The Most Popular Holiday in the Soviet Union? Rabbi Dr. David Frankel on Simchat Torah

Why was Simchat Torah the most publicly celebrated Jewish holiday in the Soviet Union? What was it that Soviet Jewry found so meaningful?  Rabbi Dr. David Frankel, senior lecturer in Bible at Schechter, describes this fascinating piece of Soviet Jewish history and explains how we can deepen the meaning of our own Simchat Torah celebrations today.  

Sukkot: Celebrating Jerusalem as the Center of the Earth

One of the most curious phenomena associated with the rituals of the Second Temple Judaism is the water libation offered at the Temple on Sukkot. The Torah prescribes a very strict and detailed regime of sacrifices: these include offerings of incense and livestock; grain in various forms, sometimes mixed with oil and frankincense; and libations of wine upon the altar. The exact composition of the offering appropriate for each occasion is strictly regulated; violation of these strictures, and the unauthorized offering of sacrifices on the Temple altar, are considered serious offenses.

The Four Species in Ancient Jewish Art

While some believe that ancient Jewish culture was primarily textual, based on written and oral traditions, studies of Jewish art have revealed another cultural dimension of ancient Jewry: the visual dimension. Jews expressed their belief and opinions using not only the vehicles of Bible, Midrash and Halakha, but of art as well. Examples of creative artwork are found in the context of daily life, such as homes and tombs, and, following the destruction of the Temple, in the religious and ritual context of the synagogue. Ancient Jewish art is often of a symbolic character, in which a single symbol might express a whole set of meanings and associations for the observer. For us, viewing this art from a span of 1500 or more years, decoding these symbols can be a complicated task. As we approach the festival of Sukkot, let us examine the symbol of the Four Species, seeing how its conceptual and symbolic aspects are expressed in various works of art.

Isru Hag: Binding the Festival with Eating and Drinking

What does it mean to tie the festival with ropes? Many scholars, following Ibn Ezra, claim that the reference is to the festival offering, an animal bound up in rope and brought to the edge of the altar, which was decorated with horns, or a sacrificial animal tied directly to the horns of the altar with rope.[note]However, the word hag, "festival", is never used in the sense of a sacrificial animal, and we have no other reference to a procession in which the animals were led live, bound in cords, up to the edge of the altar, and there is certainly no reference to binding the animal's leash to the altar horns themselves. This has led other scholars to claim that the reference is to a circular procession or dance (hag, hug) in which the dancers are linked to one another with branches (avotim), a poetic description of processions around the altar in which the people carried branches. One of the four species taken up on Sukkot, the myrtle, is referred to in Leviticus 23:40 as "the branch of an avot (leafy) tree".[/note]