah, ALL of the ornately decorated Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark in which they are safeguarded, in contrast to Shabbat and regular holidays when only two are removed from the Ark.

In the country where you live, the Jewish People will parade these precious Torah scrolls around their synagogues in circles called hakafot, accompanied by joyful singing and dancing.

In many congregations, the celebrations will spill out of the sanctuary into the street, where participants will dance and sing while carrying the scrolls.

Jewish men circle the Torah scrolls resting on the bimah on Simcha Torah. (Photo by Max@Nathans)

Jewish men circle the Torah scrolls resting on the bema on Simcha Torah.  (Photo by Max@Nathans)

Simchat Torah: The Beginning and Ending of the Parasha Cycle

“Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God.  They celebrated the festival [sukkot] for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.”  (Nehemiah 8:18)

The Jewish People have diligently preserved the Word of God for more than 3,000 years, and Simchat Torah gives jubilant expression to the Jewish People’s love of the Torah.

Besides rejoicing, another central theme to this special day is the completion of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings.

Today, the last portion of Deuteronomy 34 will be read.

But as soon as we end the cycle, we begin anew, and a portion from the first chapter of Genesis is read immediately afterward.

This serves to remind us that our study of the Torah never ends.  It also reminds us that each of us are capable of new beginnings, of leaving following after our own ways and instead following after Adonai.

It is considered a mitzvah (good deed) to dance with the Torah and to rejoice over it on Simchat Torah. (Photo by Max@Nathans)

It is considered a mitzvah (good deed) to dance with the Torah and to rejoice over it on Simchat Torah.  (Photo by Max@Nathans)

Torah Points in the Right Direction

What is Torah?

This Hebrew word Torah is often translated in English Bibles as Law; however, this is a rather poor translation.

The word Torah comes from the roots yarah, which means to shoot, aim, or point to, and morah, meaning teacher.

Therefore, the Torah is God’s instruction to His people.  These instructions teach us how to live on this earth and point us to eternal life through Yeshua (Jesus).

So, why do we have a special day just to rejoice in the Torah of God?

It’s because the Word of God is a tree of life for us, and if we would just take hold of it, we would see that all its paths are pleasant and will lead us to peace (Proverbs 3:17; see also Proverbs 16:7 and Psalm 119:165).

The Torah contains all the wisdom and instruction we need to live healthy, happy, successful, prosperous lives.

“Be strong and very courageous.  Be careful to obey all the instructions [Torah] Moses gave you.  Do not deviate from them, turning either to the right or to the left.  Then you will be successful in everything you do.

“Study this Book of Instruction [Sefer haTorah] continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it.  Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do.”  (Joshua 1:7–8)

Torah-bimah-synagogue-Simchat Torah

Open Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) on the bema (podium) in a synagogue.

The Books That Constitute Torah

The Torah, in its strictest sense, includes the five books of Moses: Genesis (Bereisheet), Exodus (Shemot), Leviticus (Vayikra), Numbers (Bamidbar), and Deuteronomy (Devarim).

However, Yeshua and Paul both quoted from other books of the Bible, including the Psalms and the Prophets, and also called them Torah (law).

For instance, in John 10:34, Yeshua quotes Psalm 82:6 referring to it as the Torah, saying:

“Is it not written in your Law (Torah), ‘I said, You are gods’?”  (John 10:34)

In 1 Corinthians 14:21, Paul references the prophetic book of Isaiah, calling it the Law:

“In the Law [Torah] it is written: ‘With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people.’”  (1 Corinthians 14:21; compare to Isaiah 28:11)

A father in the midst of a large crowd of people dancing and singing with the Torah carries his son on his shoulders as he parades a small Torah scroll on Simchat Torah. (Photo by Avital Pinnick)

A father in the midst of a large crowd of people dancing and singing with the Torah carries his son on his shoulders as he parades a small Torah scroll on Simchat Torah.  (Photo by Avital Pinnick)

Another word for Torah often used by Jewish people is the Tanakh, which is a Hebrew name for all the books of the Jewish Scriptures.

This word is actually an acronym for Torah (Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, etc). The word Tanakh comprises the first letters of each of these three words: T-N-K [Hebrew letters Tav, Nun, Kaf].

Orthodox Jews consider yet another compilation of writings as “Torah.” This is the Talmud (Mishnah and Gemara), which are rabbinical interpretations and commentaries of the written Torah.

They believe both Scripture and commentary are the Torah because you cannot have the “written Torah” without the interpretation of the “oral Torah.”

Sadly enough, most Orthodox Jews consider the oral law of greater weight and authority than the written Torah, and many spend the majority of their time in the study in these books.

Displaying the Torah for all to see at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The Torah scroll is held up for all to see.

Yeshua’s Teaching About the Law

God initially chose to reveal His Torah to the nation of Israel, and He gave them the mission to spread its light and teachings to every nation of the earth.

While Yeshua (Jesus) fulfilled the Torah, God’s moral guidelines for mankind to live in righteousness, He also makes it clear that He did not come to abolish it.

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come.  I did not come to abolish the Torah of Moses or the writings of the prophets.  No, I came to fulfill their purpose.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s Torah will disappear until its purpose is fulfilled.

“So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.  But anyone who obeys God’s Torah and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.”  (Matthew 5:17–19)

Although Yeshua did not abolish the Law of Moses, He did fulfill its purpose, as well as the prophecies concerning His first coming.  (See Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 53; Micah 5:2; Daniel 9:2526 and hundreds more)

Because of Yeshua, the light of the Word of God has spread across the globe.

And yet, despite this, almost every Jewish person here in Israel (99%) still does not recognize Yeshua as the Messiah who fulfilled the writings of the Prophets; nevertheless, Scripture assures us that in these last days, when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, Israel will recognize Yeshua.  (Romans 11:25; Zechariah 12:10)