Hadran alach – this is the phrase that one says upon the completion of a Talmudic tractate, referring to the fact that the learning continues. However, the Talmud commonly referred to as Torah she b’al peh (spoken Torah) does not have the same authority as the Torah she b’ktav (written Torah). Whenever the Rabbis engage in halakhic discourse, d’orisa (from the Torah) always trumps d’rabannan (from the Rabbis). After we finish learning one of the many tractates, we start on the next, though we do hold a formal ceremony to acknowledge the completion of a tractate called a siyum. Traditionally, a siyum is celebrated with a seudah, a festive meal where the community comes together to rejoice with the individual(s) that has/have completed the tractate. Many times those who study do so in the honor or memory of someone else and they speak about what they have gained from the tractate and share their wisdom with the community.
I once heard Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel z’’l (may his memory be a blessing), the previous Rosh Yeshiva of the largest Yeshiva in Israel (the Meir), describe this phrase, hadran alach, as the most beautiful pharse in the Talmud as these words mean that learning is never complete. What is the counterpart of a siyum when finishing the Torah?
Upon the completion of each of the five books we say the words, “chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek” (be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened). As we read the final chapter of the Torah, v’zot habrachah, we recall the blessings that Moses bestows upon the tribes. At the end of the Torah, Moses effectively transfers leadership to Joshua stating, “Chazak ve’ematz“, be strong and courageous (Deuteronomy 31:23). Knowledge is a source of strength and through learning we empower ourselves.
Generally it happens that one’s Jewish education ends after his or her bar or bat mitzvah. Maybe you take a course on Judaism in university; perhaps you encountered the documentary hypothesis, which postulates that there are four writers of the Torah and rather than the Torah as divine the Torah becomes an academic source. Though traditional Judaism understands the Torah to be dictated by God and recorded by Moses, in the Talmud, in Bava Bathra specifically, the Rabbis debated whether Joshua or Moses wrote the final verses of the Torah. None of this matters on Simchat Torah, similarly it doesn’t matter if you read the entire Torah in one year or three years…there’s no halakhic guideline for Simchat Torah, it is all minhag (custom). What is important is to understand that the Torah is a tree of life, a living and breathing entity, which informs our lives. This is done by constantly engaging with the Torah.
On Simchat Torah, we rejoice in the Torah. We do so by dancing and basking in the glory of the Torah. This is a time to truly feel connected with Torah. One does not need to have a preparatory course on Simchat Torah in order to partake in the happiness and delight of this holiday. Many times the Torah can seem inaccessible, the words within the Torah can be challenging and require interpretation and language skills, and from a physical standpoint the Torah itself is closed off within the ark and paraded only once during the service. As a seminary student I remember the fear and trepidation that my fellow classmates had upon receiving the honors of hagbah, the lifting of the Torah, and gelilah, the wrapping of the Torah. They feared dropping the Torah or not performing the dressing of the Torah appropriately.
On Simchat Torah our focus is love rather than fear, as influenced by our positive physical interaction with our Torah. We have seven hakafot, seven processions with the Torah. This holiday brings out our inner child; it is about joyfully living out the notion of Jews as ‘people of the book’.
During the morning service, all children will be called up to the Torah. This practice only occurs during Simchat Torah. For many, this is a highlight of the Holiday and it is a experience that reinforces the importance of the Torah for our youth. Children and adults alike participate in the celebration of completing the Torah. Often times young children will also be given plush Torahs to dance around with to familiarize them with a Torah that can be accessible and personal.
The Torah reader reciting the first section of Genesis has a specific title called the chatan bereshit, the groom of genesis. From the death of Moses to the creation of the word, we renew our vows and betrothing ourselves to our creator. The Torah is not simply a book, but a blueprint for life. Just as we finish the last verse we re-roll and begin anew. In some communities after Genesis is read, the book of Joshua is also read to show that the Israelites, under the leadership of Joshua, crossed over the Jordan river into the promised land, their new beginning.
As a child I remember carrying a flag (the idea of the flag to be united under one banner) marching throughout the streets in Chattanooga, TN. I recall feeling so proud, although I’m certain most of our neighbors were perplexed by our joy and our parade. Even today, working as a chaplain I find that my non-Jewish colleagues have a strong educational background in what they refer to as the Old Testament, but lack the emotional connection so palpable and infectious on Simchat Torah. Jewish tradition is unique in that even with our holiest, and valuable work, the Torah scrolls, we understand that we can revere and dance at the same time. The Torah is not meant to be held at arms distance, it is meant to be embraced both tangibly and metaphorically.
As we enter Simchat Torah, may we embody the phrase hadran alach in our collective understanding that our learning and growth continues.