Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Hilchot Pluralism, Part VIII: Simchat Torah

The Hilchot Pluralism series documents and analyzes the pluralistic practices that independent Jewish communities are developing.

Read this first:
Back in January 2008, Part VII concluded:
Coming in Part VIII: I don't know. Maybe something with an actual concrete solution?
And it's taken almost 3 years to find something, but now here we are!



We look at Tikkun Leil Shabbat's first ever Simchat Torah celebration (last week), which successfully avoided taking a communal stance on whether or not it was yom tov.

The Broader Issue

This represents an attempt to achieve Stage-3 pluralism on the question of 1-day versus 2-day yom tov. (As we'll see, this solution is of limited generalizability, but still valuable.) This is an issue that will become more and more relevant in the future, due to various trends resulting in more intermingling between 1-day and 2-day people:
  • cross-fertilization between Israel and the Diaspora (including Israelis living in the Diaspora and retaining their 1-day practice, and 2-day Diaspora Jews going to Israel and picking up the 1-day custom there)
  • greater empowerment and education among people coming from 1-day backgrounds who may be more likely to retain their practice when making contact with 2-day Jews
  • potential shifts in practice catalyzed by the upcoming calendar patterns
  • the increased incidence of "shulhopping" (individuals participating regularly in multiple Jewish communities, and thereby having a greater need to define their own practice and identity rather than adopting a single community's practice)
  • the more general trend of pluralistic communities defining themselves along lines other than the established denominational boundaries

Background on Simchat Torah

Contrary to popular belief, there is (technically speaking) no holiday called "Simchat Torah". Simchat Torah is the celebration of the completion of the Torah that typically takes place during the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. (Similarly, there is no holiday called "Seder"; seder is a ritual that takes place on the holiday of Pesach.) Shemini Atzeret is observed on 22 Tishrei (by those who do 1 day of yom tov), or 22 and 23 Tishrei (by those who do 2 days of yom tov). In most cases, communities that observe 1 day have their Simchat Torah celebrations on that one day (22 Tishrei), and communities that observe 2 days have their Simchat Torah celebrations on the second day of Shemini Atzeret (23 Tishrei). Of course, the day on which the Simchat Torah celebration takes place (whichever day that is) is often colloquially referred to as "Simchat Torah", but in more formal contexts (e.g. the kiddush, the Amidah), it is still called "Shemini Atzeret".

While the timing of Simchat Torah celebrations is highly correlated with a community's stance on 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov, there are some exceptions: Some Chasidic communities (and the Carlebach Shul in New York), which do 2 days of yom tov, do hakafot (dancing with the Torah) on both nights of Shemini Atzeret. And for various reasons, some communities that do 1 day of yom tov have their Simchat Torah celebrations on the night that would be the "2nd night", even though it is no longer yom tov for them. In some cities in Israel, you can find "hakafot shniot" (second hakafot) on the night of 23 Tishrei, originally for the benefit of visiting Diaspora Jews who were keeping two days, with musical instruments played by Israelis (who wouldn't play instruments on yom tov, but for whom it is no longer yom tov).

Background on Tikkun Leil Shabbat

Tikkun Leil Shabbat (TLS) is an independent minyan/havurah in the District of Columbia, founded in 2005. As its name suggests, it meets primarily on Friday nights. TLS has also had non-Shabbat services on several special occasions: Purim, selichot, and the second night of Rosh Hashanah. However, before this year, TLS never met on any of the three pilgrimage festivals, and therefore never had to take a stance on 1-day versus 2-day yom tov. (Yes, TLS has had Rosh Hashanah services on the 2nd night, but for reasons beyond the scope of this post, Rosh Hashanah is a separate question from the other holidays.)

TLS is an extraordinarily diverse community, with participants originating in all of the Jewish denominations and non-denominations, and TLS embraces pluralism. One of the constituent communities that merged into the current incarnation of Tikkun Leil Shabbat was the DC Reform Chavurah, which identified as Reform. Though the post-merger TLS has retained no denominational identification, TLS continues to have more participants from Reform backgrounds than most independent minyanim of its vintage. Combined with participants from Reconstructionist and other backgrounds, this means that the TLS community includes a number of 1-day-yom-tov people. They dwell alongside 2-day-yom-tov people, as well as people who don't have a firm position on 1 day vs. 2 days (but would go to a Simchat Torah celebration wherever and whenever the party is happening).

