Simchat Torah literally means “rejoicing in the Torah.”
It is a day when we celebrate reading the very last bit of the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, and begin reading the first book – Genesis, all over again!
Sometime in the 8th century, rabbis established the one year cycle of reading the Torah. Before that, some communities, especially those living in Palestine, spread it out over three years. The one year cycle follows the custom of the Babylonian Jews at the time.
As you may imagine, Simchat Torah is a very joyous occasion, marked most notably by removing the Torah(s) from the Ark and carrying them around the synagogue 7 times. It is great fun, and an honor, to help with this hakafot (circuit). Often songs are sung and flags are waved. Some speculate that the reason for the flags has to do with a connection with the twelve tribes who wandered the desert with Moses, each of which had their own banner to mark their area of encampment.
In some congregations, all the children who have not yet reached bat/bar mitzvah age are called up for a group aliyah. A tallis – or several – is spread over their heads, and the rabbi gives them a special blessing. This symbolizes the joy of study we want all our youth to have.
Some liken Simchat Torah to the joy one feels at a wedding, in fact, the person who reads from Deuteronomy is called the chatan Torah, the bridegroom of the Torah, and the person who reads from Genesis is called the chatan Bershit, the bridegroom of Genesis.
Simchat Torah closes out the High Holy Day season which begins at Rosh Hashanah and continues through Yom Kippur and Sukkot.