Earlier this year, at a more frivolous moment, I introduced a Jimmy Fallon-inspired game to the pulpit, something we called, Minhag or Shminhag. I would share a Jewish practice and ask the audience, I mean congregation, if the said practice was a minhag – meaning a legitimate and sanctioned practice, or a shminhag – a made up word for made-up practices.
Now I know this is a serious time for all of us, as we are about to say Yizkor, but we are also about to celebrate Simchas Torah, and this holiday, aside from being an extremely joyous one, is also ground zero for some of the strangest, logic-defying Jewish customs. Simchas Torah, more than any other day on the Jewish calendar is ripe with both minhagim and shminhagim.
I’d like to share with you just a few of these minhagim/ shminhagim.
In the Talmud, the only thing that is mentioned about Simchas Torah is that they would read Parshas V’zos Habracha, the final section of the Torah and that’s it. Meaning, in Talmudic times, Simchas Torah looked no different than Shmini Atzeres – a Jewish holiday like any other.
But then Jewish life happened. In a responsa from the year 1038, Rav Hai Gaon, living in Babylon, the center of the Diaspora, describes the following practice – the individual who would receive the final Aliyah of the Torah, known as Chassan Torah, would wear the Torah’s crown on his head to receive the Aliyah. What do you think Rav Hai Gaon had to say about that practice? Minag or shminhag?
Well, he didn’t love it as he saw it as an affront to the honor of the Torah, but since it was “so widespread” he let it go. And it became enshrined as a Simchas Torah minhag.
Another example – Dancing, not the shuffle, but real fast-paced dancing, is, per the Talmud, forbidden on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and yet, with the exception of Yekkes, German Jews, (who don’t know what dancing is anyway) every single synagogue has wild dancing on Simchas Torah. Forget minhag or shminhag, it is assur/ forbidden to dance like we do on Simchas Torah, and yet, this practice of dancing up a storm was accepted as the norm. Isn’t that amazing? Dancing went from being forbidden to being an accepted minhag.
Another example – Normally, drinking alcohol is frowned upon with perhaps the exception of Purim. Even then, to do so in the context of prayer is forbidden. For a Kohein to do Birkas Kohanim under the influence is a grave sin – a sin learned from the tragic episode of Nadav and Avihu who died doing the priestly service while intoxicated. And yet, on Simchas Torah, in an inversion of values, Birkas Kohanim is moved to Shacharis due to the fact that apparently there were no sober Kohanim by the time Mussaf came along. (If you do plan on drinking, please, please, please do so responsibly.) What a crazy minhag! But everyone does it!
My first Simchas Torah at Ner Tamid, someone told me that the minhag of the shul was that on Simchas Torah the rabbi does not sit up on his chair. I thought to myself, that is ridiculous. Shminhag all the way! But I later realized that there are a number of Simchas Torah minhagim which try to create a spirit of egalitarianism, so maybe it’s a minhag after all…
Let me share with you one more minhag/ shminhag, this is by far the wildest example. It is a practice quoted by the Maharil, Rav Yakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, probably the most important Ashkenazi scholar of the 15th century. He describes a custom where children would go from home to home, or rather from Sukkah to Sukkah, on Simchas Torah, and they would take the s’chach – with or without permission – they would collect the wood into one huge pile and light it, creating a tremendous bonfire to dance around. Minhag or shminhag?
This is illegal, assur mid’oraytah on so many counts!
First of all, the kids were stealing the wood. You know, like one of the ten commandments (sort of). Second, they were destroying a structure, something you are not allowed to do on Yom Tov. Third, they were lighting a fire that served no real purpose, again, a violation of the laws of Yom Tov. And yet, the Maharil writes a wildly creative justification. Not only that, but his student records that he encouraged the kids to take the s’chach especially from the grumpy people who were opposed to them doing so. Talk about a shminhag!
What in the world is going on here? How did Simchas Torah evolve into such a circus-like day? Especially since so many of our practices are not only strange and different but they are straight-up shminhagim, they are predicated on extremely shaky halachic ground.
