Prepared by Rabbi Amy Levin

Please note that this is not an official responsum of the CJLS.

The intention of this letter of guidance is to address liturgical issues that arise in the observance of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah in the home and in community. See the letter of guidance on lulav and etrog and on sukkah.

Our Conservative/Masorti communities exist in a set of widely divergent realities: even within North America, COVID-19 statistics vary dramatically from state to state, from county to county, from urban to suburban to rural setting. Our communities in Latin America, Europe and Israel are all seeking guidance on how best to observe with joy the upcoming festivals of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah while observing local rules and guidelines.

In addition to the diversity of our geographic locations, it is also the case that among Conservative/Masorti communities even within the same country a wide range of policies have been adopted in response to the challenges of the coronavirus: some congregations have created purely virtual experiences during weekdays and some during weekdays and Shabbat and yom tov. Some congregations have gone “hybrid” with a core minyan (with masks and social distancing) in their prayer spaces while others in the community participate through livestreaming or Zoom. Yet other congregations have eschewed all virtual options and have reconfigured their inside and outside spaces to conform to local regulations while continuing to observe traditional halakhic guidelines for Shabbat and Yom Tov observance.

Before addressing a set of specific halakhic concerns, one point should be made at the outset: This year, no community, anywhere in the world, should be gathering in an enclosed space during Simhat Torah to dance and sing together. The combination of loud group singing, the physical exertion of dancing and the natural proximity of those dancing each raise the likelihood of spreading this virus to dangerous levels … taken together these actions would create a situation that no responsible congregational leadership should contemplate for a moment. Even holding hakafot outside raises serious concerns for the well-being of all those present.

In Place of Singing and Dancing Together

How might we express our joy in the presence of Torah in our lives when the persistence of this pandemic demands that we forgo our usual exuberant celebrations? 

Community Resources for Individuals and Families at Home

Online technologies generally available to our communities do not support enjoyable group singing. While frustrating for those who would like to create an online version of hakafot for Simhat Torah, the current reality prods us to think creatively about how to express the joy we have in our Torah. What follows are a few suggestions for alternative methods of expressing and sharing simhah. This is not a comprehensive list, but rather, I hope, a catalyst for some creative thinking and planning within your own community:

  1. Distribute an online songsheet, preferably with links to audio files, so that all community members can sing the songs that normally enhance the hakafot.
  2. Have clergy, teachers, leadership and members send in a short video: “my favorite verse in the Torah is …… because …….”  Share the videos through email to the members and/or create a link to a Facebook page and/or page on the community’s website where all the videos can be accessed.
  3. Schedule a community-wide Zoom meeting [before or after Simhat Torah for those communities which do not engage in online programming during hagim] during which the community celebrates Torah together. A few possibilities: share recipes using foods mentioned in the Torah, read an original poem (or even a limerick!) about a favorite biblical story, hold a Torah quiz, find people to chant the same few verses in Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Moroccan or other Torah tropes, have a sofer/soferet demonstrate how a scroll is written or repaired.
  4. Invite recent b’nai/b’not mitzvah to share the name of their parashah and chant a few verses from their Torah readings.
  5. Run a Torah acrostic contest where members submit an acrostic of the word “Torah” (or “Simhat Torah”) that highlights the significance of Torah, values established in the Torah, a cherished passage or person in the Torah.
  6. Create a “Simhat Torah Reader” distributed as a .pdf file containing the texts from D’varim and Breishit that are read on Simhat Torah and include engaging, accessible commentaries to enhance the experience of readers at home.  Sources for such commentaries might include:


Just as communal Simhat Torah celebrations need to be modified, communal hoshanot, with their processions and singing, also require reshaping.

משנה סוכה ד,ה

מִצְוַת עֲרָבָה כֵּיצַד, מָקוֹם הָיָה לְמַטָּה מִירוּשָׁלַיִם, וְנִקְרָא מוֹצָא. יוֹרְדִין לְשָׁם וּמְלַקְּטִין מִשָּׁם מֻרְבִּיּוֹת שֶׁל עֲרָבָה, וּבָאִין וְזוֹקְפִין אוֹתָן בְּצִדֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וְרָאשֵׁיהֶן כְּפוּפִין עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. תָּקְעוּ וְהֵרִיעוּ וְתָקָעוּ. בְּכָל יוֹם מַקִּיפִין אֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ פַּעַם אַחַת, וְאוֹמְרִים, אָנָּא ה’ הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא, אָנָּא ה’ הַצְלִיחָה נָּא. רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר, אֲנִי וָהוֹ הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא. וְאוֹתוֹ הַיּוֹם מַקִּיפִין אֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים.

