Hakafot for Simchat Torah
By Cantor Dana Anesi
For many of us, a wonderful early Jewish memory is of the hakafot for Simchat Torah: the (somewhat!) organized chaos of the Torah being carried round and round the synagogue sanctuary, generally accompanied by flags and perhaps—at least in the old days—even jelly apples on the tops of those flags.
As Rabbi Richard Sarason reminds us in his article for Ten Minutes of Torah, the seven hakafot for Simchat Torah are accompanied by the passage from Deuteronomy: Attah hor’eita lada’at, “You have been shown to know that Adonai is God; there is none besides” and a bit later on, the liturgical poem (piyyut), Ana Adonai hoshi’a na (“O God, save us now!”). These texts are always sung in the “traditional” (i.e. Conservative/Orthodox) synagogue and there are also arrangements for the Reform synagogue, dating back many decades.
For the more contemporary service, Mishkan T’filah offers a number of suggestions on the right side of the page (pages 237, 239, 241) for the Simchat Torah hakafot in Seder K’riat HaTorah. Most are well-known Hebrew folk songs, such as Hava Nagilah, Hineih Mah Tov, Lo Yisa Goi, Am Yisrael Chai, etc., celebrating Torah, the Jewish people, and our deep connection to the land of Israel. There are various melodies available for these texts, but on Simchat Torah we often make sure to include the most familiar and upbeat. If you’re fortunate enough to also have a klezmer group, they might play many of these classics as a medley, like this one. Listen
There’s also the sound of the “old country” for your klezmer band, as heard here, in a delightful selection actually called “Simchas Torah in der alte haim” (“the rejoicing in the Torah in the old country”).
And in addition to these often beloved tunes and texts, I want to offer some more current settings appropriate to the occasion – any of which can also be used for a regular Shabbat or holiday hakafah. These texts express the joy and love of Torah, and/or a spirited declaration of the strength and tenacity of the generations of our people.
But before we continue, a word about those involved in the hakafot. One can approach the subject of inclusion in the congregational hakafot from many different angles. Deciding who gets the first hakafah—or the last—may be a fraught decision. There are obvious representative groups of the synagogue: e.g. religious school students; Sisterhood; board of trustees. Congregants can be divided by first or last names alphabetically, or by birthday months. But, how about offering a hakafah to those who visited Israel this past year? Or celebrated a significant lifecycle event? The possibilities can be endless—and fun to devise; these are but a few suggestions to get you going!
The first hakafah could be for the smallest members of our communities—the preschoolers, perhaps with up to grades K-2 included. The late, wonderful Debbie Friedman, who in her prolific career seems to have written a song for virtually every topic, occasion, etc; has a fun, catchy piece called “When We March on Simchat Torah”, which could set off the festivities with the youngest generation in the lead. You can find it here, on Debbie’s album of songs for the Jewish holidays. Listen
This next selection is by the Israeli group Nava Tehila, a community in Jerusalem that has developed a large following from both Jerusalemites and visitors. They write virtually all their own service music—and their Shabbat worship includes a lengthy version of the Kabbalat Shabbat psalms. One of those psalms, Psalm 97 (verse 8), says, Sham'ah vatis'mach Tzion, vatagelna b'not Yehuda: “Zion hears and rejoices, and the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments, O God”. (For members of the board of trustees, perhaps?) Nava Tehila’s lively and catchy arrangement works quite well in a hakafah. Listen
Another text, by Dan Nichols, the songwriter who’s a favorite in our URJ world these days, is set to a country arrangement. Nichols’ “Sweet as Honey” also contains the blessing for the study of Torah—a fine way to include (and/or teach) this b’rachah as a reminder that we were, and continue to be, blessed by the gift of Torah. (Perhaps this hakafah selection might accompany the rest of the school children; or, alternatively, members of the synagogue Torah study group.) Dan has several arrangements of the piece available; there is also one recorded by a group called Rocky Mountain Jewgrass (!), which is a bit more mellow than Dan’s, and incorporates banjo and fiddle, for which the piece is well suited. Listen
And last, but certainly not least, the group Ma Tovu is comprised of musically gifted rabbis and musicians from our movement who have been performing together for well over a decade. One of their pieces is called appropriately, “Hakafah”, and contains both a niggun (a wordless song, and therefore easy to sing!) and texts found in Seder K’riat HaTorah: Beit Ya’akov l’chu v’neilcha…as well as Ki Mitzion. It’s a spirited and engaging melody. Listen
I hope we’ve given you some fresh ideas for this year’s Simchat Torah festivities at your synagogue, day school, etc. Wherever you celebrate, we hope it is joyous, and we close with the words we recite when we come to the end of a book of Torah, as we wish our community: “chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek—may we all strengthen one another!”
Dana Anesi is Cantor of Temple Beth El of North Westchester in Chappaqua, NY. She has served on the ACC Executive Board and is a past Chair of the Joint Cantorial Placement Commission, the HUC Alumni Association and the Alumni Association of the DFSSM. Cantor Anesi currently serves as Director of Student Placement for the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at HUC in New York.