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Why Do Children March with Flags on Simhat Torah?

Responsa in a Moment: Volume 10, Issue No. 2, October 2015

In memory of Rabbi Paul Laderman z”l who passed away on 8 Tishrei 5776, who was among the disciples of Aaron:
loving peace and pursuing peace, loving human beings and bringing them close to Torah. 

Question from Jeff Gross, asked on Simhat Torah in Jerusalem:

There is a widespread custom for children to march with flags on Simhat Torah. What are the origins and reasons for this custom?

Responsum: Indeed, this is a prevalent custom nowadays, mentioned in many books devoted to the Jewish festivals (see the Bibliography at the end of this responsum). Recently, a lovely catalogue with pictures of seventy flags dating from 1864 until ca. 1985 was published (see Behroozi Baroz).

1) Three Customs

After careful study, I arrived at the conclusion that this custom developed in different ways, and that, essentially, there are three customs:

  1. a) torches and wax candles alone;
  2. b) a combination of flags and candles;
  3. c) flags alone.

Most of the sources cited below are scattered throughout Avraham Yaari’s classic work Toledot Hag Simhat Torah [=The History of the Holiday of Simhat Torah], but I have reorganized the material, added additional sources, and tried to explain the development of the various customs.

  1. A) Torches and wax candles on Simhat Torah

The custom of carrying torches on Simhat Torah is first documented in Izmir, Aleppo, and Jerusalem at the end of the seventeenth century, and gave rise to a major polemic among several important halakhic authorities: Is this custom forbidden or permissible on Yom Tov? Rabbi Isaac son of Rabbi Judah Hakohen, who served as a rabbi first in Jerusalem and then in Izmir, defended this custom, whereas Rabbi Hizkiyah da Silva, author of the Peri Hadash, and Rabbi Hayyim Abulafia outlawed it (This polemic is quoted extensively by Rabbi Hayyim Hizkiyahu Medini, Sedeh Hemed, Vol. 9, “Words of the Sages,” No. 131, Schneersohn edition, p. 3793, and by Yaari, pp. 123-124 and again on pp. 298-299 (and in brief on p. 348). It is also mentioned briefly in Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s glosses to Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 669; Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s Yehaveh Da’at, Part 3, No. 49; Rabbi Menashe Klein’s Mishneh Halakhot, Part 8, No. 217; and Ariel, p. 99).

There is evidence that the Jews of Byzantium, who followed the “Romanian custom”, used to escort the Hattan Torah [bridegroom of the Torah] home with songs and torches in the year 1712 (Yaari, p. 124).

There is an impressive illustration of this custom in Christian scholar Bernard Picart’s classic book, with the caption “The spouses of the Law conducted Home” (Goodman, p. 357, plate 40). This image, which dates from Amsterdamin 1723, shows a mass outdoor procession on Simhat Torah eve, with the procession led by three men carrying torches and illuminating the way.

The 1789 Takkanot [ordinances] of the Ner Tamid society of the Komarno community in eastern Galicia stipulate that every member of the association must bring “a havdalah candle in his hand to encircle the Torah lectern” each Shemini Atzeret eve (Yaari, p. 228, and again on p. 299).

Rabbi Hayyim Hizkiyahu Medini came from Israelto serve as the Av Bet Din [head of the rabbinic court] in the city of Karasu-Bazar in the Crimea in 1867. He related to our custom in his comprehensive encyclopedia Sedeh Hemed (Vol. 9, “The Words of the Sages,” No. 131, Schneersohn edition, pp. 3793-3794 = Yaari, pp. 244 and 352):

In the past… it was customary in this city that on the eve ofSimhat Torah, the elders and leaders of the synagogue would encircle the bimah seven times, with large torches burning in their hands, before those who encircle [the bimah] carrying Torah scrolls in their hands in order to honor the Torah scrolls… But with time, the custom changed, as sons took the place of their fathers, who, in turn, passed the custom on to the smallest children, who would encircle the ark with burning candles in their hands. And I… when I came here and witnessed this last custom and the scandal, impudence, disgrace and confusion that ensued from it, I abolished this custom entirely with the consent of the congregation…

