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The Worst Festival of the Year

October 16, 2011 – 12:38 pm36 Comments

Arak - usually eventuates in remorse

By Alex Kats

After the dread of shule choices for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have passed, I turn to the loathing that I have for the festival of Simchat Torah. If there was one day from the Jewish calendar that I could expunge, it would certainly be that one. Some people might think that it is strange that I loathe a festival, particularly one that has the word simcha (joy) in its name, but my distaste for the festival stems from the fact that the happiness is misplaced, and the real joy that should be associated with the festival is often lacking. Allow me to explain.

At its essence, Judaism is all about the Torah. Without it, all that we know about being Jewish would be entirely different. The expected morals, ethics, laws and rituals of Judaism as well as the morals and ethics of monotheism and of the three major monotheistic religions come from the Torah. The English translation of the Old Testament of the Bible that we call the Torah is still the highest selling book of all time. The Torah in Judaism ought to be our spiritual compass and our guiding light.

Simchat Torah, as described in some of the liturgy, is an independent festival tacked onto the end of the week-long celebration of Sukkot. It signifies the end of the annual biblical cycle, whereby the weekly reading of portions of the Torah in the synagogue each week comes to an end. The tradition according to the sages is to then roll over the Torah and start reading again from the beginning. Simchat Torah therefore is the celebration of the conclusion of the cycle and the immediate start of the next cycle. Yet this festival, which was inaugurated to celebrate the Torah and make it joyous, has become corrupted.

Today, Simchat Torah and Purim can easily be confused. Both have become the festivals of drunkenness and disorderly behaviour. But whereas on Purim such actions might be warranted or at least justified in some circumstances, should they really be acceptable on Simchat Torah? My biggest issue with the day is during the part of the synagogue service in the evening and morning known as Hakafot. At its minimum, this is a time when all the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark, and a procession is conducted with various members of the congregation carrying the Torah scrolls seven times around the bimah. After that, the final portion from the Torah is read, immediately followed by the first portion. It sounds like it should be a swift and respectable part of the service, but in most synagogues it has become anything but.

To start with, although the procession need only go around the bimah seven times, as a means of injecting so-called simcha, in most synagogues this procession can take two or more hours with an innumerable number of circuits. Each circuit is often accompanied by a monotonous Hebrew song or prayer extract, and as the circuits progress, they often get faster, louder and more chaotic. Moreover, for some unknown reason, alcohol is often added to the mix. Many shules sanction the provision vodka or whisky shots just before or during the Hakafot, and even in the shules that declare themselves dry, someone usually produces a flask or two of vodka. Considering this happens during the Hakafot – one of only very few times when all the Torah scrolls are out of the ark – the consequences are sometimes disastrous.

I have heard of cases of severe injuries during the Hakafot and I have personally seen in Melbourne and elsewhere, circumstances where some of the people dancing with the Torah scrolls would otherwise be too inebriated to legally drive, but somehow are entrusted to carry G-d’s words around the bimah. On one occasion, in the middle of the Hakafot and with Torah scrolls all around him, someone who could barely hold himself upright, swore and screamed very loudly when a guy danced passed him and accidentally stepped on his foot.

Even if the people holding the Torah are not the ones that are that drunk, is there really a place for drunkenness and such behaviour in the synagogue and in front of the Torah? It is fair to say that as a result of all this, Hakafot have become an approved form of synagogue anarchy, and that the focus is much more on the simcha than on the Torah. It is a particular shame because this festival comes at the end of a month of festivals, and right after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we vow to be better in the upcoming year, but so often Simchat Torah brings out the worst in some people.

Apart from all the other issues, the Hakafot as practiced in most orthodox shules, also alienate the women. While the men dance and get drunk on their side of the divide for close to two hours, the women either look longingly at the action, or leave the sanctuary altogether. That certainly isn’t inclusive and hardly seems joyous. One solution, to solve that issue at least, even in orthodox circles, is to give one of the Torah scrolls to the women and to allow them to do their own Hakafot in another part of the shule. But to me that sounds like an afterthought or temporary fix to a greater problem. On top of that, even on the men’s side, as the Hakafot drag into their second hour of chaos, and as a dish or a window invariably gets broken in some part of the synagogue, the children usually leave because they have come to the end of their tether, and only a hardcore quorum of men remain to finish off the circuits. Eventually everyone returns for the actual Torah reading, but by that point most people are either delirious, exhausted or simply over it, and the Torah reading – which should be the highlight of the festival and is the reason why everyone is there in the first place – becomes an uninspiring and lacklustre footnote to a crazy day.