Mishnah Sukkah 4:5

How was the commandment of “willow” observed? There was a place below Jerusalem, it was called Motza. They would go down there and pick quantities of willows, and they would come and stand them along the sides of the altar [in the Temple]. The heads [of the willows] would be bent over the altar. They would sound t’kiya and t’rua and t’kiya [on the shofar]. Each day they would make one circuit around the altar and they would say, “Please, God, redeem us, please God prosper us.” Rabbi Yehudah said, “I and ‘vaho” save us!” And on the same day they would circuit the altar seven times.

The “hoshanot” recited on Sukkot thus are a practice originating in the celebrations of Sukkot in the Temple in Jerusalem. The practice was transferred to the synagogue, where a circuit would be made around the Torah-reading table. The Mishnah Brurah suggests the Torah-reading table in the synagogue (תרס, א: ס”ת על הבימה ולהקיפה וכו’ – שהיא נשארת לנו במקום מזבח) may be considered a stand in for the altar — which was the original focal point of the hoshanot at the Temple.

Given the origins and associations of this practice, the following options may be adopted by congregations or shared with individuals who will be praying in their homes:

  1. In the case of a congregation meeting in their own prayer space during Sukkot [following local guidelines and requirements] the “hoshanot” should be recited in minimal form,* one circuit around the amud each day of the festival with no additional singing or dancing.
  2. Individuals praying in their own homes should not feel obligated to recite the hoshanot.
  3. An entirely virtual minyan, in which no one is present in the communal prayer space, in which the Torah reading is chanted out of a humash, need not feel obligated to recite the hoshanot.
  4. However, either individuals or a virtual minyan they may rely on the Ben Ish Hai Hilkhot Shanah A: Ha’azinu 15 “It seems to me that if someone is sick and cannot go to synagogue  to circle, may place a tanakh on a chair at home, and circle it, so as not to cancel the mitzvah of circling.” If one of the members of the minyan is present in the synagogue, they may open the ark and bring a torah scroll to the amud. Special thanks to Rabbi Joshua Heller for providing the citation of the Ben Ish Hai and the engaging option that source offers.
  5. A hybrid minyan, in which there is a minyan physically present in the prayer space and others participate virtually, should recite the hoshanot in minimal form.

Suggested minimal form:

לְמַעַנְךָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ הוֹשַׁע נָא:   לְמַעַנְךָ בּוֹרְאֵנוּ הוֹשַׁע נָא:

לְמַעַנְךָ גּוֹאֲלֵנוּ הוֹשַׁע נָא:   לְמַעַנְךָ דּוֹרְשֵׁנוּ הוֹשַׁע נָא:

הוֹשִׁיעָה אֶת עַמֶּךָ וּבָרֵךְ אֶת נַחֲלָתֶךָ וּרְעֵם וְנַשְּׂאֵם עַד הָעוֹלָם:


Simhat Torah

Congregations meeting in their own prayer spaces, following local guidelines for masks and social distancing may want to consider a few options for shortening the service and limiting the opportunities for prolonged contact between worshippers, clergy and staff.

Torah Reading

After describing the normative practice on Simhat Torah morning of taking three scrolls out of the aron kodesh, reading the end of “vezot haberakhah” from one, the beginning of “bereishit” from another and the maftir aliyah from parashat Pinhas from the third, Daniel Goldschmidt goes on to describe earlier established practice:

…והנה במקורות עתיקים יותר, בסידורי הגאונים רב עמרם ורב סעדיה, אינו קיים המנהג, אלא מוציאים רק שני ספרים וקוראים בראשון ׳וזאת הברכה׳ ובשני ׳ביום השמיני׳.  תלמידי רש״י הם הראשונים שרשמו ענין ג׳ ספרים (מחזור ויטרי עמ׳ 458, וסדור רש״י עמ׳ 148), ומכאן ואילך הוא מופיע כסדר קבוע במקורות. אבל כנראה מטעם ההלכה היה מקום רק לשתי קריאות, כמו בכל ימי החג, ורק על פי אגדה הנהיגו להתחיל התורה ביום שסיימו אותה …״    (דניאל גולדשמידט, מחקרי תפילה ופיוט, עמ׳ 397)