The traveler Yosef Yehudah Chorny described the Hakafot in the community of Akhaltsikhe in the Caucasus in 1869:

During the Hakafot… children walked in front with burning candles and scrolls enveloped in apples and silk scarves… they were followed by young men… with prayer books and burning candles in their hands and they sang liturgical hymns…. They were followed by those carrying the Torah scrolls, who were, in turn, followed by the masses…. (Yaari, p. 299)

This custom also spread to Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe, like the Mattersdorf community in 1925. When they escorted the rabbi, who was the Hattan Torah, to his home after the evening prayers, there were musicians (sic!) and a Huppah, with the rabbi carried beneath it on the shoulders of the young men.

Flanking the procession were young men with torches in their hands and lads with wax candles in their hands. The windows opening into the street were illuminated by candles. This same procession was repeated again the next day following the Musaf service (Yaari, p. 125).

In the Radzin community prior to the Holocaust there was a procession of Jewish soldiers on the eve of Simhat Torah who came to honor Rabbi Aaron-Eliyahu, who saw to their needs. They would “march him in a magnificent procession with candles and torches to the synagogue…” (Yaari, pp. 229-230).

And finally, in Yemen, too, prior to the mass immigration to Israelin 1949, there was a custom involving candles on the eve and the day of Simhat Torah. Rabbi Yosef Kafih writes in Halikhot Teiman(p. 34 = Yaari, p. 329): “The boys and girls in the synagogue would carry burning wax candles in their hands, with or without candlesticks” (On the custom of lighting bonfires on Simhat Torah, see Ben Ezra, p. 128, and Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, Part 2, Jerusalem, 1991, pp. 48-49).

  1. B) Candles stuck in apples, potatoes, or beets on top of flags; or other combinations of flags and candles

Some of the descriptions and pictures of Simhat Torah flags from Eastern Europe depict a flag with an apple and a candle on top. The question is: Why? We have already seen that in Crimea, they passed the custom of candles or torches from adults to children, until Rabbi Hayyim Hizkiyahu Medini abolished it. Perhaps they passed the custom to children because of halakhic opposition from various rabbis. Or perhaps they didn’t want the children to get burnt while holding the candles, as we saw among the Yemenite Jews, so they placed them on top of flags.

The earliest source that mentions flags and candles is theTakkanot [ordinances] of Polish Jews in Amsterdam in 1672 (published by Y.D. Markon in 1929 and quoted by Yaari, p. 246):

On Simhat Torah, lads should not follow the Torah scrolls with their flags, and they should not light any candles at all on their flags at night… but, in the daytime, they may follow the Torah scrolls and light candles on their flags…

Presumably they were concerned about fires at night, and reasoned that it would be easier to control the children in the daytime.

In the community of Lachva (in the marshes of Pinsk or Pulsia) before the Holocaust, it was customary for two “Humash societies” to learn the final Torah portion of Vezot Haberakhah on the eve ofSimhat Torah before the Ma’ariv service, and then they went to the rabbi’s home to escort him to the synagogue. “The children walked while carrying flags illuminated with candles” (Yaari, p. 229, and again on p. 249).

In Dzikov, in western Galicia, the birthplace of Avraham Yaari himself, there were members of the society of craftsmen Poalei Tzedek who would

walk on the eve of Simhat Torah in a procession of torchesfrom the society’s building to the great synagogue, preceded by the flag of the society and flanked by lit torches with the name of the society on their glass panels, and, during the Hakkafot, the torches were placed around the Bimah(Yaari, p. 229).

“In the communities of upper Hungary, the Shamesh [sextant] would distribute to the children candles for their flags after theMinhah service on Shemini Atzeret,” and there are accounts of this custom from the years 1912 and 1924 (Yaari, p. 246).

This was also the custom in the communities of Moravia, according to an account from the year 1878 (Yaari, p. 247).

