Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Every yom tov has a halachic source in the Written or Oral Law – except for Simchat Torah, which stands alone as the only chag rooted entirely in minhag (custom). There is no Talmudic tractate for Simchat Torah, and even the Shulchan Aruch gives the festival short shrift with only a few lines, essentially concluding that “each community follows its own custom.”

The practice of removing Torah scrolls from the Ark on Simchat Torah dates to Talmudic times, but the true origin of Hakafot on Simchat Torah is lost to antiquity.

Hakafot Stationery, early 20th century.
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Hakafot are mentioned by the Maharil (1365-1427) and then not mentioned again until the end of the 16th century by the saintly Rema (1530-1572), who writes, “It is the custom to circle the bimah with the Torah scrolls, just as they circle it with the lulav [on Hoshanah Rabah].” According to Avraham Yaari, writing in Toldot Chag Simchat Torah – probably the best source for the development of the minhagim of Simchat Torah – the Rema had in mind only a single hakafah.

R. Chayim Vital, a student of the famous “Ari Hakadosh” (1534-1572), writes that his teacher did seven hakafot. Kabbalistically, seven circuits represents completion and perfection, particularly with respect to G-d’s creation of the world. However, it took over another century for the practice of Hakafot to disseminate broadly with Jews traveling from Eretz Yisrael helping institute the practice in other countries.

Some commentators argue, however, that if the Rema cited the custom, it must have been practiced in Ashkenazic communities for a long time. Moreover, R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin, the first editor of the comprehensive Encyclopedia Talmudit, characterizes Hakafot as “an ancient custom” and quotes R. Isaac Tyrnau – who was born in the 14th century and who died more than a century before the Ari was even born – who writes of Hakafot in Sefer Minhagim (1420): “We remove all the Torah scrolls from the ark and the chazzan takes one scroll and begins [to recite] Ana Hashem while circling the migdal, the congregation accompanying him with the remaining scrolls.”

In any event, below are some interesting items from my Hakafot collection.

* * * * *

Exhibited here are two works by Ze’ev Raban. The first is a beautifully hand-drawn original sketch of a hakafah scene in synagogue depicting a procession led by a hunched over elderly man draped in a tallit and leaning on a cane, followed by several men carrying Sifrei Torah.

Ze’ev Raban’s original Hakafot.

Standing aside the procession to the left are two young boys holding flags and a young woman watching the action. In this compact scene, the artist beautifully captures the traditions and characters of Hakafot.

The second work, which is signed and annotated in the plate “Zev Raban/Bezalel/Jerusalem/1928,” is the artist’s depiction of Simchat Torah from his famous Chagenu (“Our Holidays,” 1925), a lovely collection of color illustrations of the Jewish holidays.

Ze’ev Raban’s Simchat Torah from Chagenu.

On the lower left, Raban has drawn two crossed flags and, on the lower right, an open Torah scroll. The central focus is a classic Hakafot scene set in synagogue with all the traditional symbols – open arc, men carrying scrolls, children with flags, etc. – rendered in the gorgeous color that characterizes much of his work.

Raban (1890-1970), who acquired his reputation through the designs he made for Bezalel, was undoubtedly one of the most important artists and designers in pre-State Eretz Yisrael. Recognizing that the traditional European style did not fit the growing style of the newly emerging Jewish arts, he synthesized European techniques with authentic Jewish art based on specifically Jewish motifs.

He developed a visual lexicon of Jewish themes with decorative calligraphic script and other decorative devices which came to be characterized as the “Bezalel style” and, in doing so, he drew freely from Persian, Oriental, Classical, and Art Nouveau elements.

Seder Hakafot (1891).

The Seder Hakafot rare prayer booklet displayed below was handwritten in Genoa, Italy in 1891, and contains verses, piyutim, and songs according to the order of the Hakafot on Simchat Torah, as well as a stamp of the Genoa Jewish community (not shown). (Note: I have covered Hashem’s name in the scan to avoid any sheimos problem.)

Hakafot cut-out.

