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On the Prohibition to Dance on the Sabbath and Yom Tov, the Novelty of the Modern Simhath Torah, and What Will Be In the Third Temple

October 19, 2014

See here for many of the relevant sources related to Hazal’s enactment against dancing and clapping hands on the Sabbath, and the claim of the Tosafists that the prohibition no longer applied in their days because it was not likely that it could lead to someone repairing a musical instrument.  Any prohibition of this nature would apply to both the Sabbath and any Yom Tov equally, including Sh’mini Atzereth and Simhath Torah.

Although the standard practice in the largest and most prominent Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora is to allow hora and similar types of dancing as per the Toasafists’ lenient opinion, I have met quite a few far-flung scholars from all sorts of schools of thought who argue that the Tosafists, or anyone else for that matter, did not have the right to abrogate Hazal’s prohibition, and they themselves act strictly in this regard. When the typical circle dance would break out on the Sabbath, they would always find an excuse not to participate, or do so half-heartedly.

But did not the Shulhan Aruch and Rema implicitly endorse the Tosafists’ opinion by codifying performance of the hakafoth of Simhath Torah, a relatively late innovation in Judaism that nonetheless involves dancing on YomTov?

And doesn’t the Maaseh Rav 233 bring the example of the Vilna Gaon, “who was very happy on the Sukkoth festival, and even more so on Sh’mini Atzereth… his followers would recite piyutim with joy and the sound of music: ha’adereth w’ha’emuna, wye’ethayu, and tithbararch w’thishtabah found in the maamadoth after ani maamin, and other such piyutim. And they would make a great celebration. On Simhath Torah they would encircle the Table with Torah scrolls at least seven times or more.. and he himself would go before the the Torah scrolls, very joyously, with much strength and gladness and the wisdom of man would illuminate his face like a flaming torch, and he would clap his hands together, and shake and dance with all his strength before the Torah scrolls.. and once the Torah scrolls were returned to the ark, he was not so joyous, but rather as he would be on other Yamim Tovim.”

To what extent did the Vilna Gaon take sides in this mahloketh? Either he kept to the rule of the Talmud, and only clapped his hands in the permissible “backhanded” manner mentioned in the Yerushalmi and cited by Maimonides and the Shulhan Aruch, and the dancing described in Maaseh Rav was somehow also more similar to walking, or that he followed the Tosafists. Although it seems more likely from his methodology that he would follow the law of the Talmud, in this case the actual testimony about his actions indicate otherwise, and that he followed the Tosafists.

However, there is still plenty of room to claim that what the Rema and Beth Yosef did on Simhath Torah could not have been considered anything like the dancing we are familiar with from modern-day orthodox weddings and Simhath Torah celebrations. Their hakafoth were actually similar to what we do in the synagogues on Hoshana Rabba, except with Torah scrolls instead of Lulavs and a different set of piyutim, many of which are still printed in most Mahzorim. The aforementioned far-flung scholars do likewise on Simhath Torah. They would  proceed in circles, but their movements were pretty much the same as ordinary walking.

Now let us introduce a new fact to the mix. Maimonides describes the Simhath Beth Hasho’eva, the Festival of the Water Drawing, that took place the nights of Hol Hamoed Sukkoth (Shofar, Sukka, and Lulav, 8:12-14):

The celebration would begin on the night after the first day of the festival. Similarly, on each day of Hol Hamo’ed, after offering the daily afternoon sacrifice, they would begin to celebrate for the rest of the day and throughout the night.

What was the nature of this celebration? The flute would be sounded and songs played on the harp, lute, and cymbals. [In addition,] each person would play on the instrument which he knew. Those who could sing, would sing. They would dance and clap their hands, letting loose and whistling, each individual in the manner which he knew. Words of song and praise were recited. This celebration does not supersede either the Sabbath or the festival [prohibitions].

This last rule was presumably because of the sages’ enactment, and there were musical instruments commonly found in the Temple, so there would be no room for the Tosafist’s new exemption.

My question is as follows: When the Temple will be rebuilt, God willing, what will be of Simhath Torah, especially on Sabbath nights? I can understand that a future Sanhedrin may want to unequivocally announce that the enactment against dancing on Yom Tov be superseded by the hakafoth of Simhath Torah, as per the Tosafists, but would they allow the hakafoth to take place in the Temple, where in olden days they did not even allow the Festival of the Water Drawing to take place on the Sabbath or Yom Tov? Or perhaps they would declare that just as the sages of old did not relax their enactment even for the celebrations on Sukkoth, we should also not relax the enactment for our celebrations of Simhath Torah?

This matter has bothered me for a few years now. Why have we been so ready to relax a prohibition the sages held to so steadfastly? Is it because our service of God through celebrations on our our holidays is of a higher level than theirs


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