Question: I recently learned that one may not dance or clap hands on Shabbat or Yom Tov. If so how do we dance on Simchat Torah?
Answer: You are referring to a Mishna in Tractate Beitza (36b), which states: “Any matter for which one is liable [Rabbinically] on Shabbat either because of shevut [lit. rest, as they do not involve the performance of any mitzvah — Rashi ad loc. and is therefore forbidden] or because of reshut [lit. option, representing a very limited mitzvah that appears to be optional — Rashi ad loc.] or because of mitzvah [religious observance, but nevertheless forbidden — Rashi ad loc.], one is liable for it on Yom Tov as well.
“And these are the matters that are shevut: one may not climb a tree, ride an animal, nor swim, nor clap the hands, nor slap one’s thigh, nor dance.
“And these are the matters that are reshut: We do not judge, nor do we betroth, nor do we perform chalitza, nor do we perform yibbum – the levirate marriage.
“And these are the matters that are of religious observance: we do not dedicate to the Temple (hekdesh), we do not vow a personal valuation (erech), nor vow something as cherem [lit. forbidden for problems associated with our activities on this day}.”
Your question arose already in the Geonic period and, in fact, was asked of Rav Hai Gaon: “We have become accustomed in our place that on the last day of Sukkot we rejoice with great festivity, all the while clapping [our hands] before the Sefer Torah; spices are brought to the synagogue and burnt in front of the Sefer Torah.
“Now [our query] are we permitted to do this? Is this to be considered as ‘smoking,’ which is permissible, or is it considered as ‘perfuming,’ which is forbidden? [This is the subject of a discussion in Tractate Beitza (supra 22b), where we find that burning incense for the purpose of perfuming is forbidden, but smoking fruits over burning spices is permitted.]
Rav Hai answered, “It is definitely considered as perfuming and is prohibited, since smoking is meant only for the purpose of food preparation [such as fruit] for eating, like olives and the such, but in this case [in the synagogue] it is only for perfuming and is forbidden. There really is no difference between the synagogue and the home, for you cannot say that we ‘smoke’ a Sefer Torah as we do an edible item — therefore [I caution you], do not do this!”
Rav Hai then continues with a reference to the Gemara (Beitza 36b), which we quoted at the outset, “We are used to doing such when we dance before it [the Torah], and the most learned sages participate as well, even as we sing praises before the Torah. Now this prohibition [of dancing] is a shevut [the requirement to desist from an otherwise mundane activity] and we have become accustomed to be lenient in its regard when we honor the Torah; however, as regards ‘perfuming,’ all agree that such is forbidden.”
as noted, where he states as follows: “The festivities of Simchat Torah encompass and also engender many other prohibitions which have created much discussion among the great [early] authorities, and from their rulings we derive many different customs related to the celebrations as they are practiced on that day.
Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt”l, in HaMoadim BaHalacha (p. 136), comments that it is this very responsum of Rav Hai Gaon that gave the MaHarik a source for the vibrancy of the customs of the people of Israel in general and more specifically the customs that relate to kevod HaTorah. We thus find that a minhag that serves to honor the Torah at times supersedes even the prohibition of shevut [i.e., dancing on Yom Tov].
He continues: “From that has arisen yet another custom, which is practiced in all congregations in France and Germany on Simchat Torah, which is at odds with our halacha. We refer to the selling of the first aliyah to the highest bidder even when a kohen is present in the synagogue. We allow this because it is a great mitzvah to honor the Torah. Would that be the case all year long, as the Torah’s honor is greatly enhanced and elevated when all jump at the opportunity to read from it. There is, indeed, no greater display of endearment and show of affection for the Torah than this. And as a result, oil for the flame is overly abundant and present that day…”
As regards “perfuming” and its prohibition, the Magen Avraham (Orach Chayyim 669) states, “[Not only is this forbidden but] one is also forbidden to light torches and make noise for the purpose of rejoicing, and I have seen that some of the gedolim of the land have objected to these as well.
Yet we find that the Ba’er Heitev [Rav Yehuda Ashkenazi] quotes an earlier Ba’er Heitev [the commentary of the Rishon Rav Yeshaya] to the effect that we permit the lighting of a flame [which is held before the Torah as we celebrate] even though it is possible that we might cause the flame to be extinguished.
Responsa Batei Kehuna (found on the margin of our Shulchan Aruch, ad. loc.) seeks to explain and thus permit the use of a flame, remarking: “These flames are not meant to stay lit until the conclusion [of the festivities] but, rather, a gentile of his own accord extinguishes them.” Thus he is lenient in this matter and permits it.
However, this applies only in a case where there is a gentile who does so. Generally such is not the case, and therefore we must reason, as Rabbi Zevin states, that such is the vibrancy [power] of our minhagim that at times they override a rabbinical prohibition.
Indeed, as we noted at the outset, it is now universally accepted that all dance on Simchat Torah – and without exception – our greatest scholars, as well, engage in the beautiful mitzvah of the day.