So all this means that the question of 1 day vs. 2 days was an actual question for TLS, unlike for many communities in which the answer is self-evident. It was a question that TLS never had to ask for its first 5 years, but it finally came up this year when TLS decided to do Simchat Torah. And the decision was made to avoid taking a communal stance on the issue.

The easiest way to do this might have been to hold the Simchat Torah event on the night of 22 Tishrei, which everyone agrees is yom tov. This would have been out of the ordinary for the 2-day people, but not objectionable in principle (cf. the Chasidic communities mentioned above that do hakafot on both nights). But among the people who had preferences on this question, more preferred to do it on 23 Tishrei. (And of course, 1-day people are already well-accustomed to compromising on this if they want to go to the happening Simchat Torah events.) And so the decision was made to do "Simchat Torah" on 23 Tishrei, but not take a position on whether or not this night was yom tov.

Here's how it played out in practice:


The event began with the evening service: a yom tov service for some, and a weekday service for others. Everyone davened together, and a packet was made up that had all the prayers for yom tov and for weeknights. The logistics were made immeasurably easier by the fact that the vast majority of liturgical differences between yom tov and weekday ma'ariv are in the Amidah, which is said silently at TLS. There are also a few minor differences in the parts said out loud:
  • "Vehu rachum", at the beginning of the service, is said only on weekdays.
  • Hashkiveinu has different endings for weekdays ("shomeir amo Yisraeil la'ad") and yom tov ("haporeis sukkat shalom...").
  • "Vaydabeir Mosheh", before the Amidah, is said only on yom tov.
  • [Some communities add an extra berachah before the Amidah on weeknights. However, TLS had already established a precedent, through several years of Purim services, of not being such a community.]
And so there was one primary sheliach tzibbur who led only the parts of ma'ariv that are common to both weekdays and yom tov (i.e. everything except the pieces noted above). There were also two helpers in the kahal, one for weekdays and one for yom tov, who loudly said the pieces specific to weekdays and yom tov respectively, leading whoever wished to join them.

What of nusach? The musical modes associated with the time of the day, time of the week, and time of the year situate the entire service in Jewish time. Since the sheliach tzibbur was representing the entire community, neither yom tov nor weekday nusach would have been appropriate, since this would have framed the communal prayer as a yom tov or weekday service. Instead, the sha"tz (when not leading non-nusach melodies) used High Holiday ma'ariv nusach, which some communities use for "Simchat Torah". This is associated with "Simchat Torah" as an event, not with a particular date on the calendar, and so it did not break the calendrical neutrality. (No one in attendance actually believed it was a High Holiday.) The weekday and yom tov helpers used weekday and yom tov nusach for their pieces, as appropriate.

Alternate proposals that were not implemented:
  • Have two simultaneous leaders for the entire service, one for yom tov and one for weekday, diverging when the liturgy diverged and converging the rest of the time. This would have had the advantage of each leader leading a coherent service from start to finish. However, having co-leaders tends to be clunkier, since the leaders can't make adjustments in the moment without conferring with each other, and the differences between yom tov and weekday ma'ariv (listed above) were not significant enough to warrant this layer of complexity.
  • Have one leader lead the whole service according to his/her own custom (weekday or yom tov), and one helper fill in the pieces for the other custom. After all, one might say, isn't this consistent with the principle in Part IV that the sheliach tzibbur need not represent the entire community, but simply one facet of the community's diversity? No, I think this case is different, because the framing of the service as a weekday service or a yom tov service (even if the differences in the words are small, outside the Amidah) is an act of much greater magnitude than differences here and there in the words of a service that has a communally agreed shared framing (e.g. as a Shabbat service). Furthermore, since almost no one there had any prior experience participating in a service where it was explicitly unstated whether or not it was yom tov, it would be much harder to convey this message through mere explanations than through actions. If the sha"tz led a [weekday | yom tov] service, people would walk away with the impression (correct or not) that the community was acknowledging [1 | 2] days of yom tov. It's not like going to a service where you hear the imahot included in shacharit and excluded in musaf, and you come to the conclusion that the community doesn't have a stance on the issue; in this case, the next opportunity to correct this impression wouldn't have been until next year.

