Simchat Torah: Memories and meaning

  • doscel3
I have strong memories of Simchat Torah as a little girl. I spent it with my grandfather who was a gentle, open-minded Orthodox Jewish educator in Johannesburg. We would walk up the hill to his shul together.
by ADINA ROTH | Oct 19, 2017

Images abound: I remember drunk men lying in the plants while my grandfather hissed under his breath about their lack of decorum. I remember naughty boys pouring water down the chazzan’s tallis, and I remember the lavish spread of food, including mock crayfish salad which the ladies put out for the brocha.

But mostly, I remember it as a time when the women were allowed to descend from upstairs and  take part in the frivolities. They didn’t dance with the Torah or anything, but for some period of the evening, the women joined the men for the Simchat Torah rumpus. 

And then, shul would continue and the women would return upstairs. I even recall the chairman calling loudly one year for a particularly belligerent woman to please return upstairs, and when “she” turned around, it was a man wearing a wig which produced loud guffaws.

But my sister and I, still under batmitzvah, could remain in the safe presence of my grandfather as he davened, so proud of his little granddaughters by his side.

As a post-batmitzvah teen, Simchat Torah took on an altogether different hue. It became the holiday where I just sat out and in a way, tuned out. I don’t remember thinking that it would be nice if the women danced or had a Torah. Such ideas were not even in my consciousness.

It was only as a university student that I woke up to an interest to participate in the festivities and ritual on offer. It wasn’t, as some accused me, that I was trying “to be one of the men”. It was about connecting to G-d through dancing and singing and prayer; a spiritual embodiment.

Nowhere is this exclusion from spiritual experience felt more painfully than on Simchat Torah in an Orthodox shul. The typical scene of men dancing and singing with the Torah while women sit on the sidelines, does not honour the dignity of our communities and I know many, many women who choose to stay at home for the chag.

In private homes in Johannesburg there have been beautiful, meaningful halachic women’s gatherings where women dance with the Torah and do hakafot and leyning. But there remains a split between what happens in Orthodox shuls in Johannesburg, even with halachic solutions available, and this effort outside the synagogue space.

So, I was excited to hear this year of an Orthodox shul in Johannesburg that was going to create a space for women on Simchat Torah. I went with my husband, son and daughter. This shul boasts a warm, down-to-earth community and a strong commitment to engagement with wider social and political issues in South Africa.

After Ma’ariv, the rabbi stood up and explained that following the halachic ruling of Rabbi Riskin in Efrat, the women would have their own space to celebrate their connection to Torah, to do the hakafot, to dance and to sing.

He explained the halachic validity of his position and he mentioned that there would also be a Torah for the women. After we heard Kiddush as a community, we women went to this “room of our own”.

In this room, we found a beautiful tray with wine and whisky glasses, whisky and wine, a set of song sheets in Hebrew and transliteration, and a dignified Aron with a Torah inside waiting for us.

We had a quick le’chaim. And then we started. It was a community of mixed Jewish backgrounds. But South Africa has strong roots in the Zionist youth movements and everyone knew a set of traditional songs. And so we sang: David Melech Yisrael, Zion Zion Zion, Oseh Shalom. And everyone danced: horahs and stamping, and waving our arms and slow, Chassidic meditative circles.

It was simple and it was rhythmic and it was spirited and it was beautiful. The sounds rippled through the room and floated through the walls, making their way outwards as a gift to the night watchman and the witnessing stars, and winding their way inwards towards our hearts.

For many women, it was incredibly emotional. They had never touched a Torah before, let alone held one. When I was given the Torah to hold, my daughter who had maintained a little circle of horahs around the Torah the whole time, ran up to me and said: “Mommy, I want to hold it with you.”. She is seven and so she put her arms on the base of the Torah and I held the body and we moved around in the centre of the circle slowly, looking at the Torah and at each other.

At seven years old, my daughter does not idealise me. She thinks the food I cook is disgusting. She thinks her friend’s moms have better fashion sense than me. If she doesn’t think something I am doing is “cool”, she won’t do it. 

But that night, she recognised of her own little mind that dancing with the Torah was a very special thing. On Simchat Torah night, surrounded by a throng of 50 women who came to Jewish life in a way that perhaps they never had before, my little girl learned one of the most valuable lessons of all; that her connection with the Torah matters, that it is right and normal.

Indeed, honouring the spiritual longings of our full community is tikkun olam, it is part of the rectification of the world; the restoration of goodness and love and joy. It is the very essence of feminine spirituality, a homecoming of the Shechinah. 

This will be her memory of Simchat Torah when she is older and she will make sure that it is also the memory for her children one day. Our world is changing.



  1. 7 Herschel Jawitz 19 Oct
    Great to hear and read!
  2. 6 lynette 19 Oct
    thankyou Adina 
    in uplifting read 
    I stayed home but next year will try to do something 
  3. 5 Aaron B 20 Oct
    Interesting story, meaningful childhood. 

    Also interesting that the name of the shul isn't mentioned ... if it's halchicly correct why not advertise the progressive nature as I'm sure there are many "modern" women who are searching for a shul that gives them more meaning?

    Any chance you can continue this story with the Chief Rabbi publishing the Rabbinic source for finding this loophole after 5778 years.  That way all shuls can empower their women in this way.
  4. 4 Josh 21 Oct
    If women want to celebrate this way - no problem - but then go to a Conservative or Reform Shul.
    This is not correct in an Orthodox Shul - the Shul referred to in the article is more Conservative than Orthodox anyway and should not be considered as an example of Orthodoxy in Johannesburg.
  5. 3 BM Newman 21 Oct
    9Would be very keen to hear our Chief Rabbi's as well as the UOS take on this. Please get their responses.
  6. 2 Ryan 22 Oct

    Unfortunately the "Orthodox" Shul mentioned in this article is run by a group of feminists supported by their captured Rabbi who are trying to justify changing Orthodox laws and customs by quoting "Orthodox" Rabbi's making pronouncements without any legitimacy. The Rabbi mentioned in the article has no authority to make any Halachic rulings. Unfortunately this Johannesburg "Orthodox" Shul has become more Reform and as such should openly admit it rather than try to change Orthodox laws and customs which are non-negotiable.

  7. 1 Sheri B 22 Oct
    Just Google Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and then Adina Roth. Enough said!


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