My usual way of dealing with Simchat Torah, or at least the Hakafot element, is to visit as many shules as possible during this time, thereby avoiding participating in Hakafot at any of them. And as a result of all this, if I had the opportunity, I would cancel Simchat Torah entirely. Of course, that is impossible, so what I really would like to do is redefine and reinvigorate the day. In my utopian world, the service would be made more joyous by an understanding of what the festival is all about, and by an infusion of joyous tunes that everyone could sing along to. The alcoholic Simcha would come after the service and would never enter the synagogue. Each person, male or female, would have the chance to hold a Torah and then participate in a reading with translation, interpretation and real comprehension. This would become the real highlight of the service, and it would mean that each person would leave the service with a greater understanding of what the Torah is about and how it is relevant to them. If that is not joyous in a religious sense on a day like this, then I don’t know what is. Everyone, without exception, would then be invited to a joyous meal where each person would be made to feel special, worthy and joyful.

All of this may not ever be possible because the way Simchat Torah is celebrated these days is unlikely to change anytime soon. But I did hear of a group of people last year in New York who are as fed up by the festival as I am and for a few years now have been leaving the city for Simchat Torah and celebrating it much like I have described above. This year I will certainly try to find a shule that is more inclusive and joyous without the need for alcohol, and hopefully over time, if other people here and abroad also feel that Simchat Torah has descended into something that it ought not to be, then maybe they will join my cause.

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36 Comments »

  • Jake says:

    Alex – this abuse of alcohol on Simchat Torah commenced in Melbourne in one Shul which has continued to perpetuate this abuse not only on Simchat Torah, but on other occasions also. Unfortunately for our community, this has become widespread.
    Perhaps the leaders of that community could take a lead in reversing what has transpired.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Alex, I agree. I like simchat torah at Mizrachi’s hashkama minyan where the hakafot are short & Torah-centred and the whole thing is over by around 10:30 am. (And I’m hoping the mood at the new mizrachi minyan will be appropriate to the chag as well.)

    I agree that it’s more difficult for women, not related to the alcohol issue. In shuls where the women dance as well, but without a Torah, it’s more inspiring (for most women) than standing around & looking on from behind the mechitzah, but it can be hard to focus appropriately without a Torah in the middle of the circle as a visual reminder of what you’re dancing for. Often it either peters out or morphs into a generic ruach session.

  • Marky says:

    This doesn’t seem to be an issue in charedi communities on Simchas Torah(with the exception of one chassidic group). I have not heard of drunkennes in Adass, KBH etc on ST.

  • john says:

    Marky, I have been away for Tishrei both in the USA and Israel for the past nine years I can attest to that fact that the main issue of drunkenness in the velt is from the modern charadisher bochurim who cant hold their liquor. Melbourne happens to not have a lot of them here (for whatever reason) so therefore those communities don’t have that issue.

  • Marky says:

    John. i have never heard of “modern charadi”. Do you mean Modern orthodox or charadi bochurim who have become modern?

    My comment above was also about charedi communities in NY, Israel and Europe where I have spent many ST’s.

  • geronimo says:

    Being shikker on ST is purely a chabad thing. rarely happens amongts other Jews – chassidic or not.

    And it’s about time that chabad woke up to themselves.(as if they don’t have enough problems!)

  • Ari says:

    Over our side of the ditch in Israel and in the Modern Orthodox circles I “go around” in the atmosphere is far from Purim and yet Torah centered hakafot go for hours without alcohol. Chatan Torah is also taken seriously f

  • Marky says:

    Ari. What you write is also my experience overseas. There must be a different mentality here in Melbourne.