Everything Else

After ma'ariv, there weren't really any other times when the yom tov / weekday issue had to be finessed; the rest of the event was fully compatible with both. The Simchat Torah celebration took place in one of TLS's regular Shabbat locations, so it was in walking distance for whomever TLS is usually in walking distance for.

Some of the hakafot were accompanied by musical instruments, and some were not. However, this wasn't explicitly a compromise between the 1-day and 2-day yom tov positions. After all, TLS's Friday night services alternate between instruments and a cappella, and everyone agrees that it is Shabbat. There are some people who attend only one type of service, but most attend both (though they may prefer one over the other). Thus, the yom tov vs. weekday question didn't really come up in the deliberations over instruments, except in that some people thought it was yom tov, and some of those people wouldn't go if there were instruments on yom tov (or would prefer no instruments on yom tov), and this was a reason for having some of the event without instruments. (I'm not aware of anyone who wouldn't go if there were instruments on yom tov, but didn't think it was yom tov that night. But maybe there were such people.) But, given that instruments are already not expressly forbidden at TLS on Shabbat, there were many other arguments both for and against instruments that had nothing to do with whether or not it was yom tov, and in the end this resulted in splitting the difference.

Torah was read. Yes, it's weird for 1-day yom tov people to read Torah on a day that isn't yom tov (or Shabbat, or Monday, Thursday, Rosh Chodesh, etc.). On the other hand, Simchat Torah is weird in general. There's a sense in general that this celebration of Torah is so exuberant that many of the usual rules and conventions of Torah reading are suspended. The most prominent example is that many communities never read Torah at night, except as part of their Simchat Torah celebration. (TLS is one such community. In fact, since TLS has only had evening services, this was TLS's first time reading Torah!) In this spirit, reading Torah on that night was entirely appropriate (or festively inappropriate) for everyone.

The evening didn't include any official kiddush or havdalah, but could have included both if desired, whether simultaneously, sequentially, or interwoven (and there were drinks available, and people could have done either for themselves).

Scope and Generalizability

A number of factors conspired to make this solution feasible, and at the same time limit its generalizability to other communal events on days with disputed status:
  • Davening wasn't the focus of the event; it was just a warmup for the main event (hakafot and Torah reading).
  • It was an evening service, so the Amidah is silent, and the overall structure of the service is almost identical for weekdays and yom tov.
  • "Simchat Torah" allowed for a creative resolution to the nusach question.
  • TLS does not meet every Shabbat, and does not meet on most holidays; this was a special event.
So the specifics of this solution are generalizable to other Simchat Torah celebrations on the night of 23 Tishrei, and with some adjustments, to other ma'ariv services and perhaps minchah too (particularly with a "heicha kedushah"). Beyond that, it gets more complicated. Communities that meet regularly for yom tov services (particularly morning services) and want to maintain a neutral stance on the number of days of yom tov have a more difficult task ahead of them (though the 2nd days of Sukkot and Pesach are a little bit easier because of the shared material between yom tov and chol hamo'ed services). Options might include offering multiple simultaneous service options (particularly if the disputed day is on Shabbat, when the community would be having services whether or not it is yom tov), or having a service on the 2nd day but making it clear that this represents only a segment of the community (while the 1-day observers are presumably going to work anyway). Other creative solutions are yet to be developed, but are likely to see much exploration in the years to come. Please leave a comment if you know of others.


Now taking requests for Part IX.


  1. "TLS has also had non-Shabbat services on several special occasions: Purim, selichot, and the second night of Rosh Hashanah."

    And a Tikkun Leil Shavuot 5769 with the Adas Trad Egal minyan. TLS was responsible for the maariv service at the beginning(with dvar tikkun); we co-organized the workshops thru the night' and Adas Trad Egal & Zoo Minyan had a sunrise service at the end in which those who stayed through the night (or came back) participated.

  2. Ok, I stand corrected. TLS has previously met on one of the pilgrimage festivals, but not in a way that forced taking a stance on 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov.

    (What does a joint Adas Trad Egal + Zoo Minyan service look like?)

  3. Great writeup BZ! Assuming that the service alternates between the 22nd and 23rd of Tishrei in the years this approach is a stage III solution. If simchat torah celebrations always happen on the 23d--or even just the next time--it can be (reasonably) concluded that TLS has taken a position and is attempting to blunt the impact on those whose position has not been accepted.

