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September 1, 2015 | 17th Elul 5775

  1. I serve a congregation of 385 households and it has been the tradition of this congregation to have a hakafah since before my arrival. To the best of my knowledge it has met with little or no resistance. There are those who will make the claim that it "smacks of Orthodoxy", that it verges on "Torah-olatry", etc. I find the following points in its favor:
    • It is physical: It involves our bodies as we carry the Torah, reach for it, help to undress it. Far too much of what we do in worship is passive and cerebral and having opportunities to involve our bodies is decidedly a good thing.
    • It allows for increased involvement from people other than clergy: Someone to carry the Torah, people to undress and dress it. It can be quite a thrill and an honor for someone to carry a Torah who may never have been privileged to have contact with one before being asked. I have seen people moved to tears by the experience.
    • It allows members of the congregation an "up-close-and-personal" experience of Torah which they might not otherwise attain unless and until they are offered an aliyah.
    • It helps break down the distance barrier between service leaders and congregants. In many synagogues where the seating is "theater style" and all the "action" takes place on the bimah, carrying the Torah into the congregation can be a liberating experience for all involved and a healthy message.
    • It allows those so inclined to reach out and touch the Torah or to convey a kiss to it, something which can mean a great deal to some people insofar as it can represent a level of devotion to all that Torah represents.


  2. We have had a ha?ka?fah at [our temple] for several years, I do not remember when it began, as I was not a regular attendee at the time it was instituted. It certainly has a feeling of greater involvement for everyone. It is a time for congregants who are present (in addition to invited guests) to greet the b?nei mitzvah family as they process with the Torah as well as the clergy, who also have an opportunity to greet individuals as they participate in the procession.

    As a means of being more inclusive, our first aliyah is open to all members of the congregation who wish to participate. The rabbi will invite members in a variety of categories, and if. . . . . . someone [has]. . . . . a special reason for being there (birthday, recovery from illness, etc) they will [be invited]. . . . . .by name. This makes it clear that the service is for the congregation, not just for the b?nei mitzvah family. It also gives people the opportunity to approach the Torah when they might not have any other opportunity.


  3. Well I've been singing at [temple] for at least eighteen years almost every week until now, and I never knew when the Torah was not carried in a procession. However there was a time when little singing was done during the procession, but about eight to ten years ago, the cantor at the time instituted the singing of z?mirot during the entire procession, which has become minhag.

    However, I sing also at a smaller congregation, and one Sabbath in lieu of our usual processional, we all stood in a circle and we passed the Torah from person to person. I thought this was very refreshing!! I have also experienced passing the Torah in this manner at Sisterhood conventions. Either way, I think it is a way for everyone to come in contact with the Torah.


  4. I must admit that it had not occurred to me that including hakafot--Torah processions--(or as I like to think, "Torah parades") were an issue in Reform congregations, but now I realize that, for the leaders of Classical Reform, it may have been viewed as one of those ancient rituals that did not appeal to their rationalism.

    Never having been part of a Classical Reform congregation, I don't really recall not having a hakafah during a Torah service. I've been a member of my current congregation for about fifteen years and hakafot have always been a part of our Torah services. For me, it is one of the highlights of the service and one of the reasons I've taken to wearing a tallit for Torah services--so I can engage in another of those "irrational" traditional rituals and kiss the Torah with the corner of my tallit.

    Our hakafot are accompanied by joyful singing. At a bar or bat mitzvah service, it is the bar/bat mitzvah who carries the Torah, usually followed by his/her parents and one or two others. I see it as a moment of pride for both the bar/bat mitzvah family and the congregation.

    When we have a small attendance at a service, we still do something like Ellen mentioned in a posting yesterday--make our hakafah in a circle and provide everyone there with the opportunity to touch the Torah.


  5. Although kids under bar/bat mitzvah age can't have aliyot, some congregations invite the kids to follow the Torah in the procession. This has practical advantages as well as spiritual. Our congregation, which is quite small (under thirty households) routinely invites all the kids to undress and then later to dress the Torah. This makes the Torah service, which the children might otherwise find less accessible, one of their favorite parts!

    I believe one of the student rabbis we had some years back got us started on this, but it has become a local tradition. We now request the "new" students or other visitors follow this custom.


