The Timing of the Hakafot on Simhat Torah

(OH 669)

Current synagogue practice is to celebrate Hakafot before reading the Torah and Haftorah, afterwards saying Yizkor, Geshem (the prayer for rain) and Musaf. This sequence creates problems of sensitivity for some congregations. First they reach a peak of joyousness: immediately afterwards there is the recollection of close relatives who have died, and the prayer for rain, which are both very serious subjects. The result is an inappropriate atmosphere. May the sequence of prayers be modified in order to improve the situation?

This problem is indeed widespread in the Land of Israel – and only in the Land of Israel. It stems from the fact that the two rituals of a special ending to the cycle of reading the Torah, and Yizkor, developed in the Golah where they were marked on the two successive days of Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah. The sober prayers of Yizkor and Geshem take place on Shmini Atzeret, and the joy and merrymaking of Simhat Torah take place on the following day. In Israel the two days are combined into one, with the results cited by the questioner. There is in fact a technical halakhic problem in that in many congregations the atmosphere of hilarity is such that the desirable sobriety for the Amidah of Musaf cannot be successfully generated. There are three possible solutions:
1. To shift the reading of the Torah and Hakafot to the end of the Service, after Musaf.
2. To shift Yizkor and Geshem to the end of the Service, after Musaf.
3. To shift only the Hakafot to the end of the Service, after Musaf.

1. Although there is a halakhic basis for reading the Torah after Musaf in an emergency, it is a firm, long-established custom that the Torah be read as early as possible after the reading of Shema and the Shaharit Amidah. Thus if another solution can be found it is highly preferable.

2. Halakhically it is permitted to shift Yizkor and Geshem to the end of the Service, after Musaf. The recital of Yizkor altogether on the three festivals in not observed today by many Jewish communities (Western Europe and Sephardim in particular); the Shulhan Arukh does not prescribe it; its first mention anywhere is in the thirteenth century. It could be shifted to the end of the Service. The same is true of the poems which make up Geshem. Customs vary – it is recited after Musaf or in the midst of Musaf or before Musaf. Nevertheless, it is the long-established custom of most congregations to recite Yizkor and Geshem before Musaf.

It is felt that a large majority in most congregations would be unhappy over shifting Yizkor and Geshem to the very end of the Service since it is the long established custom to recite these prayers before Musaf. Furthermore, it would be odd to recite Geshem after Musaf when rain has already been mentioned in the Amidah. Lastly, by the end of Musaf many people leave, are drunk, or are tired and as a result Yizkor and Geshem will still not be recited with the proper dignity.

3. Therefore, it is felt that the simplest solution is to keep the order of the liturgy just as it has been, except for one modification: to shift the Hakafot alone to the end of the Service. This would preserve an air of sobriety until the end, when everyone can happily let go. Halakhically, this solution is preferable for many reasons: Hakafot is the youngest of all the customs discussed here. The custom of reciting Hakafot at the end of Musaf is much older than the Ashkenazi custom of reciting Hakafot before the Torah reading. This is a widespread custom among Sephardic Jews and in Eretz Yisrael. Lastly, there is halakhic precedent for rescheduling hakafot when circumstances warrant it.

Rabbi David Golinkin
Approved Unanimously 5747