  4. One point I didn't emphasize in the post:

    The fact that there was any consideration of nusach marks this as Stage-3 discourse. In Stage 1, it would be difficult for anyone to claim with a straight face that a particular nusach was forbidden or compulsory (not that they wouldn't try), but that conversation becomes more coherent through the lens of communal identity and which individual identities are included within it.

  5. ZT writes:
    If simchat torah celebrations always happen on the 23d--or even just the next time--it can be (reasonably) concluded that TLS has taken a position and is attempting to blunt the impact on those whose position has not been accepted.

    I wouldn't draw that conclusion. As long as "Simchat Torah" is explicitly decoupled from yom tov, the timing of the Simchat Torah celebration has no bearing on how many days of yom tov are recognized by the community. TLS might have even decided to hold its "Simchat Torah" event on Friday night, 24 Tishrei (in keeping with TLS's usual meeting time of Friday night), but that wouldn't mean that TLS has decided that yom tov has 3 days.

    (Actually, that wouldn't be the worst idea. But then do you do a full kabbalat shabbat or not?)

  6. Why did you opt on not holding kiddush/havdalah (semi) communally? Would you have transfered flame to initiate havdallah to keep that yomtov status unresolved?

  7. DL writes:
    Why did you opt on not holding kiddush/havdalah (semi) communally?

    I think the reasons were more practical than ideological.

    Would you have transfered flame to initiate havdallah to keep that yomtov status unresolved?

    No flame is needed for havdalah at the end of yom tov (that isn't Shabbat).

  8. I don't think I was awake enough to form a clear memory of the morning service (other than of people sleeping on the floor in the back). I think it looks like Shalom leading part of the service in his Zoo-Minyan style.

  9. Interesting thought I just had, although only tangentially related to original post.

    Why do 2-day communities flip their standard service practice for SA/ST? On the final days of Pesach and Shavuot the 1-day Torah reading is said the first day, and Aser Ta'aser and Yizkor is said on the second day. However, on SA it's flipped with Aser Ta'aser and Yizkor on the 1st day and the 1-day reading on the 2nd day. SA is slightly different from the other two in that it's safek sukkot and safek SA, while the others are only one holiday, but that doesn't really answer the question since we do make hard distinctions in musaph rather than continiously sliding one day in the sacrifice section(including 2nd day yt and ST).

    If 2-day YT people flipped their practice for SA/ST then this question would be much simpler with everyone agreeing to celebrate ST on the 1st night 2-day people being free to go elsewhere for the 2nd night. Of course if you met in the morning then the question of yizkor would return.

  10. @BZ You make a good argument that S.T. is a specific ritual and not necessarily part of shmini atzeret. Most, i suspect, would prefer not to decouple them. In this case the 2-dayers preferred their standard minhag and it was implemented. Consistently choosing the 23rd expects 1-dayers to re-contextualize simchat torah in a way different from what is asked of 2-dayers. Seems to me that a stage III community wouldn't expect that burden to be entirely shouldered by one segment of the community.The community ought to occasionally schedule ST such that it comports optimally with 1-day practice also(at least some percentage of the time).

  11. De-coupling yomtov and Simchat Torah is tricky. Shouldn't you consider where and when Simchat Torah practice emerged? Did it emerge outside of Israel? I am unsure but --

    If that's the case, there is a very old precedence of moving the date of Simchat Torah festivities to yomtov in Palestine/Israel. I am curious of the origin of that; and if there was any responsa/practice of celebrating on the 23rd when the custom was originally imported.

  12. ZT writes:
    Seems to me that a stage III community wouldn't expect that burden to be entirely shouldered by one segment of the community.The community ought to occasionally schedule ST such that it comports optimally with 1-day practice also(at least some percentage of the time).

    In principle, you're right, and I would love to see that happen sometime in the future. However, thinking strategically, I'm not sure it's prudent to press this point.

    While 1-day yom tov people in the pluralistic and non-denominational Jewish world are accustomed to having to be cognizant of other practices on this issue (and accustomed to being in contexts where they are in the minority), this is a new experience for 2-day people in that world, who are accustomed to majority privilege. They may not be ready yet to take that step. And if they aren't, then their response to "If you always schedule Simchat Torah for 23 Tishrei, then you might as well call yourself a 2-day yom tov community" might be "All right, then I guess we're a 2-day yom tov community." Give them time.