Likewise, in the old synagogue in Cracow, prior to the Holocaust, there was a combination of flags and torches:

It is the local custom to distribute Havdalah candles to all those called up for a Hakkafah… the Cantor walked at the head [of the Hakkafahwith a flag in his hand, followed by the congregation. Everyone had a Torah scroll in his right hand and a flaming torch in his left (Yaari, p. 299).

Rabbi Yitzhak Lipietz of Shedlitz wrote in 1889 (Sefer Matamim,  Sukkot, No. 142, pp. 65-66 = Yaari p. 247): “The reason that lads carry flags with candles on Simhat Torah during theHakkafot and then provides a homiletic explanation that we will cite below.

Rabbi A.E. Hirshowitz recounts in his classic work Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun: “On Simhat Torah young lads walk at night and in the day with flags (fahness) [=flags, in Yiddish] and on them candles burning (p. 222 = Yaari, p. 247).

The Hebrew writer Daniel Persky was impressed by the Hakkafotwhich he experienced in the magnificent synagogue on Fasanenstrasse in Berlin in 1928. Following the Cantor, who sangAna Hashem Hoshi’ah Na, the esteemed members of the congregation were honored by participating in the Hakkafot.

Behind the esteemed members streamed an organized parade of hundreds of children. They were all dressed uniformly – [like] decorated generals. Their pace was truly militaristic… they lifted their flags with strength as high as their hands could reach. What beautiful and magnificent flags… an apple was stuck atop every flagpole with a candle atop it, as per the custom of the day (Lewinsky, 259).

Similarly, there is a responsum about this custom by Rabbi Shimon Sofer (from before 1934; Hitorerut Teshuvah, Part I, No. 359, referred to by Kahana-Shapira; I have yet to locate it): “Regarding the custom where they give candles to children on Simhat Torah, and they affix them to the tops of their flags”.

Indeed, this custom of a flag with a candle stuck on top is mentioned in many of the books which describe holiday customs (Schauss, p. 197; Lewinsky, p. 283; Lewinsky, Eileh Mo’adei Yisrael, p. 95; Gulnitzky, p. 42; Ben Ezra, pp. 128-129; Singer, p. 244; Ariel, p. 99; Bloch, p. 207; Donin, pp. 101-102; Wassertil, p. 127).

  1. C) Flags alone

The first mention of this custom that I found appears in theTakkanot [ordinances] of the Ashkenazi community in Hamburg-Altona from the year 1726: “It is forbidden for children to bring flags and poles to the synagogue, both on the eve of Simhat Torah and in the day” (published by Greenwald in 1903 and quoted by Yaari, p. 246).

The German theologian Johann Christoph Georg Bodenschatz writes in his classic German book about Jewish customs in the year 1748:

On the eve of Simhat Torah… when the children leave the synagogue, they carry flags (fahnen) in their handsinscribed with the words “flag of the camp” and the names of the tribes ofIsrael:Judah, Simon, Levi, etc. They leave the synagogue in procession, as if they are soldiers, and they cry out jubilantly… (Shalom Sabar in Behroozi Baroz, p. 14, with a reproduction from Bodenschatz on p. 61; Yaari, p. 246).

In the community of Kalisch in the Poznan district of Poland

they preserved in the synagogue archives two ancient flags, one pink and one multi-colored. On the eve of Simhat Torah they would take out these flags from their storage places, and with them the two elders of the community would greet the members of the “societies” who arrived at the synagogue courtyard with song and joy with the Torah scrolls of the “societies” in their hands: The Society of the Guardians of the Faith, the Society of the Early Risers, the societies of craftsmen, such as the tailors, butchers, porters, etc. And the two flag bearers walked at the head of every Hakkafah (Yaari p. 228 with an addition from p. 302).

Here is a description from the Eisenstadt community in 1908:

During the Ma’ariv service, the procession of celebrants would draw near, preceded by a large, sky-blue flag, the flag of the young men’s society Shoharei Tov [Seekers after Goodness], followed by the teenagers of the community lined up in rows… and they participated in the Hakkafot with paper flags in their hands, as in the hands of the young children (Yaari, p. 229).

