Why We Don’t Burn Nice Things: Commentary on Simchat Torah 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President & Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary

Had I been born one millennium earlier, I never would have associated Simchat Torah with small flags. But for hundreds of years, this joyous holiday has capped the end of Sukkot as millions of young Jews have taken hold of not a heavy torah but a banner fit for children’s hands. These emblems once were crafted to imitate the flags of European kings, and, in modern times, many young Jewish fingers grasp hollow plastic holders attached to a miniature Israeli flag.[1]

Image of Torah scroll wearing a crown and holding a flag, surrounded by the Hebrew text “שישו ושמחו בשמחת תורה” (sisu vesimchu besimchat torah, “Rejoice and be happy on Simchat Torah”).[2]

Had I been a student at some Jewish school in New York in the 1950s, it is possible that, shortly before Simchat Torah each year, I could have been instructed in how to perform Dvora Lapson’s “Pitcher and Torch Dance (Processional).” It is conceivable that I would have been cast among the “torch-bearers,” who donned “three-quarter tunics” and would “leap across the stage,” “pivot in place,” and “take three polka steps forward and three stamps in place.”[3] Foreign as this Simchat Torah performance may seem to modern readers, Lapson’s influence was extraordinary in her time; she served as Dance Consultant and Director of the Dance Education Department of the Board of Jewish Education in New York, and, later in life, Lapson was employed as the dance research consultant for the inaugural Broadway production of Fiddler On the Roof.[4] This was Jewish choreography at its cultural finest.

The practices associated with Simchat Torah have changed over time. Kids nowadays are rarely handed woodcut flags,[5] and few American Jews today could ever be caught wearing tunics while dancing polka choreography in a synagogue. So too, we are fortunate that Simchat Torah is no longer widely recognized as the day when children incinerate the handiwork of their parents.

Some time in the later 14th century, a young rabbi-to-be, Ya’akov HaLevi Moelin, was positioned to set his father’s sukkah to flame on the final day of Yom Tov in the first month of the new Jewish year. The story was captured in the writings of the 16th century Kraków sage, Rabbi Mosheh Isserles, writing in his דרכי משה (Darkhey Mosheh, “The Ways of Mosheh”):

וכתב מהרי״ל יש מקומות שנהגו התינוקות סותרים הסוכות ומבערים אותם בשמחת תורה ונותנים טעם להיתר זה אבל אבא מורי ז״ל כשהייתי נער מוחה בידי מלסתור בי״ט.
Our master Rabbi Ya’akov HaLevi wrote: There are places where they established the customed that students would destroy the sukkot and burn them on Simchat Torah, and [the kids] would provide a justification for this permission. But, when I was a kid, my father, my teacher of blessed memory, would block my hands from destroying on Yom Tov [i.e., a festival day when ‘work’ is prohibited].[6]

In the medieval Rhineland, it is possible that young heirs to rabbinic Judaism were permitted to set their parents’ sukkot to flames—but permission was granted only to those kids who could provide adequate legalistic arguments to support their pyrotechnic intentions. Fire-loving children may have begun their remarks to their elders by stating that, though starting a fire is prohibited on Shabbat[7] and Yom Tov,[8] transferring an existing flame to a separate flammable object is widely recognized as a permitted act on Yom Tov.[9]

A related line of argument from Rabbi Ya’akov himself is rooted in the notion that Simchat Torah—not mentioned in the Torah itself—is often celebrated outside the Land of Israel on the day after Shemini Atzeret, a day of Yom Tov that is referenced in the Torah.[10] Outside the holy land, Simchat Torah falls on a rabbinically innovated ‘second day’ of Yom Tov for exilic communities who elected to observe an extra day of Yom Tov—allegedly due to the confusion over how to synchronize diasporic time zones with those in Israel.[11] Zalman of Sankt Goar recounted his master Rabbi Ya’akov’s teaching on the subject of Simchat Torah:

אמר מהרי״ל… דאין בה איסור דאורייתא משום דאנו בקיאי׳ בקביעת ירחא וי״ט ראשון מלבד דאורייתא ומנהג אבותינו בידינו לעשות בי״ט שני.

Our master Rabbi Ya’akov HaLevi said… There is no prohibition in the Torah [regarding performing ‘work’ during Simchat Torah], for we are expert in calculating the lunar calendar, and only the ‘first day’ of Yom Tov is in the Torah. Still, the customs of our ancestors are in our hands[, and it is upon us] to make a ‘second day’ of Yom Tov.[12]

In other words, Rabbi Ya’akov mostly rejected the premise that a learned exilic community needed a second day of Yom Tov. Though he figured we owed respect to those around us and our forebears who bequeathed to us these ‘second days’ of Yom Tov—he nonetheless wondered: could we be a little less strict and perform ‘work’ on these fictive days of Yom Tov?

Although Rabbi Isserles recorded Rabbi Ya’akov’s desiring to scorch a sukkah on Simchat Torah, Zalman of Sankt Goar’s transcription of his teacher’s teachings suggest that Rabbi Isserles may have misunderstood Rabbi Ya’akov and conflated two separate concerns. According to Zalman:

אמר שאביו מהר״מ סג״ל היה מוחה בימי בחורותיו בידי שלא יסתור שום סוכה ולא יבעיר האש בשמחת תורה. [13]

[Our master Rabbi Ya’akov HaLevi] said that his father, our master, Rabbi Mosheh, second-in-command to the priestly class, would block Rabbi Ya’akov—during the days of [Rabbi Ya’akov’s] youth—to ensure that [Rabbi Ya’akov] would not destroy any sukkah and would not transfer fire on Simchat Torah.[14]

 It seems probable that Rabbi Isserles misread and then misremembered Zalman’s report, but the truth is that we will never know if children in fact burned sukkot at the end of Simchat Torah in the days of the Moelin family. Without a doubt though, Rabbi Ya’akov did venerate the sort of intellectual gymnastics it would take to create a culture where every Jewish child could explain the problematic origins of the extra day of Yom Tov, cite their sources, and then publicly and justifiably violate the spirit of a false holiday.

