Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

What to Do About Simchat Torah?

With the holiday of Shavuot behind us, it’s time to start thinking about the next holiday (chag) on the 2024 Jewish calendar: starting with Sukkot and ending at Simkhat Torah. Unlike all other years, however, this time the latter involves a major dilemma, given the calamity of Simkhat Torah 2023. How can/should Jews “celebrate” a joyous holiday so suffused with sorrow?

Trying to square such a circle is almost impossible – emotionally and morally. The solution, therefore, is to separate the square from the circle; in this case, something that’s surprisingly easy to do!

In order to understand how this can be done – in Israel and in the Diaspora – it is necessary to recognize the nature of the holiday, something easier for non-Israelis to do than their Israeli counterparts. That’s because we are talking about two holidays celebrated in the Jewish world, being compressed into one day in Israel only. The first is Shmini Atzeret; the second Simkhat Torah.

The first is mentioned in the Torah: “On the eighth day you shall convene a mass meeting; you shall not do any work” (Numbers 35: 29). One can view this holiday as the “coda” for the 7-day holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles), but it is clear that this day stands on its own, symbolizing the start of the rainy season in Israel. Indeed, the service for the onset of rain continues to be prayed in synagogues on Shmini Atzeret. As will be explained shortly, the “independence” of this holiday from Sukkot is critical for the solution to our dilemma.

But first, a few words about Simkhat Torah. Surprisingly, there is no mention of this holiday in the entire Bible; indeed, these two words together don’t appear anywhere until the 8th century CE – and not as the name of a specific Jewish holiday until the 11th century! (That’s a mere 1000 years ago.) The reason for such a late appearance? During the Second Temple period the cycle of Torah readings was tri-annual i.e., it took three years to complete reading the Torah portions on the Sabbaths. Thus, there could not be an annual holiday celebrating the completion of the Five Books of Moses. It was only when the annual Torah cycle was accepted by Jews (almost) everywhere – first in Babylonia and much later in Israel – that such a holiday made any sense.

However, much like the Shavuot holiday just celebrated, outside of the Land of Israel Shmini Atzeret was celebrated over two days (for the reason of difficulties deciding on the New Moon, a problem I won’t explain here), so that once Simkhat Torah started to be celebrated it made eminent sense to piggyback on the second day of Shmini Atzeret. And therein lies the solution to our new “Simkhat Torah” dilemma.

In fact, the Hamas invasion on Oct. 7 took place in Israel on the combined day of Shmini Atzeret/Simkhat Torah. Israelis immediately took to calling this the “Simkhat Torah” tragedy because for non-Orthodox (and most Orthodox as well) it is the joyous dancing (etc.) on Simkhat Torah that makes the holiday special. But as I just explained, that’s the “subsidiary” holiday! The more important (biblically sanctioned) one is Shmini Atzeret.

The solution, then, is twofold. First, rename Oct. 7, 2023, as the Shmini Atzeret tragedy. In any case, on this holiday the traditional prayer of Yizkor is recited for our deceased ancestors and contemporaries. It would be appropriate to add a permanent prayer for the victims of Oct. 7, just as many synagogues have added a Yizkor prayer to commemorate the Jewish people’s Holocaust victims.

As for Jews living outside of Israel such a solution is even easier, given that Oct. 7, 2023, fell on Shmini Atzeret and not on Simkhat Torah at all (again, there the two are celebrated on consecutive days). Of course, that assumes that non-Israeli communities view the Oct. 7 massacre as something highly unusual, deserving of special attention and prayer.

For many overseas Jews, that day was indeed traumatic but for a different, albeit related reason: it set off a massive wave of anti-Semitism around the world, as confounding as anything that has happened in Jewish history. Perhaps not for the first time, but certainly a novum in the last several decades, a major attack on Jews (Oct. 7) initiated an anti-Semitic campaign accusing them of being the “aggressors” deserving of further attack.

In short, let Simkhat Torah remain the joyous day for celebrating the Torah cycle. Shmini Atzeret, whose very name holds within it the collective convocation and union of all Jews (Atzeret), is the proper day for commemorating the tragedy of Oct. 7.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: