After the seven days of Sukkot, the early-autumn harvest festival that also commemorates the long trek to the Promised Land, falls the holiday of Simchat Torah. Also called Shemini Atzeret, it lasts for one day in Israel and two in the Diaspora.
Simchat Torah, which starts this year at sundown on Wednesday, September 25, means “rejoicing in the Torah” (and Shemini Atzeret means “assembly of the eighth day”). The holiday marks the end of one year’s cycle of readings of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and the start of the next year’s cycle. It can fall anytime from late September to late October.
Like Sukkot but with a somewhat different focus, Simchat Torah is a jubilant holiday. Torah scrolls get carried around synagogues in hakafot (circuits) amid singing and dancing.
The year is a cycle and the Torah itself is a cycle: it ends with Moses’ death and begins with God’s creation of the world. So Simchat Torah is renewal and rededication; it harvests the learning of the year just ended, and embarks on a new year of study.
Back in the days of the Soviet Union, when Jews were denied the right to emigrate and incurred personal risk by studying the Hebrew language and their heritage generally, Simchat Torah became a defiant assertion of identity. As reported, for instance, on October 22, 1976:
Thousands of Soviet Jews celebrated the Sukkot and Simchat Torah holidays last week in full view of agents of the KGB…. 20,000 Jews sang and danced in joyous celebration of Simchat Torah in front of the Moscow Synagogue.
For the KGB this was suspicious and threatening, warranting surveillance.