The Joy of Our Soul



The Chofetz Chaim explains that the People of Israel are a holistic unity of body and soul, and he writes:


The soul of Israel is the holy Torah, and the body of Israel is the Land of Israel. (Chofetz Chaim on the Torah, Parshas Bo)


The Chofetz Chaim reminds us that just as the soul needs the body, so too, the Torah needs the Land of Israel, especially since there are certain mitzvos of the Torah which can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel. “But the Land of Israel without the Torah,” stresses the Chofetz Chaim, “is a body without a soul” (ibid).


As we discussed in previous letters, it is the Torah – the soul of Israel – which reveals the spiritual and universal raison d’etre of our people and our land. In this letter, we will discuss the joyous celebration of our people’s soul which takes place on the Festival of Shemini Atzeres. This celebration is known as, “Simchas Torah” – the Joy of the Torah.
Dear Friends,

When we read from the Torah, we chant the words that we read. Moshe Rebbeinu – Moses, our Teacher – enacted that we should chant a portion from the Torah every Shabbos. The sages of later generations prescribed which portions were to be chanted each Shabbos. It became the prevailing custom to chant the entire Torah in one year, and the concluding portion from the Book of Deuteronomy is chanted on the Festival of Shemini Atzeres. We not only complete the annual cycle of chanting the Torah on Shemini Atzeres; we begin the cycle again by chanting the opening section of the Book of Genesis.


The Festival of Shemini Atzeres begins immediately after the conclusion of the seven days of the Festival of Succos. In the Land of Israel, the Festival of Shemini Atzeres is one day, and in the Diaspora, it is two days. In the Diaspora, the concluding portion of the Torah is chanted on the second day of Shemini Atzeres.


The completion of the annual cycle of chanting the Torah is a very great and joyous event in the Jewish calendar, and the celebration of this event is known as, “Simchas Torah” – the Joy of the Torah. As a result of this celebration, the Festival of Shemeni Atzeres also became known as, “Simchas Torah.”


How do we celebrate this great event? Before we chant the concluding portion of the Torah, we take out all the Torahs from the Ark, and as we carry the Torahs in our arms, we march around the central platform of the synagogue seven times. These circuits are known as hakafos. Each of the seven hakafos is accompanied by much singing and dancing; thus, on Simchas Torah, we experience the great joy of the Torah – the soul of our people.


The celebration of Simchas Torah therefore reminds us that we are the people of the Torah and that the Land of Israel is the land of the Torah. Through fulfilling the entire Torah in our land, we become a living model of the Torah which can inspire all the peoples of the earth. This spiritual and universal goal of our life in Zion is expressed in the following verse which is chanted towards the beginning of the Simchas Torah celebration, just before we remove all the Torahs from the Ark:


Ki miTzion taytsei Torah, u’dvar Hashem m’Yerushalayim – “For from Zion will come forth Torah, and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:3) 


Our people’s devotion to Torah study has enabled us to rise above our suffering, both personal and collective. In this spirit, King David proclaimed: “Had your Torah not been my joyful preoccupation, I would have perished in my affliction” (Psalm 119:92). 


The following song about the joy of Torah study in the midst of suffering is sung in many yeshivos during the Simchas Torah dancing:


“When the People of Israel sit and occupy themselves with the joy of the Torah, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, says to His inner chamber: ‘See my beloved children, who forget about their sorrows and who occupy themselves with My delight!’ ”


The yeshiva world has a tradition that the words of the above song were written by the Vilna Gaon, a leading sage of the 18th century. The words are based on teachings from the Holy Zohar, a classical work on the secret wisdom of the Torah.


We are both happy and grateful that we were given the Written Torah, as well as the Oral Torah which enables us to reveal the various levels of meaning within the Written Torah.  And we have a sense of pride that we devoted ourselves to the study of Torah throughout the long and bitter exile. For example, it is well-known that the Jewish people experienced intense persecution during the Middle Ages; yet, during this period, they had great intellectual and spiritual achievements. As historian Berel Wein writes:


“They built an edifice of scholarship and research, unmatched in human history, on the foundation of the knowledge and faith of previous generations. Their firm belief in the revealed Divinity of Torah was coupled with reasoned analytic exposition, monumental research, a flood of research books and commentaries, and a holy and individualistic life-style. This created the Jewish Middle Ages and guaranteed the survival of Torah and Israel till the modern era.” (Herald of Destiny)


Our people have therefore identified with the following prayer of King David – a prayer which has also become a Simchas Torah song:


 “O how I love Your Torah!  All day long it is my conversation.” (Psalm 119:97).