    That said, one neutral-ish way of scheduling a Simchat Torah celebration might be to look at other factors entirely independent of the 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov calendar. For example, one argument brought up this year in favor of doing TLST on Thursday night, 23 Tishrei, was that the people who don't have an opinion about 1-day vs. 2-day but are more attuned to the rhythm of the week than to the Jewish calendar would be (all things being equal) more inclined to go out on a Thursday night than on a Wednesday night. So that rationale would also support putting a Simchat Torah celebration on 23 Tishrei again next year (once again Thursday night), but on the other hand, maybe it would be better to schedule it on 22 Tishrei the following year, if Sunday night is better than Monday night.

  13. (Of course, all that assumes that TLS is planning to do Simchat Torah again in the future. I have no idea whether that's the case.)

  14. De-coupling yomtov and Simchat Torah is tricky. Shouldn't you consider where and when Simchat Torah practice emerged? Did it emerge outside of Israel? I am unsure but --

    I'm pretty sure it started in Babylonia, where they had the annual cycle of Torah reading. (Israel was still on the (real) triennial cycle in those days.) The first hint of this is in Megillah 31a, where it says they read Vezot Haberachah on the second day of Shemini Atzeret.

    If that's the case, there is a very old precedence of moving the date of Simchat Torah festivities to yomtov in Palestine/Israel. I am curious of the origin of that; and if there was any responsa/practice of celebrating on the 23rd when the custom was originally imported.

    Does anyone know when Israel switched over to the annual cycle? I think it's highly unlikely that they did Simchat Torah on 23 Tishrei (i.e. not on yom tov) at that point. The only cases I'm aware of where 1-day Jews have scheduled Simchat Torah celebrations on 23 Tishrei have been cases in which those 1-day Jews were coexisting with 2-day Jews (whether in the Diaspora or in modern Israel).

  15. davidsaysthings wrote (at another post):
    It strikes me that this puts people who come in without their mind made up about whether it is yom tov or a weekday in an odd position.

    If they don't know what's going on, they may end up praying along with the shatz and the helpers. This forces them into an intellectually ridiculous position without them even knowing that they've been forced into such a position.

    This possibility was foreseen, and to avoid putting people into this odd position, an announcement was made at the beginning of the service:

    "Welcome to the first ever TLS Simchat Torah celebration! Tonight's festivities begin with ma'ariv, the evening service. TLS is a diverse community that includes people who think that festivals have 1 day and tonight is a weeknight at the conclusion of the holiday, people who think that festivals have 2 days and tonight is the second night of yom tov, and people who don't have a strong opinion one way or the other. Therefore, tonight's service includes options for people who hold all these different positions. There are minor differences in the prayers depending on whether tonight is yom tov or a weeknight, and these differences are marked in the packets. All are invited to follow your own customs, or choose a new custom. [Homer] will be leading the parts of the service that are common to everyone, [Marge] will be leading the pieces for weekdays, and [Maggie] will be leading the pieces for yom tov."

    And then another announcement was made before the Amidah, directing people to the two Amidah options.

    So I hope people weren't thrown off too much. (I doubt anyone said more than one Amidah.) Readers, if you were at TLST and were in this situation, what was your experience like?

  16. One interesting thing to note: the Israeli all-Hebrew Koren מחזור לשלוש רגלים says in its post-arvit instructions on p. 32: בשמיני עצרת (בחו"ל גם בשמחת תורה) עורכים הקפות. This is the hassidic minhag, still followed by Chabad; according to this footnote http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/1288671/jewish/Hakafot.htm#footnote2a1288671 some communities also observe hakafot on Shemini Atzeret morning. So while it would be an uncommon custom for non-hasidim to do hakafot on Shemini Atzeret eve, it is not unprecedented.

  17. Another solution I propose to the "nusach question" is to take a cue from the Eastern Sephardic (Jerusalem/Aleppo) tradition, and use a mode that has a stronger association with a simha (in this case, Simhat Torah) than with either YT or hol. In this case, it would be Maqam `Ajam... which is really just a diatonic major scale, just like the Ashkenazic HH nusach, so... yeah.

    Incidentally, Chabad-Lubavitch communities use HH nusach for YT generally, including ST.