In the small communities of southern Germanyprior to the Holocaust, “the children who participated in the Hakkafot with small flags and songs, were rewarded with cakes and sweets” (Yaari, p. 246).

In Odessa“in the Great Synagogue and in the Brody Synagogue, they would organize a special ceremony of children dressed in uniforms with flags in their hands at the front of the parade, and they would sing Sissu Vesimhu Besimhat Torah” (Yaari, p. 247).

This custom is also mentioned without elaboration in additional books (Abrahams, p. 32; Pollack, p. 190; Vainstein, p. 125; Wassertil, pp. 81, 127).

Indeed, Simhat Torah flags were very popular in Germany, Eastern Europe, and Israel, and several scholars have collected descriptions and pictures of flags from 1864 until today (See Gulnitzky, plates 41-43; Yaari, pp. 247-248; Goodman, pp. 127-128, 260, 270, 282; and especially the new catalogue by Behroozi Baroz).

2) What is the relationship between these three customs?

The question may be asked: what is the relationship between these three customs? One possibility was hinted at by Donin: The torches gave way to flags with candles on top, which in turn gave way to flags alone because of a fear of conflagration. This is a reasonable explanation, which may fit the chronology of the sources above: We hear about torches alone at the end of the seventeenth century; about flags with candles on top in 1672; and about flags alone in 1726. On the other hand, it is also possible that there was a custom of carrying torches and a custom of carrying flags, and they merged into one custom over the course of time.

3) What is the source of the custom of carrying torches and wax candles on Simhat Torah?

This question has a clear and unequivocal answer. Avraham Yaari explained in his above-mentioned work exactly when and how the last person called up to read Deuteronomy became known as the Hattan Torah and the first person called up to read Genesis became known as the Hattan Bereishit (Yaari, pp. 63ff.) (We will not discuss Yaari and Sperber’s theory that Hattan Torah is a corruption of Hattam Torah [sealer of the Torah]. See Yaari, pp. 64-67 and Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Israel, Part 1,Jerusalem, 1989, pp. 135-137). Over the course of time, these Hattanim [bridegrooms] came to be treated exactly like actual bridegrooms, or, as Yaari writes:

They began to treat them with all sorts of honors with which they treated actual bridegrooms during the seven days following their wedding: They would seat them in an  honorary place in the synagogue, on special chairs or under a Huppah; they would escort them from their homes to the synagogue and from the synagogue to their homes; they would escort them when they were called up to the Torah and when they returned to their seats; they would call up additional people to the Torah to honor them; they would bless them with special blessings…. They would wait for them at the beginning of the prayer service, both at night and in the day, until they arrived; they would chant special piyyutim [liturgical poems] in their honor; they would throw nuts and sweets at them when they were called up to the Torah… They would sprinkle rose water on the congregation in their honor; and more. In summary: the customs that were associated with bridegrooms during the seven days after their wedding were also practiced on Simhat Torah with regard to those who completed and began the Torah, who were crowned with the title “Hattan” (Yaari, p. 119).

Therefore, there is no doubt that the custom of accompanying theHattan Torah and the Hattan Bereishit with torches and candles onSimhat Torah is a direct imitation of the widespread ancient custom of escorting the bride and groom to the Huppah with torches and candles. Avraham Yaari collected many sources about the custom of carrying torches on Simhat Torah, as we have seen above, but he did not explain that this custom stems directly from the wedding custom.

Indeed, this is a very ancient custom, thousands of years older than the custom of carrying candles and torches on Simhat Torah. It was studied by Professor Shmuel Glick and others. Here are some of the basic sources about carrying candles and torches at weddings:

This custom may be hinted at in the book of Jeremiah (25:10): “The sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride, and the sound of the mill and the light of the lamp“. Yonatan ben Uzziel’s Aramaic translation of this verse, which is traditionally thought to have been written in Israel during the first century C.E., may be translated as, “the sounds of groups praising by the light of a lamp“.