Each of the earth’s peoples is usually proud of its heritage and accomplishments. We are the people of the Torah – the Divine Teaching; thus, the source of our pride is in studying and fulfilling the Torah. The Divine Teaching is our collective heritage, and this concept is expressed in the first verse taught to every Jewish child when he or she begins to talk: “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4).


Our pride in our heritage is expressed in a piyut – poetic hymn – which was written for Simchas Torah. This piyut is called Mipi Kel (From God’s Mouth). It appeared in a Sephardic book of piyutim in Izmir over 200 years ago and was edited by the Kozhnitzer Maggid, Rabbi Yisrael ben Shabsei, who popularized it in Ashkenazic circles. The words of this piyut are sung in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, and they are usually sung to a Sephardic melody. Each of its six stanzas praise Hashem, as well as Moshe (the son of Amram), the Torah, and the People of Israel who are the students and supporters of the Torah. One individual in the congregation chants each stanza, and everyone joins in for the chorus. The following are the first three stanzas of this song:




“There is none as powerful as Hashem. There is none as blessed as Amram’s son. There is no greatness like the Torah; no one expounds it like Israel.


(Chorus) From God’s mouth, from God’s mouth, may Israel be blessed!


There is none as majestic as Hashem. There is none as distinguished as Amram’s son. There is no merit like the Torah; it has no scholars like Israel.


(Chorus) From God’s mouth, from God’s mouth, may Israel be blessed!


There is none as pure as Hashem. There is none as upright as Amram’s son. There is no honor like the Torah; it has no students like Israel.


(Chorus) From God’s mouth, from God’s mouth, may Israel be blessed!




Through the joy of the Torah, we can experience the Shechinah – the Divine Presence, and there are a number of references to the Shechinah in the piyutim of Simchas Torah. For example, we sing:


“The holy Shechinah is among us, the merit of Abraham is with us; may we all rejoice there upon arriving in Zion with glad song. O Loving One, remember for our sake the merit of the beloved Abraham.”


Regarding the Torah, it is written, “She is a tree of life” (Proverbs 3:18). We are reminded of this teaching in the following words from the concluding song of the Simchas Torah celebration:


“The Torah is a tree of life, for all of them life, for with You is the Source of life.”


Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

And a Chag Samayach – a Joyous Festival!
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)
Related Information and Comments:


1. Tsfas is a holy city in a northern region of the Land of Israel. The Kabbalists of 15th century Tsfas were known for their celebration of Simchas Torah. For example, Rabbi Chaim Vital tells how his rebbe, the sainted Arizal, celebrated Simchas Torah:


“My master and teacher, of blessed memory, took great care to accompany the Torah scroll on its hakafah (circuit), dancing either in front of it or behind it. He would dance and sing joyously in front of the Torah and took care to make seven hakafos in this manner. Even after he had finished the hakafos in his own synagogue, he would join the celebration in any synagogue which he passed on the way home if they were still in the midst of the festivities. He would join in the singing and dancing with full vigor, as if he had not celebrated at all. This he did in every synagogue that he chanced upon on his way to his home.” (Cited in the ArtScroll Book “Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah” by Rabbi Moshe Lieber)


The Chassidic sage, the Baal HaTanya, suggests that everyone follow the custom of the Arizal.


The Art Scroll book also has the following description of the way the Vilna Gaon celebrated Simchas Torah:


“The Vilna Gaon would experience joy on Simchas Torah that surpassed even the intense happiness which he displayed throughout Succos. He would sing many liturgical poems and dance with abandon and great strength, clapping vigorously all the while. His countenance took on the radiance of a glowing flame as the wisdom within his heart and mind cast its brilliant light upon his face. He would dance and sing praises to God with all his might in honor of the Torah. Only when the scrolls were returned to the Ark did he return to the tranquilly joyous demeanor that he maintained on all holidays.” (Maaseh Rav 333)


2. Much of the information in this letter is from the book, “Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah” by Rabbi Moshe Lieber. It is published by Mesorah Publications Ltd. For information, visit:

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