  6. Since many members of our congregation are getting older, climbing the three tall steps to the bimah is getting difficult. We put a card table up off the bimah on the floor and the Torah is read there. All congregants, especially children, are invited to come up and watch the rabbi read from the Torah. Most people seem happy with this. We also have hakafah with lots of singing. The president or other board member carries the Torah and the rabbi follows and shakes hands and greets congregants. I like it. My son always kisses his siddur, touches my siddur, and then we touch the Torah with my siddur. My son doesn't really enjoy services but since about age nine he sits and reads the Plaut commentary during most of the service.

    I believe aliyot are given out randomly by our president, usually to older members and those who do a lot of volunteer work. It seems mostly men are asked but usually two to three women are invited up each year. I have been asked to read the haftarah and blessings many times but only twice in eighteen years to Torah blessings.


  7. May 2005 Digest 078

                This past year, our synagogue began an experiment. We initiated a hakafah every Sabbath eve, on Friday, just before we read Torah. It has been well accepted. Still, some members have expressed doubts. They have said that the hakafah is, "un-Jewish," in that we are adoring a ritual object, even if it is the most important ritual object of Judaism.

    As the rabbi, I researched the question before we adopted the practice. While I found descriptions of the hakafah in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah and in Caro's Shulchan Aruch, I found no mention of embracing, kissing or touching the Torah with the tip of a siddur or any ritual object, during the hakafah.

    I am curious about your opinions. Does anybody feel that embracing, kissing or touching the Torah is either reverence for the Torah, or adoration of the Torah, or even idolatry?

  8. May 2005 Digest 079

                I grew up in the movement in the 50s and 60s, but was unaffiliated for most of the next twenty years. Because we didn't do hakafah where and when I was a child, I was uncomfortable with it when I joined my current temple about twelve years ago.

    Over time, though, I have come to appreciate it by giving it a somewhat different spin than the traditional d’rash. I now think of it as a very important expression of "Lo Bashamayim," "In the Talmud (Berachot) the rabbis reject the Bat Kol (the voice of God), saying that God no longer owns the right to make decisions for Mankind. "It is not in heaven," they declare. When we walk with the Torah, therefore, we are bringing the word down to our own level.

  9. May 2005 Digest 079

                Until I was an adult, I never saw hakafah in a Reform service, either. But when my children were in religious school, the rabbi used to explain various parts of the ritual to them before their abbreviated worship, and parents were invited to attend (a model I highly recommend). One of the most helpful explanations was that we all own the Torah--only an owner has the right to touch an object. Unlike other religions, where holy objects are off-limits to the congregants, Judaism encourages every one of us to connect directly with the source of our wisdom and faith. In our Shabbat morning minyan, we make sure that every person has the opportunity to do that. It also gives the service leader(s) a chance to greet everyone individually in the context of ritual, a very positive event every week.


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  10. May 2005 Digest 079

                After our people committed the sin of the golden calf, HaShem gave instructions for building the Tabernacle with all its "trappings" which could be touched, smelled, enjoyed visually, in short provide a sensory experience. I feel that the hakafah gives us the same opportunity to venerate the words of our Torah, not the scroll.

    Our congregation has a hakafah every Shabbat evening unless we have a long service for some special event.

    I'm not sure about Shabbat morning, as I do not attend the main service. At our once monthly lay lead Shabbat morning service we do have a hakafah regularly.


    1100 families
  11. May 2005 Digest 079

                When I belonged to a small Reconstructionist congregation, the hakafah was not a procession led by a person holding the Torah him/herself. The service leader passed it to one person and then started a chain of people taking hold of the scroll and simply passing it, hugging it, and/or kissing it (either with tzitzis, siddur, hand-to-mouth-to-scroll, or directly with the mouth). Some people in that congregation thought such a ritual was beautiful in that we all embraced the scroll in his/her own way. Others thought we were treating it like any other book by passing it around.

  12. May 2005 Digest 079

                One of my many teachers in my first few years of Jewish life said she thought it was idolatry for people to wrestle past each other to get a chance to touch the Torah scroll. But is it idolatry to stand when the Torah scroll is taken out of the Ark, walked around or undressed?

