10 October 2020

‘Protector of the needy, prosper us;
Upholder of the failing, answer us’

Torah scrolls in the Jewish Museum in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The High Holy Days, traditionally the most spiritually intense times of the Jewish year, come to an end this evening and tomorrow with Simchat Torah, which begins this evening [10 October 2020] and ends tomorrow [11 October 2020].

After a long round of autumn holidays and festivals – including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret – this evening’s celebrations of Simchat Torah (שִׂמְחַת תּוֹרָה, ‘Rejoicing with the Torah’) mark the end of one annual cycle of Torah readings, and the beginning of a new one.

Simchat Torah follows immediately after the festival of Sukkot. In normal, non-pandemic times, the main celebrations take place in synagogues. In many synagogues, Simchat Torah is normally celebratory, raucous and joyful, all at one and the same time, and often with constant singing and dancing. Each time the Ark is opened, people leave their seats and dance and sing with the Torah scrolls in a joyous celebration that often lasts many hours.

Each member of the congregation is called up for an Aliyah or a reading of the Torah from the bimah or reading platform. Sometimes, there is a special Aliyah or ‘ascent’ to the Torah for children. Sometimes, the Torah is carried around in a kind of festive parade around, preceded and followed by children waving flags.

In some communities, a Torah scroll is unrolled, from beginning to end, and people, wearing protective gloves as they touch the parchment, hold it up in a giant circle. Someone looks for a blessing for each person based on the verses near where their hands happen to be.

Many communities dance seven circuits of the synagogue while carrying the Torah – one for each day of the week, one for each colour of the rainbow, one for each of the seven sefirot or qualities of God.

For some time, for my private prayers and evening devotions, I have been using the prayer book, Service of the Heart, compiled by Rabbi John Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern, who wrote or rewrote many of the prayers and hymns it includes. This prayer books includes this prayer for Simchat Torah:

‘Those who serve You shall be clothed in righteousness, and Your faithful ones will sing for joy. And it shall be said on that day: “Behold this is our God; we have hoped in him, and he will save us; this is the Lord; we have waited for him: let us rejoice and be glad in him.’

This prayer is based on Biblical passages (Psalm 132: 9; Isaiah 25: 9) and comes from a longer passage traditionally recited after the opening of the Ark on Simchat Torah. It was first found in the 11th century prayer books known as Machzor Vitry compiled by Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), a mediaeval French rabbi generally known by his acronym Rashi, and his disciple, Simchah Vitry.

Service of the Heart also includes a hymn sung while the Scrolls are carried in procession:

Save us, O Lord we implore You;
Prosper us, O Lord, we implore You;
Answer us, O Lord, when we call upon You.

God of all spirits, save us;
Searcher of hearts, prosper us;
Mighty Redeemer, answer us when we call upon You.

Lord, Pure and Upright, save us;
Protector of the needy, prosper us;
Benevolent and Beneficent God, answer us when we call upon You.

Eternal King, save us;
God, Radiant and Glorious, prosper us;
Upholder of the failing, answer us when we call upon You.

Helper of the weak, save us;
Redeemer and Deliver, prosper us;
Eternal Rock, answer us when we call upon You.

Lord, Holy and Awesome, save us;
Merciful and Gracious God, prosper us;
Keeper of the Covenant, answer us when we call upon You.

This is an adaptation of an early mediaeval hymn, with an alphabetic acrostic, and this too is first found in Machzor Vitry.

The first two lines in this hymn are from Psalm 118: 25, the third line is based on Psalm 20: 10. This version is slightly abridged. The hymn is traditionally sung on Simchat Torah in conjunction with the hakkafot as the Torah scrolls are carried around the synagogue seven times.

Meanwhile, in a Zoom and Facebook event this weekend that is part of the Simchat Torah celebrations, the B’ShERT community (Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple) in Brooklyn is showing the film, Cork Jewish Culture Virtual Walk.

The virtual tour, which I followed during a recent visit to Cork, is presented by Ruti Lachs and Marnina Winkler, a PhD candidate and local Jewish historian, and includes interviews, stories, poems and music. Although the tour is accessible as a video on YouTube, it anchors a web page that provides links to further reading and other resources.

This showing tomorrow (11 October 2020) is followed by questions and discussion and some singing.

The ‘Walking Tour’ page can be found HERE

‘Adoration of the Torah’ by Artur Markiowicz (1872-1934) in the Jewish Museum in the Old Synagogue, Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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