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Jewish holiday for 'rejoicing in the law'


For even the most pious Jew, there must be release from the rigorous demands of Judaism.

Release is found in wild, joyous dancing that will fill synagogues across Baltimore and the world tonight and tomorrow with the celebration of Simhat Torah, the holiday commemorating the end of the annual cycle of scripture readings from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

"Although Torah study is intellectual, it's so closely allied with the Jewish soul that it unlocks deep feelings of joy," said Rabbi Tzvi Goode, who directs adult Bible classes. "These feelings need to find a physical and emotional outlet."

Simhat Torah, which means "rejoicing in the law," is marked by exuberant singing and dancing around the sacred scrolls. There is drinking, candied apples, flags, toy Torah scrolls and children riding on their fathers' shoulders.

"If the average non-Jew came into our synagogue on Simhat Torah" they would think they had the wrong place," said Rabbi Irwin Preis of the Suburban Orthodox congregation. "It's a day of levity, like making sport of the cantor or putting a different hat on his head -- things that normally would never go. There was a good amount of drinking until we found that the kids were starting to get into it. If the weather is nice, the Torah scrolls might be carried out to the sidewalk and people dance outside."

Simhat Torah closes nine days of celebration that began with Sukkot, the week-long autumn harvest festival in which Jews build and take meals in little outdoor huts reminiscent of desert shelters used during the Exodus. Sukkot is also a time of dancing, in which a community's great teachers sit inside a circle of grateful students.

"In the days of the temple, the greatest sages of the generation would stand in the middle of the circle juggling fire torches," said Rabbi Goode, watching at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Owings Mills on Thursday night as graduates and students, arms linked, danced around a beaming Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg.

Because the completion of a year's scripture readings coincides with the end of Sukkot, Jews incorporated Simhat Torah into the long week of festivities. The separate holidays are bridged by a third -- a day God asked the Biblical Jews to extend their Sukkot celebration -- called Shmini Atzeress.

"Simhat Torah was unknown in ancient Israel," said Rabbi Preis. "It was formalized very early on in European history. We find mentions of it in 9th-century prayer books."

In Orthodox synagogues, only the men and children will dance the customary seven "circuits" around the Torah, symbolic of Joshua circling the city of Jericho seven times before the walls tumbled. All music is provided by the human voice.

In the less strict Reform congregations, women will join in the dance, and bands perform inside the sanctuary. Fred Jacobowitz, a nonaffiliated Jew who leads the Mechaya Klezmer band, was hired by Har Sinai, a Reform synagogue, for Simhat Torah celebration this year.

"Throughout history there have been proscriptions against music the shul, we're always walking a thin line between too much frivolity and decorum," said Mr. Jacobowitz, 34. a horn player. "On Simhat Torah they want marching music, happier music, not the slow stuff. The dancing depends completely on the congregation. If they happen to be ecstatics, they lose themselves at the drop of a hat.

"But it's all [spontaneous]," he said. "You put your feet under you and start moving them."

Within moments, the cycle is begun anew with the first chapters of Genesis.

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