Simhat Torah literally means “joy of Torah.” The holiday celebrates the cyclical nature of Torah, as we conclude the year by reading the very last parashah, VeZot HaBerakhah, and immediately begin again with the first parashah, Bereishit.
Reading the Torah is such an important part of our routine during the year, so it might be surprising to know that this holiday isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Torah, the Mishnah, or the Talmud! So where does it come from, when did it start, and how do we celebrate it today?
The custom of reading the entire Torah in one year started in Bavel (in Eretz Yisrael they didn’t have a totally fixed calendar for reading the Torah, and they read it over the course of about three years). That practice spread to Europe about 1,000 years ago, when people started observing the second day of Shemini Atzeret as a special celebration for ending the Torah cycle. Some communities, including in Israel today, continue to celebrate both Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah on the same day.
Today we celebrate Simhat Torah by dancing, circling the bimah seven times with the sifrei torah, and giving everyone in the community an aliyah. We then read the last aliyah of the Torah and roll it to the beginning to read the first aliyah of Bereishit in the new Torah cycle!
We invite you to learn some Torah together to celebrate the end of the reading cycle and the beginning of a new year of Torah learning. Each of the following texts compares Torah or Torah study to something else, in order to teach us something important about the nature of Torah and Torah study.