This custom is mentioned explicitly in the book of Matthew (25:1-13), which was written in Israel during the first century C.E., in the parable about ten maidens who took candles and went out to greet the bridegroom. It is also hinted at in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ketubot 1:5, fol. 25c, quoted by Glick, p. 100).

In addition, this custom is documented with variations throughout the Jewish world from the eleventh century until our day (In Italy in the eleventh century according to the custom “in the land of Ishmael” (Ha’arukh, s.v. לפד); in Worms ca. 1200 (Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Sefer Harokeah, paragraph 353, p. 239); in Ashkenaz at the end of the thirteenth century (Tashbatz, paragraph 467 [465], Machon Yerushalayim edition, p. 267); in Provence ca. 1300 (Rabbi Aaron Hacohen of Lunel, Orhot Hayyim, Part 2, p. 67); in Spain in the fourteenth century (Hidushei Haranto Sanhedrin 32b); in Mainz ca. 1400 (Minhagei MaharilHilkhot Nissuin, Shpitzer edition, p. 464); in the mid-fifteenth century (Responsa Maharam Mintz, No. 109, Domb edition, p. 539); in Poland ca. 1600 (Mateh MosheHakhnassat Kallah, Part III, Chapter 1, Knobelowich edition, p. 344); in Italy in 1637 (Rabbi Leone Modena, in his Italian work Historia de gli riti hebraici, Paris, 1637 =  The History of the Present Jews throughout the World, 1707, p. 170); in Italy (in Lauterbach quoted by Glick, p. 105); in Worms in the seventeenth century (Glick, p. 103), in Poland in the nineteenth century (Responsa Divrei Malkiel, Part 5, No. 106); and among the Jews of Cochin in the nineteenth century  (Even Sapir, Book II, p. 77)). It appears in eighteenth-century illustrations from Italy and Germany (see Sperber), and it remains a widespread custom to this day (see Adler and Lamm).

4) What is the origin of the custom of carrying flags onSimhat Torah?

This custom has two general sources. On the one hand, on Simhat Torah we march in Hakkafot like soldiers marching in a parade. Indeed, this is quite pronounced in several of the descriptions we quoted above. Similarly, from ancient times until today, soldiers and armies march with flags. This is pronounced both in the general works I have included in the Bibliography below as well as in the depictions of the Exodus from Egypt that appear in illuminated, medieval Haggadot which I included in The Schechter Haggadah a few years ago. Therefore, it is not surprising that Jews began marching with flags on Simhat Torah.

Indeed, this explanation is similar to a homiletic explanation included in several books about customs that try to offer a midrashic explanation of the custom of carrying flags on Simhat Torah. For instance, Rabbi Yitzhak Lipietz of Shedlitz wrote in Sefer Matamim (cited above) in 1889:

And the reason for the flags is to show how, as in military stratagems, flags are carried as a sign of battle, with each camp carrying its own flag, so too we show that our flags and our military stratagems are [related to] the Torah, [for we are] accustomed to the battle of Torah, “and His flag over me was love” (Song of Songs 2:4). (For other explanations of this type, see Hirshowitz and Singer.)

On the other hand, some of the descriptions above emphasize that they marched according to “Societies” – “The Society of the Guardians of the Faith, the Society of the Early Risers, the societies of craftsmen, such as the tailors, butchers, porters, etc. And two flag bearers walked at the head of every Hakkafah” (Yaari p. 228 with an addition from p. 302). Indeed, the medieval guilds also had their own special banners, with illustrations befitting their respective professions (Gordon, p. 20).

And so the Jews in Europe, beginning in 1726, would march with flags on Simhat Torah like soldiers and like guild members.

In summary, the custom of carrying flags on Simhat Torah is apparently based on general customs associated with armies and societies, while the torches and candles are taken directly from the ancient Jewish custom of carrying candles and torches at weddings.