“… and here in older sources, in the prayer books of the geonim Rav Amram and Rav Saadiah, the custom [of reading from three scrolls] does not exist, rather they take out only two scrolls and read from the first ‘vezot haberakhah’ and from the second ‘b’yom hashemini.’  The students of Rashi were the first to record the issue of three scrolls (Mahzor Vitry, page 458, and Siddur Rashi, page 148), and from here on in it appears as set practice in the sources.  But apparently from the halakhic perspective there was room for only two readings, as in all the days of the festival, and only according to aggadah did they adopt the custom of beginning the Torah on the day they concluded it….”  (Daniel Goldschmidt, Studies in Prayer and Piyyut [Hebrew], Magnes Press, 1980, page 397)

Professor Goldschmidt then goes on to remark that the earlier practice he describes is still the practice of “Benei Roma”, the deeply rooted Jewish community in Rome. In that community, the reader who concludes the book of Deuteronomy then holds that scroll and by heart chants the opening verses of Genesis up to “and it was evening and it was morning, the first day.”

For congregations meeting in their own prayer spaces, adopting this practice may help shorten the time they are together and reduce opportunities for contact. See the letter of guidance on Torah reading for assistance in how to run the Torah reading.

Hatan/Kallat Torah/Bereishit

The special honor of Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereishit are later developments (and, of course, Kallat Torah and Kallat Bereishit later still). Rabbi Daniel Sperber traces the term Hatan Torah on the basis of the work of Avraham Ya’ari (Toldot Hag Simhat Torah). There Ya’ari quotes a North African rabbinic leader from the mid-16th century:

״ואחר כך עולה החמישי שהוא המשלים … כדי לחתום התורה, וקורין אותו חתם תורה, ויש שקורין אותו חתן תורה.  ואם יש לאל ידו עושה סעודה לאוהביו ורעיו על שחתם התורה.״

[רי יששכר ב״ר מרדכי ן׳ סוסאן, קושטאנדינא, שכ״ד]

“And afterwards, the fifth comes up, and this is the “completer” … in order to complete [the reading] of the Torah, and they call him Hatam Torah, and there are those who call him Hatan Torah. And if he has the resources, he makes a festive meal for his loved ones and friends in honor of his completing [the reading] of the Torah.”

[Rabbi Issachar Bar Rabbi Mordechai N’ Susan, Constantinople, 1564]

It is worth noting that the Siddur of Rav Saadia Gaon (9th-10thc) has no acknowledgement of the special status of this reader and has no version of a special text to be read calling this reader to the Torah.

We can comfortably consider the practice of honoring people as Hatan/Kallat Torah and Breishit a deeply-rooted and beloved custom, but not a halakhic requirement. A community forming a minyan, and reading directly from the scrolls (whether services are only face to face or whether the congregation is offering a hybrid model) may still honor members of the community as Hatan/Kallat Torah and Bereishit, or may legitimately forgo these honors this year. Even if making these designations, in the name of shortening services, the traditional, elaborate text calling these honorees may be eschewed.

Group Aliyot

In order to engage all present in the joy and the honor of being called to the Torah, it has become a treasured tradition in many, or not most, congregations, to call everyone present to the Torah on the morning of Simhat Torah. This often involves calling up a group of people at once in order not to burden the community with a burdensome prolonged service [calling up “all the kohanim” or “all the high school kids” or “all the members of the board” …]. 

Community leaders bear the responsibility of protecting the health and well-being of the members of the congregation and all those the members are in contact with. Regretfully, the current reality of a world in pandemic dictates that we impose a new “choreography” for group aliyot … although a case could be made for forgoing the practice entirely this year.

If a community is praying in its own space, it is not acceptable to have a group come crowding up to the table. Having one representative approach the scroll and recite the brakhot (while the reader steps away) and having the others in that group stand in place in their seats (or at their homes if they are participating in one of the virtual formats) is certainly an option. This is reminiscent of the practice in many families in which all first degree relatives stand while one of their number is called to the Torah under more normative circumstances.

There are congregations designing Torah reading practices that forgo having the person being “called to the Torah” from getting closer than 10 feet or so from the reader. These considerations need to be discussed and formulated by the leaders of each congregation on the basis of their local restrictions and realities.

In Conclusion

In these opening weeks of 5781, we are called upon to look beyond our usual practices during Sukkot and Simhat Torah … practices which might literally endanger the lives of our community members and their loved ones and friends. But God has blessed us with creativity,  determination and persistence. Harnessing all these powers, we can fulfill the mitzvah of ושמחת בחגך … “you will rejoice during your festivals.”

[September 25, 2020]