    I don't put my paperback Tanakh on the floor. I kiss it when I accidentally drop it. I don't believe there's anything magical about the book, and my kissing it shows respect. That Tanakh is like all other books, but it is not.

    The Torah scroll is just words, paper and wood, but it's also something more. It is both unimportant (as there are duplicates all over the world), but important in that it is a symbol of Jewish learning and millennia-old traditions, ethics and beliefs.


    600+ families
  13. May 2005 Digest 080

                I was once told of an article by Theodor Roszak called "Pagan Rite in Jewish Ritual", which deconstructs the whole Torah service as sexually charged ritual. I have not read the article.

    We can certainly see idolatry in all the material aspects of Jewish ritual, if we look for it hard enough. But I'm not sure that's bad--all ritual should have some elements of ancient rites--otherwise it lacks the flavor of authenticity that we so desperately seek when we come to shul.

                When, as a child raised in a Conservative synagogue, I was asked by a friend to hold a Torah Scroll at his bar mitzvah [at a Reform congregation], I was greatly honored. When I discovered myself to be the only one on the bimah wearing a kippah, I didn't know what to do. When the Torah I was holding was never opened during the service, but only passed from parents to son and back to me, I was confused. There was something missing for me, because it didn't taste authentic.

    I think the maintenance of traditional ritual is important for Clal Yisrael. I put the hakafah in this category. At the same time, I think it's important to make chiddushim that are right for us (like Friday night Torah reading).

  14. Oct 2007 Digest 198

                I have heard some learned Jews say that parading the Torah around is a form of idol worshipping. I totally disagree. There are lines that can be crossed (example--the omnipresent photos of "the Lubbavitcher Rebbe" in all the Lubbovitch homes and in the cribs, playpens, etc.,) but in this case I think equating this with idol worshipping is a bad interpretation. We venerate the Torah, and only those who can say a Brucha or have given ganze gelt to the shul get a chance to stand on the Bimah and get close to it. Many congregants are invisible in so many temples. This is a way that every congregant can have his/her own physical encounter with the core of our religion…you can't please everyone--the trick is to please yourself and convince everyone else that is the right reason for doing so. The Hakafah is such a beautiful part of the service, at least to me, and I think it is worth fighting for if you truly believe it would be a mistake to give it up. Rowna

  15. Oct 2007 Digest 198

                Could your hakafah be preceded by a little introduction, e.g., "we honor the Torah and confirm our connection with it through the ritual of hakafah" or similar? This way, those who feel hakafah verges on "idolatrous" can hear words that interpret it otherwise. For instance, I once asked all those in need of healing to come up to the Torah for a Mi Shebeirach, but I prefaced it by saying that we approach the Torah not because we worship it or because we expect the Torah or Hashem to heal us directly but because Torah is the foundation of our faith; by knowing our faith more deeply, we are stronger and better able to be agents in promoting our own health. The words interpret the act of approaching Torah as an expression of faith, not as a "Torah worship." Could words like these about hakafah help your congregation feel more united about its intent?

                …I love hakafah because it is an emotional outpouring of connection with Torah and fills me with wonder and joy. When I touch my siddur to the Torah, it is electric.

                …I hope you find a way to reconcile the two views [of your congregation] and continue hakafah in a meaningful way.


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  16. Oct 2007 Digest 198

                I see hakafot not as idol worship, but as a tangible extension of the fundamental concept that Torah belongs to and in the congregation, and although in many shuls, Torah is read from the bimah, bringing it into the midst of the congregation before (and after, in some cases), hakafot reinforces that idea of Torah belonging in the congregation…

                Torah comes to life when it is brought down from on high (miSinai or miBimah) and placed in the midst of the congregation! For example, at our Shabbos Morning minyan service, the chairs are arranged to face the center of our chapel, and we actually move the Torah table into the middle of the worshippers when it comes time for the Torah service and read Torah not from in front the bimah of the Aron haKodesh, but literally in the center the daveners. We've found that with this simple change how the room is set up, we involve people in the Torah service who never would have been involved before, we've demystified Torah a bit, and (hopefully) have demonstrated that physically and intellectually, the words of Parsha Nitzavim:


    "Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?"  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?"  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." - Deut. ch. 30


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  17. Oct 2007 Digest 198

                …as Rabbi Eugene J. Lipman, of blessed memory, explained in its defense--Moses was told to bring the law to the people, and the hakafot is symbolic of this. Frankly I don't see that any kind of compromise is possible--either you do or do not have the hakafah

                For myself, I find this march uplifting and symbolic.


