Celebrating God’s Word

Yesterday capped the end of the High Holy Days celebrations.  As one of my professors said, “The Holidays were great, but it’s great that they were!” (it sounds better in Hebrew).

After the 8-day festival of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), comes Simchat Torah–“The Joy of the Torah.”

The Torah (first five books of the Old Testament) is read in synagogues over the course of a full year.  The weekly readings are called parashah.  Simchat Torah marks the reading of the final parashah (Deut. 33:1-34:12) and completion of the annual cycle.  A portion of the first parashah (Gen. 1) is also read to signify the renewal of the cycle.

The culmination of Simchat Torah is the hakafot.  This invovles singing, dancing and marching around the reading table while carrying the Torah scrolls.  Why dancing, you ask?  Well, there is a chassidic saying that says, “On Simchat Torah, we rejoice in the Torah, and the Torah rejoices in us; the Torah, too, wants to dance, so we become the Torah’s dancing feet.”  As they march around with the Torah scrolls everyone kisses the scroll as it passes by.  It’s a time of celebrating the gift of Torah that God has given to His people as well as looking forward to reading and studying it again over the coming year.

Yesterday at the Kotel (Western Wall of the former Temple Mount) there was a late-night hakafot celebration.  It was a real change in atmosphere from what you normally see at the wall.  There was loud music playing along with lots of singing and dancing with the Torah scrolls.  I’ve never seen so many Torah scrolls! (BTW, they are REALLY expensive.)

To my Protestant/Restorationist upbringing, this sort of celebration is WAY outside my comfort zone.  I have a hard enough time just raising my hands in praise to God, let alone dancing around the church building!  I wonder what would happen in most American churches if we had an annual dance party–not a “pot-luck”, but a full-blown party with music, dancing, food (and alcohol)–to celebrate the reading through of God’s word.  I can see people running for the exits already!  Of course, that would mean that we had to read through God’s word in the year–that’s another problem (for myself included).

You can’t come away from a Simchat Torah celebration without seeing the deep love and devotion to the very Words of God.

I pulled together some photos and shot some video in an attempt to convey the celebratory mood.  They don’t really do it justice.

4 thoughts

  1. These pictures and your video were just beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing. Love seeing the delight and honor for the Torah scrolls. To us, Jesus is the Living Torah, the Living Word, and is written on our hearts so YES we should truly dance and celebrate! Because Jesus fulfilled the Torah for us we have even greater reason to celebrate Torah! Jesus is the central message of the Torah! He is Torah made flesh.

    Sometimes I think Christians look at the Torah as bad, but in reality, the Torah is holy, just, and good. (Rom. 7:12). We are definitely correct not look to Torah to seek righteousness, but it is SIN that condemns people – not the Torah. Now that we have the Holy Spirit, we have the Torah written on our hearts (Jer. 31:31-33; Heb. 8:10-11).

    While there did you see a water ceremony or a light ceremony during the Feast of Tabernacles?
    Apparently, it was within these ceremonies that Jesus stood up both times and said His “I am the Living Water” and “I am the Light of the World” statements. They say during the light show that “Jerusalem is the Light of the World”, but Jesus stood up and said, “I am the Light of the World.” I love it! So radical! Same happened with the water ceremony, they celebrate and read the Torah portions about Moses’ water from the rock. Jesus stands up and basically says “that was me!” (Ex. 17:1-6, Num. 20:2-12, John 7:37-39, 1 Cor. 10:4).
    I would love to see what these ceremonies look like. I’m not sure if they celebrate them the same way now that they did back then.

    Also, I know we don’t really know when Jesus was born, but the suggestion has been made (through aligning the priestly duties of Abijah from the dead sea scrolls) that Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot). Seems to make sense to me since the Feast of Tabernacles is “God dwelling with us” and Jesus is “God with us.” Also, maybe Jesus was born in a Sukkah instead of a “stable”? Any thoughts?

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    • Hi Kristy!

      Great comments!

      I did not get to see a libation ceremony (water) or a light ceremony. We’ve talked a lot about the libation ceremony in different classes as they pray for rain.

      As you may know, there are really two seasons here: 1) Hot and Dry (April-October) and 2) Cold and Wet (November-March).

      It has hardly rained here in 6 months, so everyone is anxious for the rain to come–but not until after Sukkot, since no one wants to get wet in their Sukkah! The rain also brings cooler weather. Not that it is hot here by Texas standards, but if your are out in the sun all day, it definitely saps your energy.

      With regards to Jesus’ birth, there are some very solid clues in the Text as to generally when it was. We know that the shepherds were out in the fields at night. First, shepherds are only in the fields during the time between the wheat harvest (Shavuot/Pentecost) and when the rains start (October/November). Otherwise, the shepherds are in the wilderness with the sheep and farmers are planting grain crops in the fields. Secondly, they were in the fields at night with the animals and not locked up tight in their homes. That means the weather was warm and not cold or rainy.

      So, we can DEFINITELY say that it wasn’t December 25th. We can say with a great degree of confidence that it was in the dry season, post-wheat harvest. Could it be around the time of Sukkot? Yes. Symbolically that would fit. The priestly duties of Abijah could provide another clue. I haven’t looked at that enough to say with certainty. On the other hand, if it were Sukkot, I would have expected the Gospel writers (especially Matthew or Luke) to make mention of that. There is a lot of detail provided related to other feasts. So, why not mention Sukkot, if it were at that time?What we can say with certainty is that it was definitely after May and before (probably) November.

      I don’t think the Text supports the idea of Jesus being born in a Sukkah. The Gospel writers would have had other words they could use to make that claim if it were the case. The idea of a stable/barn is a Western construct, not a Middle Eastern one. A typical Jewish family house (called a 4-room) house would have included a covered area within the house compound for the animals. The “manger” (a french word) or food trough may have been inside the main room of the house. The animals could stick their heads in to eat. From archeology, we know that these types of houses date back to Iron Age I (time of the Judges) and are uniquely Jewish.

      The word that Luke uses that we translate “Inn” is not accurate. It is really the same word he uses to describe an “Upper Room”. The idea was that the town was full and that the Upper Guest Room was already full, so Mary and Joseph had to stay in the central room where the family would have lived. Kenneth Bailey has a great chapter on this in his book, “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes”. He goes into a lot of great details there to back up the imagery.

      Hope that helps!

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