  • Jake & Marky,

    Instead of silly euphemisms like “one shul”, “one chassidic group”, please just call a spade a spade. Everyone knows that you are talking about the Yeshivah shul & the Chabad community.

    Everyone,

    Yes, we have an alcohol problem. There is binge drinking, and little control over distribution. The following letter came out last week from the Va’ad Ruchni to address the issue:

    With the approach of the Yomtov of Sukkos, which is called Z’man Simchoseinu (the time of our rejoicing), we find it appropriate to remind members of the community about the guidelines established for Kiddushim and Farbrengens.
    Based upon the Rebbe’s directive limiting alcohol consumption for those under the age of forty, these are:

    1. Vodka, whisky or the like should not be placed or left on the table, but should rather be distributed by a responsible adult
    2. The person distributing should serve the alcohol only in a small (approx. 20ml) cup
    3. No person under the age of forty should be given more than a total of four small cups for the duration of the Farbrengen.

    We are sure that adhering to the above guidelines will serve to enhance our simcha and to ensure that it is focussed where it belongs, i.e. on the Yomtov and all things associated with it.

    While many people are cynical about this, it’s a step in the right direction. It remains to be seen whether this will actually be enforced, or whether this will change attitudes to drinking (I have doubts). This situation needs a cultural shift to drive behavioural change.

    It is sad to see how the associated drinking culture has spoiled Simchat Torah for Alex, and the awful reputation my own community has developed over this.

    Personally, I feel a “dry” Simchat Torah would be exactly that. Simchat Torah is about unbridled joy, letting go, and an egalitarian (not scholarship) approach to the Torah. This is symbolized by dancing with the Torahs when they are closed.

    Most people enjoy alcohol when they attend a simcha, and use it to enhance their experience. A small number of people do without it, and unfortunately a small number of people abuse it. I am firmly and happily in the majority in that regard.

  • Rachel SD says:

    “3. No person under the age of forty should be given more than a total of four small cups for the duration of the Farbrengen.”

    David, I can’t imagine how this could possibly enforced. Apart from the lack of definition of the size of a ‘small cup’, and as a seperate issue the lack of control of alcohol for people over 40 (who may also have alcohol problems), it’s too hard to keep on track on how many small cups each person has drunk. Do you know whether Yeshiva has considered getting some people trained in Responsible Serving of Alcohol and making sure that these people are then the only ones allowed to serve alcohol (to any adult, even over 40…)?

    It also seems that the letter fails to address the issue of serving alcohol to children, with the only differentiation being between under 40s and over 40s.

  • A “small cup” means a 30ml cup of whisky or vodka, which is about 1 standard drink. This is the drinking rule established by the Rebbe (and unfortunately one of the things chassidim have been less than diligent in following). It is based on an honour/self-regulation system.

    People (including myself) have suggested having a proper bar & bartender in the past. There does seem to be more interest in it this year. It’s been done in some other shuls around Melbourne (including Chabad Houses) successfully. It’s also much easier for a non-Jewish professional bartender to tell someone “you’ve had enough”.

    The letter notes at the bottom: “Victorian State Law prohibits the supplying of alcohol to a person under the age of eighteen without his parents’ consent

  • Harold Zwier says:

    Rachel, I note that point 2 of the Yeshiva letter says:

    2. The person distributing should serve the alcohol only in a small (approx. 20ml) cup

    Alex, you should try Beit Aharon. It’s a great little Shul and stocking up on alcohol for Simchat Torah means buying 2 bottles of Bailey’s. However, I’m afraid that our ha’Kafot do include “monotonous Hebrew song or prayer extract”, but we do try to vary this by having people sing the same song in a range of different and unrelated keys. Some people see this as a problem, I prefer to see it as a distinguishing feature. And just in case you’re wondering, it has nothing to do with blood alcohol content…

    Mo’ed tov
    Harold

  • Jake says:

    David – I understand that this is not the first time that the Va’ad Ruchani have written regarding this alcohol problem.
    Have they done anything to address this at other times during the year and at the various venues where it has occurred?
    The biggest problem I have observed is the binge drinking by teenage boys.
    Has there been an education programme instituted in the school?
    You state you are doubtful that this letter will have any impact , so as someone who has personally witnessed this abuse, where to from here?

