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.