The climax of this year’s Jewish High Holy days began at sundown on Wednesday October 12 with the celebration of the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot). While more Jews today observe the Feast of Trumpets (aka Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the seven days of Sukkot were traditionally viewed as the capstone, the highlight of this sacred season.
The rabbis explain it through the following story:
There was a city that owed its king taxes, so the king sent tax collectors to take up the money, but the collectors were not successful because the people couldn’t pay. So the king said, “I will go and collect the taxes myself.” Now when the people heard that the king was coming, the nobles of the city went out, and meeting him at a distance said, “O, King, we know we owe you money, but we don’t have the means to pay.” The king, seeing that they were concerned about the matter, had compassion and said, “I will forgive one third of your debt.”
He continued to travel toward the city. When he got a little closer, all the politicians and the leaders of the city came to meet him. They prostrated themselves and said, “O King, we know that we owe you money, but we don’t have the means to pay.” The king had compassion on them for their humility and forgave an additional third of the debt.
Finally, the king entered the city and the moment he entered it, all the people came and prostrated themselves at his feet and said, “We know we still owe this money but we don’t have the means to pay.” So what did the king do? He forgave the entire debt. And so then, how did the people respond? They took palm branches and myrtle and they sang praises to the king, at which point the king said, “Let us now count this as a day of new beginnings.”
In the same way then, the people of Israel, having had the debt of sin forgiven on the Day of Atonement, could respond with joyous celebration and praises to God during the Feast of Tabernacles. (Sukk. 55b)
This story paints a beautiful picture of grace and is reminiscent of some of Jesus’ parables. But sadly, Judaism has shifted the emphasis of the festival. In the absence of the Temple where the many sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin were once a focal point, observances in local synagogues do not emphasize sin and forgiveness. Also, the biblical emphasis on rejoicing over the harvest in the land has shifted to rejoicing in the Law, the Torah. To that end, in the lands of the Diaspora, an additional day was added to the observance called Simhat Torah or “Rejoicing in the Law.” The scroll of the Law is lifted up and paraded around the synagogue with much singing and celebration. This year, Simchat Torah is observed between October 19 and 21, depending on whether you are in Israel or the Diaspora.
Simhat Torah is all about the Bible, yet it was never a biblical festival so you won’t find it mentioned anywhere in the Torah. It emerged largely in Babylon during the extended exile, the period from around A.D. 200 to A.D. 600. During this time, the rabbis were writing what is known as the oral law, and reformulating Judaism without a Temple.
The rabbis claimed that Moses had instructed Israel to read from the Torah each Sabbath until the entire Law had been read. Initially, some differed as to whether this cycle should be completed annually or triennially. In about the eleventh century, the rabbis divided the Torah into 54 portions or parshot, which became the standard for the annual cycle of weekly readings. In a leap year there would be 54 Sabbaths and on non-leap years, the portions for the final two Sabbaths would be combined.
Simchat Torah became a day to express loyalty to the Torah. To that end, the timing of the parshot was designed to begin and end on this holiday. That means that on Simchat Torah, the last section of the annual Torah reading cycle (Deuteronomy 33 and 34) is read, and immediately followed by a reading of Genesis 1 to begin the cycle anew.
Certainly, the Psalms speak of the Law in the highest possible terms, rejoicing over it greatly. So Simhat Torah, while not commanded in the Bible, is a great holiday. Unfortunately, because of its timing, it can distract from the original focus of the Feast of Tabernacles.
The Jewish leadership understood that God had exiled our people from the Land, and that He had allowed the Temple to be destroyed. But they reasoned that the one thing He would never take away was the Law itself, the Torah. The focus on Torah became deeply ingrained in the exilic mindset. Torah, as it was so redefined, became the lifeline of the people of Israel throughout the world.
The possession of the Torah was – and arguably still is – seen as the greatest achievement of the nation of Israel. There’s a Jewish saying: “Even more than the fact that Israel kept the Torah, is the fact that the Torah has kept Israel.” The Torah has continued to define and to maintain the Jewish people.
It is good to rejoice in the revelation God gave us but there is a danger – the sin of bibliolatry, or veneration of Torah above the Giver of the Torah. Since rabbinic interpretation of Torah is venerated right alongside the revelation from Mt. Sinai, and believed to be part of that revelation, Judaism has, through certain traditions, unintentionally made null and void the very Word of God that it seeks to elevate. And so, that which was good and God-given has been made into a stumbling block. The words of the Apostle Paul are painful but true: “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:2-3).
But we know that the Word was made flesh (John 1:14), through our Messiah Jesus. We Jews for Jesus proclaim that revelation, pointing to the standard of righteousness that He set. Yes, we all fall short of that standard, but the wonder is that God has graciously counted it fulfilled for those who are in Jesus, and covered by His righteousness. And if we submit to His Spirit, God will work in us to bring us into alignment with His standards. Our hearts long for our Jewish people to know the righteousness that only comes through Him.
The Apostle Paul wrote concerning unbelieving Israel, “But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2 Corinthians 3:15-17).
At this sacred season, together let’s pray that the veil will indeed be lifted, that the Word would be truly heard and understood and that true liberty in Messiah will be embraced by many more Jewish people.
*adapted from Christ in the Feast of Tabernacles