Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Tishrei 5762 - September 25, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family
Seven Hakofos in Seven Shuls
by Devora Halpern

"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 Ashkenazi shteibel.

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 circumscribed dance.

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 more."

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 look.

"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 streams.


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