Rabbi Professor Chaim Saiman has a fascinating article on the topic and that’s where I drew these many examples from. He shares a theory of his own, on the Lehrhaus website, which you could read for yourself (https://thelehrhaus.com/holidays/the-inverted-halakhah-of-simhat-torah/). But I’d like to just make a simple observation which I want to focus on today, and that is this: whatever the sociological factors may be, Simchas Torah evolved. Big time. If your great-great-grandparents going back to the year 500 came into a shul on any given day, they would feel right at home; the tunes may be a little different, but the liturgy, the customs that surround them, we’ve been doing the same thing for at least 1500 years, if not more. But on Simchas Torah, they would not feel at home. They wouldn’t know what hit them. I mean literally they’d probably get hit in the face with a candy. And then they’d try to get up but their tallis would be tied to their chair by some troublemaker – by the way, making a permanent knot on Yom Tov is another violation of Torah law. And then they’d wonder why we’re reading the Torah at night, something we never ever do. And they’d be shocked to see the guy doing hagbah, criss-crossing his hands, unroll the scroll a good eight (nine?) columns as if the Torah was a set of weights in a gym. Your great-great-grandparents would be totally lost.
And for the most part, I want to be part of a faith that could proudly say that Ravina and Rav Ashi, the authors of our constitution, the Talmud, would feel at home at our shul, at Ner Tamid. For the most part, I want to be engaging in rituals that Moshe Rabbeinu, were he to be here, would know exactly what we are doing. But there is also a part of our faith that is not static. There is also a part of our faith that evolves over time. And I’m not a sociologist so I can’t tell you why or how. But I could tell you that there is some ‘give’ in the Torah that allows for a subtle evolution of sorts.
From the Halachic standpoint, from the perspective of Jewish Law, you know how it works?
It’s a dance. A question is asked, an answer is given. A practice is tried, some take off, some do not. Some become established minhagim, others regulated to the dustbin on shminhag lore. There is a give and take, a dynamic, between us and our tradition, between the Jewish People and the Torah. It’s a slow dance, it’s not exactly a horah, but over time there is a slow and steady evolution.
While some may cynically see in that change a Torah that can be bent out of shape to match up with our needs and desires, I prefer to see something very different in this Torah evolution.
There’s an old song by Abie Rotenberg called the Place Where I Belong. The tune is so beautiful that it is sung almost universally on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur… But the words are just as majestic. It’s a story of a Torah scroll from the perspective of the scroll itself. She describes the process of her being written by the scribe with tenderness and care. Then she describes the procession as she made her way to the shul for the very first time to be placed in the wooden Aron. But before she’s placed there, the rabbi holds the Torah to his chest.
He spoke out loud and clear to all the rest.
He said, “No matter if you’re very young, or even if you’re old,
Live by the words you’ll find inside this scroll.”
The Torah scroll then describes the generations coming and going but no matter what, they always take her out of the Aron three times a week. They always read from her and dance with her, and lovingly kiss her and return her to her place in the wooden Aron.
But then, the war breaks out, and before the Nazis come, the Shamash quickly hides the scroll in a dark cellar where she remains unused but safe until finally years later, someone finds her, they gently take her out of her hiding place, wrap her up and send her to America.
Tragically, she was not taken to a shul:
And in a case of glass they put me on display,
Where visitors would look at me and say,
“How very nice, how beautiful, a stunning work of art, ”
But they knew not what was inside my heart.
What we are celebrating today, tomorrow, and really every day, is that we know exactly what is inside the Torah’s heart. Not only do we know what’s inside, but we engage with her, we question her, she answers, she challenges us and we respond. It’s a dynamic. It’s alive. The Torah is not behind a glass wall. It’s something each and every one of us will have the opportunity to hold tomorrow, to kiss, to dance with.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that the one day a year that is unrecognizable to our ancestors is Simchas Torah. Because it is on this day that we celebrate the Torah being alive. It’s the day we celebrate the tension of the Torah; how on the one hand the Torah informs our worldview and yet we grapple with the instances that this view conflicts with a modern worldview that at times seems to resonate even deeper. What do we do? How do we respond?