  • Jake – there have been other letters, and there is now much better control of distribution at weekly kiddushim. It’s not just teens who binge drink – as I said cultural change is required. Don’t know of any education in the school on the issue.

    Change has to come from the top, and from within.

  • Marky says:

    Jake writes” not only on ST, but on other occasions also”

    I fail to see why in Chabad they serve mashke at the first night of Selichos. On such a night do we really need drunks at such a reflective time. ST is bad enough!

  • Marky – it’s a http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farbrengen, not a pre-Selichos booze up.

  • Marky says:

    David. I have seen them serving it in the Yeshiva before and after Selichos, and no one was sitting at a farbrengen.

  • david segal says:

    geronimo

    “Being shikker on ST is purely a chabad thing”.

    Looks that Chabbad without alcohol is like a fish without water:

    http://failedmessiah.typepad.com/failed_messiahcom/2006/08/chabads_drinkin.html

    Chabad against the ban on young people drinking alcohol

    http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART1/955/705.html

    In pre war Europe and earlier drunkness on ST was so common, that in some kehilot they didn’t have Birkat Kohanim on Simchat Torah at all, as a kohen is forbidden to say Birkat Kohanim when he is drunk or they did it in Shacharit before the hakafot/

    David

    “3. No person under the age of forty should be given more than a total of four small cups for the duration of the Farbrengen”.

    From what age is he permitted a total of four small cups ?

  • Marky says:

    David Segal wrote “or they did it(Birchas Kohanim) in Shacharit before the hakafot”

    They still do.. but isn’t that because of zero tolerance to alcohol for Kohanim, even just after a bit of Kiddush wine? This was mentioned by someone-I think Frosh-recently in a similar forum just recently.

  • Jake says:

    Responsible non Chabad parents should make the Yeshivah a “no go zone” for their teenage children on Simchat Torah.

  • Marky,

    There are sit-down farbrengens before selichos, and l’chaim is also passed around. For the vast majority of people who partake, this is not drinking to get drunk, rather a quick shot and wishing each other well before the formal start of the pre-RH prayers.

    david segal,

    1. When you start quoting FM as an authority of typical Chabad behaviour and custom, you are on thin ice! His purpose in life seems to be to dig up dirt on Chabad wherever he can find it.
    2. That said, the objection to the alcohol ban in Israel is a disgrace.
    3. From age 40, you would be permitted (more than) 4 small cups. I’d be happy to “buy you a drink” on ST @ Yeshivah :)

    david segal & Marky,

    The reason they do birchat kohanim at Shacharis on ST is because the custom is to make kiddush after Shacharis (i.e. before Musaf) AND kohanim can only duchen if they are completely sober (i.e. 0%). This is a very broad minhag.

    Jake,

    You may have hit the cork on the bottle with that one. The kids who hang out and get drunk at Yeshivah on ST definitely don’t have “Responsible [non Chabad] parents”.

  • Judy says:

    It’s ironic that the Vaad Ruchni advises restraint yet they allow a privately funded, big booze up on Shemini Atzeret with hundreds of bottles of whisky and vodka. Is that like half a bottle per person? And when you have a few people serving, the teenagers can get four cups off each person.

    Frum kids that would never get drunk anywhere else, can get totally blind drunk like their parents. Watch for immobile bodies and vomit in the lunch room and kollel.

    Perhaps David Werdiger can elaborate why this totally unecessary minhag continues, together with making kiddush on mashke on Simchat Torah in the kollel.

  • Sam says:

    Looking up mashke in yiddish on the net to confirm what I suspected it was: whiskey, I came across a little gem of a song on Youtube in yiddish with english sub-titles about mashke. This is the link. http://youtu.be/flPrBcl3q_k

  • david segal says:

    Marky an david you wrote:

    I don’t know where you saw the halacha that kohanim can only duchen if they are completely sober(i.e. 0%), as it is clearly not so (at least in my books), Nsiat kapaim is not a P plate. Kohenim are forbidden to Duchen only if they are drunk – (Shtuyei yain), and chazal decided that after drinking a רביעית wine you are defined as drunk, which is problematic in our days, when you don’t become drunk after drinking the Roiv of 86 ml of wine.