Shown at right is also a bright, colorful, and exceptionally artistic Jewish lithographic die-cut depicting a hakafah led by top-hatted men holding Sifrei Torah accompanied by two young boys holding flags bearing a Magen David. Unusual for the time, it also shows a man handing a scroll over to a young girl. Such die cuts, also known as “prasim,” became very popular at the turn of the 20th century and were often used for prizes awarded to Jewish children.

Also shown below is the well-known depiction of Hakafot by Arthur Szyk in which, using his iconic style characteristic of his work, he renders a multiplicity of characters, ranging from Jewish scholars to common Jews to a disparate group of children holding flags. Some of the congregants, and a child to the bottom right, are following the service in their siddurim, but the focus of the piece are the two bearded and tallit-clad men at the center holding Sifrei Torah.

Szyk’s Hakafot

Szyk (1894-1951) was renowned as one of the greatest illustrators of his time, and his work was particularly noted for its refined draftsmanship and calligraphy in the style of medieval manuscript illumination executed in close imitation of medieval illuminated manuscripts. His colors have the brilliance of Gothic stained-glass windows, his Hebrew lettering is exquisitely decorative, and his illustrations and illuminations evidence profound familiarity with Jewish tradition and folklore.

Shown on this page is also an invitation to participate in the fifth hakafah at the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv: “Give Respect to the Torah” and “You Shall Rejoice on your Holiday.”

Hakafot at the Great Synagogue.

The Great Synagogue, located on Allenby Street, was designed by Yehuda Magidovich in 1922, was completed in 1926, and was renovated in 1970 with a new eternal façade of arches. Its glass windows are replicas of windows of European synagogues destroyed in the Holocaust.

Exhibited below is an original and striking Jacob Steinhardt interpretation of a joyous chassid lovingly dancing with a Sefer Torah atop a Jerusalem roof, signed in both Hebrew and English by the artist.

Steinhardt’s Simchat Torah.

One of the 20th century’s preeminent artists, Steinhardt (1887-1968) was a German Expressionist whose graphic works, especially woodcuts and etchings, are masterpieces of the medium. Recognized today as one of the most prominent woodcut artists using a neo-Gothic or Biblical style, he is credited with refining the technique of block printing. As a teacher of graphics and later director of the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem, he influenced a whole generation of Israeli artists.

Simchat Torah Holocaust card.

Also exhibited here is a dramatic early 1940s Succot/Simchat Torah card with the words: “Fortunate are you Israel, Fortunate are you Israel, that Hashem has Chosen you” followed by “The time of our rejoicing, the Simchat Beit Hashoevah, and Simchat Torah.” The body of the text undoubtedly refers to the Holocaust: “Let us be only mighty, let us stand strong in these difficult days. Days will pass, years will change, and the golden days of glory and honor will certainly arrive to The Eternal People.”

The text ends with the beautiful verse from Shir Hashirim 2:2: “Like a rose amongst the thorns, so is my beloved amongst the daughters,” a metaphor for G-d’s choice of the Jewish people from among all the nations.

Joseph Budko’s Simchat Torah.

Also shown on this page is a classic example of the beauty of Joseph Budko’s etching work, a signed decorative woodcut illustrating an ornately-designed open Torah scroll, inside of which the artist has rendered a circular drawing of bearded men holding Sifrei Torah. At the four corners, the artist has etched in Hebrew: “Rejoice and delight on Simchat Torah.”

Budko created a whole new Jewish iconography ranging from Zionist symbols to representations of the world of the shtetl of his youth. Developing a unique style that combined personal attitude with Jewish mentality and synthesized Jewish tradition with a modern artistic approach, he was among an influential group of graphic Jewish artists who embraced the revival of the woodcut, a medium that lent itself perfectly to express the views of Israel and Jewish culture in various lands. He used the expressive form of the printing methods – etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs – to revive the use of graphic and book illustration in the Jewish art world.

Wishing a joyous Yom Tov to all.

Four German Simchat Torah cards, circa early 20th century.
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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.