Whereas the majority of Jewish holidays date back to antiquity, Simchat Torah has only been around since the Middle Ages—relatively late in Jewish history. It is perhaps due to the murky origins of Simchat Torah that Jewish communities have time and again developed new customs that could both help give shape to this holiday.

Flags for Simchat Torah undoubtedly offered the Jewish people an opportunity to proclaim cultural unity at a time when Jewish host cultures worked to solidify their own understanding of themselves as nations with something in common. The annual celebration of studying Torah was certainly linked to a traditional blessing preceding the torah reading that proclaimed the Jews as God’s chosen people (a concept that has been removed or modified in many non-Orthodox Jewish communities today). This notion of Jewish chosenness would compete with the increasingly popular 16th century belief that, for example, the Germans were God’s chosen people and that Adam—the Adam we know from the Book of Genesis—actually spoke German.[15] When the proverbial and literal flags of nationalism arose, the Jews emerged in the early modern era with their own banners to hail.

In their efforts to bring Jews from around the world to Israel itself in the 19th and 20th century, Zionist leaders and artists worked hard to establish a ‘folk’ culture in Israel—something that could unite Jews no matter where they had been born. The work that went into inventing Israeli folk traditions assembled the backdrop where dancers began to borrow and to invent dance steps reflecting the many host cultures beside whom Jews had previously learned to dance. The burgeoning fields of Israeli dance, Hebraic dance, and Jewish dance—all interconnected inevitably—invited Dvora Lapson’s creative digging for old Jewish choreography and inventing new forms that would aim to move Jews in lockstep all over the world.[16]

Along the Rhineland in days of the Moelin family, there was still a palpable influence of the Tosafist academies—schools committed to highly nuanced study of Jewish law and text, challenging many of the assumptions of any sacred text that came before these scholars.[17] In a milieu that so valued this sort of headiness over any heart, finding a holy reason to permit burning down a sacred hut must have been an absolute delight for a child (with the supervision of a responsible adult).

The very name of Simchat Torah (שִֹמְחַת תּוֹרָה, “The Joy of the Torah”) invites us to find new ways to seek joy on this unusual festive occasion. Will our joy come from a sense of keeping up with our surrounding cultures? Will we feel joy when we create rituals that any lover of Torah will understand? Does joy spark inside us when we solve a complicated logic puzzle? This festival of a joyous relationship with the Torah will continue to evolve in the years to come because our cultural values will constantly change. The many joys we will find during Simchat Torah in the years to come will lie in customs we have yet to invent.

[1] Cf. Chen Malul, “What Does Your Simchat Torah Flag Say About You?,” as accessed at https://blog.nli.org.il/en/simchat-torah-flags/ on October 13, 2022.

[2] Used with permission from https://www.shutterstock.com/image-vector/simchat-torah-scroll-flag-crown-hebrew-1493435180 on October 13, 2022.

[3] Dvora Lapson, “Pitcher and Torah Dance (Processional),” as reprinted in Philip Goodman, The Sukkot and Simhat Torah Anthology (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973), p. 426–427, esp. p. 427.

[4] Cf. “Dvora Lapson,” as accessed at https://socalfolkdance.org/master_teachers/lapson_d.htm on October 13, 2022.

[5] Cf. Malul, ibid.

[6] Darkhey Mosheh on Orach Chayyim 669.

[7] Cf. Mishnah, Shabbat 7:2.

[8] Cf. Mishnah, Beytzah 4:7.

[9] Cf. e.g. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov 4:1.

[10] Cf. Leviticus 23:36.

[11] Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Beytzah 4b, and Rashi ad locum, s.v. דגזרי המלכות גזירה (digzrey hammalkhut gezeyrah).

[12] Cf. Mishnah, Shabbat 7:2.

[13] The whole story and the ruling appear in Zalman of Sankt Goar, Sefer MaHaRYL (ספר מהרי״ל) (Jerusalem, 5738 A.M. [1977 or 1978 C.E.]), p. 53a.

[14] The whole story and the ruling appear in Zalman of Sankt Goar, ibid. Emphasis added.

[15] Cf. Caspar Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2012), esp. pp. 108–109.

[16] For one testimonial on the emergence of the Israeli folk dance movement and its various trends as developing during Lapson’s lifetime, see, e.g., Ayalah Kaufman, “Indigenous and Imported Elements in the New Folk Dance in Israel,” in Journal of the International Folk Music Council, vol. 3 (1951), pp. 55–57.

[17] On the general influence of the Tosafists on the intellectual and cultural realities of medieval Western European Jewry, see, e.g., Ephraim Kanarfogel, “בין ישיבות בעלי התוספות לבתי מדרשות אחרים באשכנז בימי הביניים” (“Between the Tosafist Academies and the Other Battei Midrash in Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages”), in Immanuel Etkes, Yeshivot U-Vate Midrashot (Jerusalem, Israel: Hebrew University, 2006), pp. 85–108.