    If you want a long story see here:

    א’ איצקוביץ’, “שתיה ושכרות בהלכה”, מזכרת בתיה תשמ”ב, חלק ב, עמ’ רו-רצו

    To cut the story short, see here:

    שולחן ערוך אדמוה”ז אורח חיים סימן קכח סעיף נא

    מכל מקום הואיל והוקשה ברכה לעבודה במקצת אסרו חכמים לשיכור לישא כפיו
    כמו שאסרה תורה לשיכור לעבוד עבודה במקדש כמ”ש יין ושכר אל תשת וגו’ … אף כהן מברך אין מומין פוסלין בו ואין שאר משקין המשכרים מונעים אותו מנשיאת כפים כמו במשרת במקדש אפילו נשתכר עד שאינו יכול לדבר לפני המלך שנשיאת כפים אינה דומה לתפלה שהוא עומד ומדבר עם המלך משא”כ בנשיאת כפים שמדבר אל העם (כמ”ש אמור להם) אלא א”כ הגיע לשכרותו של לוט שאז פטור מכל המצות.

    ויש אוסרים שיכור בנשיאת כפים אפילו נשתכר משאר משקין או אוכלים המשכרים ולכתחילה אסור לשתות כלל משקה המשכר קודם נשיאת כפים (וכן נוהגים) ולא נתנו קולי נזיר אלא לענין מומין בלבד”.

    I am not going to comment on FM purposes in life, but I remember that in the year that I was studying in 770, there were bochurim that were drinking heavily every night from purim until Pesach.

  • david segal says:

    my earlier post was a comment to what marky and david wrote:

  • Marky says:

    David Segal writes:”problematic…when you don’t become drunk after drinking the roiv of 86ml of wine”

    There are those that make Kiddush on a roiv revi’is of scotch or vodka. And AFAIK most hold a revi’is to be at least 112ml, although we generally use bigger than that. And from what I’ve seen, the guy who makes Kiddush on mashke of revi’is is very machmir to drink the whole cup,in addition using a big cup.

  • Marky says:

    Here is a Chabadnik completely drunk on Yom Kippur-Kol Nidrei night- for a great and admirable cause.

    http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3090/jewish/The-Yom-Kippur-Drunk.htm

  • david segal says:

    david

    you wrote: When you start quoting FM as an authority of typical Chabad behaviour and custom, you are on thin ice! on what ice will i be if i will quote this chabbad site?

    http://chabad.info/forums/theforum_he/viewtopic.php?t=1283

  • anon says:

    why dont you rename this blog an anti chabad blog. would seem appropriate.

  • david segal says:

    see the posting of מזועזעת (the 6th posting) regardinn drinking in chabbad on simchat torah.

  • david segal says:

    anon

    why only this blog?

  • david segal – can you get any of this translated?

    anon – sure feels like that (not the whole site, but the comments on this article). People have a habit of making generalizations and judgements about Chabad as a movement by pointing to specific practices, sometimes of a minority, and sometimes on the basis of incomplete knowledge. Come to think of it, people do that about *all* groups.

    Good Yom Tov, a guten kvitel, and L’Chaim!

  • david segal says:

    תקנת המשקה – חב”דפדיה

  • david segal says:

    david

    here is the translation of the 6th posting:

    It is a pity that we are seen that way, Too bad that the elite continues to encourage this deplorable practices.

    As a woman, I want to raise the issue of simchat torah, where the men are wild, and for the for the women it is Tisha B’Av …

    in many Chabad communities, there is no simcha but a tavern.

    hakafot? Dancing? Who ever heard of them, the men sit for hours “farbreingen” – thy drink and drink more, and use this opportunity to settle accounts with all the world … Then dance a few rounds with a sefer Torah, – when their head is not clear, and their behavior is not respectable …

    The problems that you – the drunks- create, are hard to describe, Conflicts between friends, problems of shlom bait, problems in education, and of course blasphemy.

    And … please stop with the denials, it is not adding to you honor and respect!

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