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Simchat Torah 2011: Dates, Dances, Customs, Shemini Atzeret Explained

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Simchat Torah, the joyous Jewish celebration of the Torah (Five Books of Moses), begins at sundown on Oct. 20, 2011 and ends at nightfall on Oct. 21. The holiday is immediately preceded by Shemini Atzeret on Oct. 19, which is considered the eighth day of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths. In Israel and in some branches of liberal Judaism, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on one day, the 22nd of Tishrei in the Hebrew year of 5772 (Oct. 19-20, 2011).

Simchat Torah, which literally means "rejoicing in the Torah," celebrates the completion and beginning of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings. The final parashah (portion) of the Hebrew Bible (known as V'zot Habrachah in the Book of Deuteronomy) is read from the Torah and is immediately followed by the reading of the first portion of the Book of Genesis, Bereishit.

The Torah-reading ritual on Simchat Torah is characterized by the hakafot service. Jews dance with Torah scrolls in hakafot (literally, "circles") in the synagogue and on the streets outside. Simchat Torah is considered a kid-friendly Jewish holiday, and it is not uncommon to find children with flags and banners perched on parents' shoulders throughout the festivities. Dancing while holding the Torah is considered a great honor on this holiday. In congregations with multiple sets of scrolls, Torahs are passed from one person to the next during the dancing.

Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) have a thing for the number seven. Among other things, there are seven days of Sukkot, the holiday that precedes Simchat Torah. Hakafot dancing occurs seven times during Simchat Torah services. A set of 17 verses is read -- in some congregations it is repeated three times in each of the seven hakafot -- and then the dancing begins anew. Each of the seven dances is associated with the seven divine emanations (known as sephirot in Kabbalah) in the physical world: kindness, judgment, harmony, victory, splendor, foundation and kingship. While each day of Sukkot has a similar association, on Simchat Torah all of these aspects are united on one day. Jews dance in circles on Simchat Torah to acknowledge this unity.

Dancing With The Torah
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