You know what we do? We dance. We ask, she answers, she challenges and we respond. It’s alive. And it’s ours. Not to be misused or misconstrued, it’s very easy to do that. As Shakespeare once said, the devil doth quote scripture. So no, not to misappropriate, but to honest and earnestly dance with the values and the laws that G-d transcribed into our Torah scrolls. Because ultimately, when the tension between us and the Torah are irreconcilable, it is the Torah that will remain unchanged, and we who will learn a new dance. This is why we dance around the Torah – she is at the center of our lives, and we can never lose sight of that. But sometimes when all the dancing is done, somehow, I am truly uncertain as to how, but over time, our practices have changed ever so subtly.
If you are here today for Yizkor, if you are here tonight or tomorrow for Simchas Torah, then clearly you have made a choice to dance with the Torah. Not literally. But for you, if you are practicing in any which way, that means the Torah is alive for you. It’s not something to gawk at in a museum. To regale your grandkids with stories of a bygone era. It’s part of your life. Judaism is real to you.
Maybe your parents danced more vigorously, maybe they danced less vigorously. Whatever the case may be, you are here, and because you’re here the evolution of the Torah is taking place through you. The questions you ask, the practices you engage in, you are keeping the Torah alive!
We are all part of this organism, this mass of people called the Jewish People, and the questions we ask, the things we do, impacts the future. Through our Jewish dance, we will define the Jewish future. That’s an amazing thing to reflect upon; we are not just bearers of a tradition, we are also tasked with ensuring its vitality by living, and by dancing with the Torah.
I’ve suggested and asked of you many things over this holiday season, and I’d like to make one final request; don’t stop dancing around the Torah. Never forget that the Torah is at the center of our lives. And please allow me to share with you two practical ways to do so:
The first is to ask questions. As an example – the Simchas Torah celebration at Ner Tamid, especially as it pertains to women, has changed a lot over the years and it is still very much in flux. Like so many other Simchas Torah customs, it has evolved. But it didn’t evolve on its own. It evolved because people cared, and people questioned, and people studied. And that’s wonderful. It is a beautiful expression of the fact that the Torah is alive to us.
But Simchas Torah is the analogy, it is the parable. It needs to reflect our entire Jewish experience. Ask Jewish questions every day! Not just about Simchas Torah! Ask Jewish questions not only about what we do in shul, but also what you do at home! You could text me, email, WatsApp. I even use the phone sometimes! Or forget me! Don’t quote me on this, but ask Rabbi Google! Engage in the Torah in any which way! Allow the Torah to change our lives! Be open to that evolution in our personal lives as well.
That’s the personal dance. The private dance.
But there’s also a public dance. Last week, Congressman Elijah Cummings passed away. Ladies and gentlemen, please no politics today. But one thing that we can all agree upon is that he made a genuine effort to create a bridge between the Jewish community and the Black community. I have met and heard from graduates of his youth program; Baltimore youth who were sent to Israel to learn about Judaism, Jewish history, and the Jewish People, and to hear from them how that changed their view of this community. He led a magnificent dance between our communities and now he’s gone. And we mourn his loss.
But the dance must go on. And it must go on today, more than ever. Ties between communities, between people, is at an all-time low. What’s going on just a few blocks away from us is just beyond description. It’s complex, I know. But if we were to have the Torah at the center of our life, the most basic expectation she has of us, is to look out for those in need, it is to be a good neighbor. To say hello. To create relationships in a world where relationships with neighbors is old-fashioned. That’s one Torah ideal that I hope never evolves into anything else. As a community, we need to pick up our public dance with all of our neighbors.
I’ve said a lot today so let’s review: Simchas Torah reminds us that the Torah is not an artifact. It is alive and it evolves. But it only evolves through us engaging with her.
We’ve had a beautiful holiday season here in shul. Let’s bring that beauty into our homes and let’s bring that beauty into the streets of Baltimore. Let’s dance with the Torah every day of our lives.
No matter if you’re very young, or even if you’re old,
Live by the words you’ll find inside this scroll.
Live by the words you’ll find inside my soul.