In our own day, Jews no longer march with candles and torches onSimhat Torah, presumably because of fear of conflagration, but children continue to march with flags.

In any case, these lovely customs have helped and continue to help Jews fulfill the words of the piyyut [liturgical poem], “I will rejoice and delight on Simhat Torah“.

David Golinkin


2 Marheshvan 5776


  1. I) Torches, candles and flags on Simhat Torah

Abrahams – Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages,London, 1896, p. 32

Ariel – Z. Ariel, Sefer Hahag Vehamo’ed, Tel Aviv, 1970, p. 99

Behroozi Baroz – Nitza Behroozi Baroz, Hadegalim Shel Simhat Torah: Min Ha’omanut Ha’yehudit Ha’amamit Latarbut Ha’ivrit, Tel Aviv, 2012

Ben Ezra – Akiva Ben Ezra, Minhagei Hagim, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1963, pp. 128-129

Bloch – Abraham Bloch, The Biblical and Historical Background of Jewish Customs and Ceremonies, New York, 1980, p. 207

Donin — R. Hayim Halevy Donin, editor, Sukkot,Jerusalem, 1974, pp. 101-102

Gulnitzky – Heschel Gulnitzky, Bemahzor Hayamim,Haifa, 1963, pp. 42-43

Goodman – Philip Goodman, The Sukkot and Simhat Torah Anthology, Philadelphia, 1973

Hirshowitz — Rabbi Abraham Eliezer Hirshowitz, Sefer Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun, second edition,Lvov 1930, paragraph 65, p. 222

Kafih – Rabbi Yosef Kafih, Halikhot Teiman, third edition,Jerusalem 1982, p. 34

Kahana-Shapira – Rabbi Menahem Nahum Kahana-Shapira, Otzar Hashe’elot Uteshuvot, Vol. 9, Jerusalem, 1992, p. 140

Lewinsky – Yom-Tov Lewinsky, ed., Sefer Hamo’adim,  Vol. 4: Sukkot, Tel Aviv, 1951, pp. 259ff.

Lewinsky – Yom-Tov Lewinsky, Eleh Mo’adei Yisrael, Tel Aviv, 1971, p. 95

Lipietz — Rabbi Yitzhak Lipietz of Shedlitz, Sefer Matamim,Warsaw, 1889, Sukkot, No. 142, pp. 65-66

Pollack – Herman Pollack, Jewish Folkways in Germanic Landsetc., Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1971, p. 190

Schauss – Hayyim Schauss, The Jewish Festivals,Cincinnati, 1938, p. 197

Singer – Rabbi Yehuda Dov Singer, Ziv Haminhagim, third edition, 1975, p. 244

Vainstein — Yaacov Vainstein, The Cycle of the Jewish Year, second edition,Jerusalem, 1971, p. 125

Wassertil – Asher Wassertil, ed., Yalkut Minhagim, third edition,Jerusalem, 1996

Yaari – Avraham Yaari, Toledot Hag Simhat Torah,Jerusalem, 1964

  1. II) Candles and torches at the wedding ceremony

Adler – Rabbi Binyamin Adler, Hanissu’in Kehilkhatam, second edition,Jerusalem, 1985, p. 371

Glick – Shmuel Glick, Or Naga Aleihem, Efrat, 1997, pp. 97-106

Lamm – Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage, San Francisco, 1980, p. 213

Sperber – David Sperber in Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, Part 4, Jerusalem, 1995, pp. 81-82 in the middle of note 8, and pp. 104, 106

III) The history of flags

Bennett — Matthew Bennett, editor, The Medieval World at War,London, 2009, pp. 108, 186, 192

Golinkin – Joshua Kulp and David Golinkin, The Schechter Haggadah, Jerusalem, 2009, pp. 152-160

Gordon  – W.J. Gordon, Flags of the World Past and Present etc., London and New York, 1926

Reiley-Smith – Jonathan Reiley-Smith, editor, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, Oxford and New York, 1995, pp. 43, 51, and between 52-53

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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