The New Year begins with the celebration of a new annual Torah reading cycle. Torah scrolls, which are beloved and revered sacred objects, are danced with and paraded around like a bride or groom. Everyone has a chance to touch and look inside a Torah to celebrate and be inspired by the root of Jewish wisdom. At the conclusion of this long stretch of holidays there is a last hurrah: a Biblical holiday called Sh’mini Atzeret that brings people together one last time before the next major holiday—Passover (which is six months away!). The big break between Sukkot and Passover was necessary for the ancient Israelites because it covered the bulk of the rainy season when it was difficult to travel to a central location, like Jerusalem, to celebrate en masse.
In medieval times, another holiday, called Simhat Torah—literally, the joy of Torah—was added to this cluster of holidays. In Jewish communities where all five books of the Torah are read publicly over the course of a year (on Saturday mornings) it is customary to conclude the annual reading cycle (the end of Deuteronomy) and begin again (with Genesis) without a break in between. This is done in a celebratory atmosphere that includes singing, dancing with the Torah and intoxicating beverages.
In communities where Sh’mini Atzeret and Simhat Torah are combined, this year’s celebration begins at sunset September 30 to nightfall on October 1. In communities that celebrate them as separate holidays, Sh’mini Atzeret is on October 1 and Simhat Torah on October 2. The JCCSF is open these days.
Sh’mini Atzeret: Begins at sunset: September 30 // Observed: October 1
Simhat Torah: Begins at sunset: October 1 // Observed: October 2