With Its Subversive Customs, Simhat Torah Reaffirms Jewish Values

Yesterday, Jews in the Diaspora celebrated Simḥat Torah—the Rejoicing of the Law—so called because on this day the annual cycle of Torah readings is concluded and the opening chapter of Genesis is read to begin the cycle anew. To mark the occasion, the scrolls are brought out from the ark and congregants dance with them. In most communities, the day’s prayers are marked by levity, an almost-carnivalesque atmosphere, and customs—ranging from consuming hard liquor in the midst of services to, in times past, setting off firecrackers—that fly in the face of normal practice. Chaim Saiman documents the centuries-long tension between these customs and strict halakhic requirements, noting that time and again rabbis—sometimes reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically—bent the rules to accommodate folk practice. He sees part of the reason in the placement of the holiday on the heels of the most solemn period of the Jewish calendar:

The Simḥat Torah [evening service typically begins] with a tune otherwise reserved for the Days of Awe. But whereas just a few weeks earlier this tune was chanted in somber solemnity, it is now sung with broad smiles and perhaps a bit in jest. Other customs of the High Holy Days also return. . . . Simḥat Torah thus resembles the Days of Awe as seen through a funhouse mirror. The sounds and symbols are similar, but the meaning is purposefully distorted, as the motifs of the past month are reclaimed by the people and celebrated as folk custom.

Beginning with the first night of [penitential prayers a month earlier], Jews have been adhering to halakhah’s precise and consuming schedule of pre-dawn prayers, fast days, and hours upon hours of prayer, framed by intense focus on sin, repentance, and self-analysis. Sukkot, [the holiday that falls five days after Yom Kippur and immediately precedes Simḥat Torah], though known as the time of joy, is also regulated by complex halakhot . . . and is punctuated by a demanding schedule of prayers.

Simḥat Torah is made up of folk practices that rub against both the somber spirit of the preceding holidays and the halakhic norms governing their celebration. . . . In addition to offering a release, Simḥat Torah reaffirms the community’s dominant values. The celebrations, whatever their excesses, literally and figuratively revolve around Torah.

The day has acquired its character through a millennium of [dialectical tension] between popular custom and halakhic sensibilities. [Thus], some of the most halakhically problematic practices have not survived, while others were transformed as they were absorbed into quasi-official halakhah. . . . The day’s halakhic abnormalities stand out specifically against the backdrop of rigorous halakhic compliance.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Halakhah, High Holidays, Simhat Torah

Hamas’s Hostage Diplomacy

Ron Ben-Yishai explains Hamas’s current calculations:

Strategically speaking, Hamas is hoping to add more and more days to the pause currently in effect, setting a new reality in stone, one which will convince the United States to get Israel to end the war. At the same time, they still have most of the hostages hidden in every underground crevice they could find, and hope to exchange those with as many Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners currently in Israeli prisons, planning on “revitalizing” their terrorist inclinations to even the odds against the seemingly unstoppable Israeli war machine.

Chances are that if pressured to do so by Qatar and Egypt, they will release men over 60 with the same “three-for-one” deal they’ve had in place so far, but when Israeli soldiers are all they have left to exchange, they are unlikely to extend the arrangement, instead insisting that for every IDF soldier released, thousands of their people would be set free.

In one of his last speeches prior to October 7, the Gaza-based Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar said, “remember the number one, one, one, one.” While he did not elaborate, it is believed he meant he wants 1,111 Hamas terrorists held in Israel released for every Israeli soldier, and those words came out of his mouth before he could even believe he would be able to abduct Israelis in the hundreds. This added leverage is likely to get him to aim for the release for all prisoners from Israeli facilities, not just some or even most.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli Security