14 October 2022
The High Holy Days, traditionally the most spiritually intense times of the Jewish year, come to an end after this weekend with Simchat Torah, which begins on Monday evening [17 October 2022] and ends on Tuesday evening [18 October 2022].
After a long round of autumn holidays and festivals – including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret – the 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. Before the Covid19 pandemic, the main celebrations have taken place in synagogues, where 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.
On Sunday afternoon (16 October), the Cork Jewish Community along with B’Shert in Brooklyn is holding a ‘Jews Across the Pond’ event with a book discussion on Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan. The author Ruth Gilligan will lead the discussion.
For some years, 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 of 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.
This has been a busy week, with meetings in Stony Stratford and Oxford about local charities and interfaith matters.
Before today gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.
During the last two weeks, I was reflecting each morning on a church, chapel, or place of worship in York, where I stayed last month. This week I am reflecting on the windows in one of those churches: All Saints’ Church, North Street, York.
In my prayer diary this week I am reflecting in these ways:
1, One of the readings for the morning;
2, A reflection on the windows in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’
Luke 12: 1-7 (NRSVA):
12 Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered in thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. 2 Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.
4 ‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. 7 But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’
The Saint James the Great Window, All Saints Church, York:
All Saints’ Church, North Street, York, which I described in this prayer diary recently (28 September 2022), is said to be ‘York’s finest mediaeval church.’ It dates from the 11th century and stands near the River Ouse.
The church has an important collection of mediaeval stained glass, including ‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window, depicting the 15 signs of the End of the World; the window depicting the Corporal Works of Mercy (see Matthew 25: 31ff); the Great East Window, originally in the north wall and the Lady Chapel Window, which I was looking at yesterday (13 October 2022); the Saint James the Great Window, which I am looking at this morning; and the Saint Thomas Window and the Coats-of-Arms Window, which I hope to look at tomorrow (15 October 2022).
All Saints’ Church, on North Street, York, is known particularly for two early 15th century windows: the window depicting ‘The Pricke Of Conscience’ or ‘The Fifteen Signs of Doom’ window, which I was looking at earlier this week (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday); and the window depicting the ‘Corporal Works of Mercy’ (see Matthew 25: 35-46), which I was looking at on Wednesday.
This morning, I am reflecting on the Saint James the Great Window. The 15th century Saint James Window dates from ca 1410.
1, The Left Light: Saint James the Apostle, dressed as a pilgrim with a pilgrim staff and a Bible in his hands as he makes his way to the shrine at Santiago Compostela in northern Spain. ‘lago’ is the Spanish form of ‘lacobus’ or James.
Originally, there may have been a shell behind the saint’s right foot. Scallop shells were a sign of the shrine at Santiago.
The face of Saint James in this window may be the face of God the Father taken from another, now lost window. It was painted by John Thornton who made the East Window in York Minister in 1405.
2, The Centre Light: Our Lady, crowned as the Queen of Heaven, holding the Christ Child in her arms.
3, The Right Light: a kneeling archbishop. His mitre is behind him, and he is wearing the pallium around his neck, the symbol of and archbishop’s authority bestowed by the Pope. He is saying Mass and is kneeling at the elevation of the Host. Above him, Christ appears, accompanied by four angels.
In the past, the archbishop has been identified as Saint Gregory the Great, or as Saint William of York. However, recent research indicates he may be Saint Denis, Bishop of Paris in the third century. Denys, or Dionysius, was thought at the time this window was made to be the Dionysius who wrote the book on the nine orders of angels illustrated in an adjacent window.
Amidst the fragments below the three main figures is a charming bird. The incomplete inscription beneath the figure of the archbishop contains the only surviving ‘indulgence’ in an English stained-glass window.
An indulgence was believed to remove the penalty incurred by a confessed sin, and could be gained by, for example, going on pilgrimage, or by meditating on the truths of the faith expressed in a statue or, as in this case, a window.
Chaucer satirised this practice in the Canterbury Tales in the person of the shameless Pardoner. The mediaeval church employed Pardoners to squeeze the pockets of people to buy indulgences.
Fragments of other lost windows were added to this window in the 1970s.
Today’s Prayer (Friday 14 October 2022):
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself,
and so bring us at last to your heavenly city
where we shall see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
The Post Communion Prayer:
Lord, we pray that your grace
may always precede and follow us,
and make us continually to be given to all good works;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Day of the Girl Child.’ This theme is introduced this morning by the Revd Benjamin Inbaraj, Director of the CSI-SEVA department, which runs the Church of South India’s social ministries.
The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:
Let us give thanks for the success of the Church of South India’s Children’s Synod. May we make a conscious effort to include children in the life of the Church.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
‘Church of All Saints with Anchorage Attached, Historic England List Entry 1257067, <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1257067> [accessed 8 October 2022].
‘The Stained Glass of All Saints’, All Saint Church, <https://www.allsaints-northstreet.org.uk/stainedglass.html> [accessed 8 October 2022].