"A colorfully robed matron in the upstairs gallery threw down
a long silk scarf; the men took hold of it and spun each other
around with it."
Every Jewish holiday has it special foods, rituals and
familiar symbols that give substance and meaning to its
celebration. What about Simchas Torah?
In my mind's eyes, I see a small candle alight in an empty
oron kodesh, while hundreds of men and boys sing and
dance with the Torah scrolls. After all the sensory
experiences of the rest of the year, Simchas Torah arrives
with `no frills' simplicity: just the Jew, the sefer
Torah, and the love that binds them together.
The beauty of Simchas Torah was revealed to me in all its
glory during my first year in Jerusalem. "Where are you going
for Simchas Torah?" my new friend asked during Succos.
"I didn't plan anything," I admitted.
She sensed that I had no idea what was so special. "Why don't
you meet me after candlelighting and I'll take you around for
hakofos?" she suggested.
"Hakofos?" That was a new word for me.
As I made my way to her apartment after dark, I heard the
sounds of singing coming from different buildings, and sensed
a buoyant happiness in the air. I began to wonder what secrets
this night would reveal.
My friend took my hand and guided me through an archway into a
tiny room. A plain white curtain strung on a rope divided the
room into two even smaller sections. We were in the local
Suddenly, I came face to face with an incredible scene. A tiny
minyon of older men slowly began to move in a tight
circle around the bima. Many held Torah scrolls. The
amount of room in which they could maneuver was very small,
but their feelings ran so deep. You could hear it in the way
they sang the first hakofa, and see it in the way they
stepped in time to a purposeful rhythm. Their love for Torah
shone from their eyes and lit up their faces.
I looked around the tiny shteibel -- at the aged
seforim lining the windowsills, at the single
chandelier hanging above the bima -- and I felt myself
float onto the waves of pure simcha pouring out of that
I wanted to stay for the second hakofa, but my friend
had other plans. "There's more to see," she promised with a
wink, and led me to the big neighborhood shul.
Here, the atmosphere was brighter, lighter, with all the
outward trappings of gaiety. Dressed in their Yom Tov finery,
dozens of women stood around the upstairs gallery, chatting
with their friends and neighbors. Excited children ran circles
between their smiling mommies and dancing daddies. The
fraternal feeling of celebration on the main floor rose in a
single voice from hundreds of throats. As the second
hakofa drew to a close, my friend urged, "Let's go see
Atop a rugged path stood a nondescript building. We pressed
ourselves into a small cubicle that reverberated with humming
and rhythmic pounding. This was a small Chassidic
shteibel; few women were in attendance. My friend
pointed to a series of holes drilled into the wall, and
motioned me to peek inside.
Black robed figures swam back and forth before my eyes in
swirling movements of dance. The men's area was also small,
but the robust singing and dancing inflated it with joy. I
began to realize that this night of dancing in botei
knesses was not meant for personal entertainment, but for
the honor of the Torah.
The fourth hakofa found us in a large, unfurnished
auditorium. A group of young men and their rabbi stood in an
open area; a few young women with baby carriages waited behind
a thick drape. The men's section seemed quieter than the
others we'd seen, and the young mothers who chatted together
in low tones behind the curtain didn't seem so interested in
the goings-on. I turned to my guide with a questioning
"This is a Sephardic baal tshuva yeshiva," she
explained. "These boys are just now learning how to dance and
celebrate on Simchas Torah. Look at their wives -- they don't
even know what's going on, but to their credit, they want to
be here. See how the Rov is teaching the boys how to hold the
Torah scrolls and sing the songs? In a few years, they'll be
dancing as fervently and expertly as anyone else."
Around the corner and up the stairs, a long established
Sephardic minyon was in the full throes of the fifth
hakofa. Exuberant, energetic men crisscrossed the shul
like seasoned dancers, describing intricate patterns with
their feet and hands. A colorfully robed matron in the
upstairs gallery threw down a long silk scarf; the men took
hold of it and spun each other around with it. At one point,
even the heavy, round- cased sefer Torah was tossed
from hand to hand. Everyone was an active particpant; the
women observers in the gallery kept their eyes and hearts
glued to the dancing and were one with the simcha.
For the sixth hakofa, we stepped into a venerable,
landmark shul that served as several botei midrash in
one, as the rosh yeshiva invited one- year yeshivos to
learn in his building. Here, the hakofos stirringly
blended old and young, as the distinguished Rosh Yeshiva held
hands with this year's crop of American bochurim and
danced the same steps with them, though he was far more
elevated in holiness and yichus. As my friend pointed
out the different customs in the dancing, the thought struck
me: "This is what Jews do on a Thursday night. This is
the height a Torah Jew can reach."
By the time we arrived at our seventh hakofa in an
English-speaking baal tshuva yeshiva, I knew exactly
what to expect. No longer did I feel like a spectator peering
through the window: I, too, was an active participant in this
uniquely Jewish celebration of love for the Torah and the way
of life with which it blesses us.
Without special foods or symbols, Simchas Torah puts no
barriers before a Jew's full expression of oneness with the
Torah. The joy flows forth from all sides in rushing