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  18. Oct 2007 Digest 198

                …Cultural symbols can and do generate strong emotions. By walking around with the Torah scroll--don't we honor the words contained therein--the words that formed the culture and religion that modern Judaism continues to preserve? If your rabbi is not comfortable with the process, he or she can certainly pass the Torah to someone else for the hakafah.


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  19. Oct 2007 Digest 198

                I must admit that while I very much like the hakafah as a way for the community to directly embrace, respect and celebrate the Torah, the touching and kissing aspect has always made me a bit uncomfortable. Not sure I'd go all the way to calling this idolatry but there is something just a bit too physical (or anthropomorphic?) in this expression that for me crosses a comfort boundary between relating to the object vs the concept that it represents. But, as [another poster] rightly points out, you can't have the hakafah and tell people not to participate in the way that is most meaningful to them. So this remains my personal reaction which is separate from that in my role on the RPC. If the question is really to hakafah or to not hakafah, in our congregation it seems a pretty clear to me that it is a very positive part of our services…

  20. Oct 2007 Digest 198

                Is hakafah idolatry? Perhaps sometimes. There is a strange story in the Torah about a bronze snake. In Numbers 21:8, God commands Moses to make a bronze snake and set it on a pole, and if someone is bitten by a snake he can look at the pole to counteract the bite. Then in II Kings 18:4, King Hezekiah orders the bronze snake to be destroyed because people were burning incense to it. The rabbis approved of Hezekiah's action even though the pole was created by Moses at God's command!

                I consider the hakafah a wonderful ritual, a way of showing respect for the Torah (and we do it every Shabbat in our morning minyan). But many Reform congregants are unfamiliar with the ritual, and in the absence of explicit information can easily get the impression that the Torah is being treated as an idol. It is hard to tell from the outside what the ritual means to the person who is observing it. And there is a potential danger that people who begin participating in the ritual will, in their ignorance, begin to think of the Torah as an object of worship. This is what happened in the story of the bronze snake.

                So one thing we can do is find opportunities to explain to congregants what it is we are doing, for example by explaining in service pamphlets or in small articles in temple bulletins.


    1700 Families
  21. Oct 2007 Digest 198

                What's interesting is the bowing, especially as many congregations also open the ark and bow--seemingly to the Torah. Without discussing whether these practices are or are not idolatry, it can certainly look that way, especially to the non-Jews within our midst. We, the Jews who refused to bow to Antiochus.

                …There are some sources…which find the practice one of disrespect, and state that the Torah should be brought by the shortest path from the ark to the table.

                Apparently the disagreement we see today mirrors one which has gone on for a while.

  22. Oct 2007 Digest 199

                I am no expert in synagogue architecture, but I can tell you for sure that in the traditional Ashkenaz synagogues I attended as a youth, the chazan or sh'liach tzibur read from a small raised dais directly in front of the ark. Between him and the ark was enough space for the rabbi to stand and deliver his d'var Torah facing the congregation, or for the kohanim to stand and duchan. The Torah was read from the bimah--a platform containing the reading table--raised one step above the seating, and surrounded by seats. It was not until I entered the sanctuaries of Conservative and Reform congregations that I saw the Torah being read "on stage" from the very front of the room.

                The seven hakafot of Simchat Torah with the accompanying singing and dancing became a universal minhag about 400 to 500 years ago, in order to endear the Torah to the children. I think that idea is fully in keeping with earlier comments about bringing the Torah within reach/touch of the congregation. The idea that a hakafah is tantamount to idolotrous worship of the Torah scroll never occurred to me until it was raised by a friend and congregant who finds herself to be extremely uncomfortable in any kind of synagogue service, but is not at all put off by Torah study or discussion of philosophical topics.

                I suppose I could be convinced that for a congregation where the sanctuary is very, very large and a hakafah would unduly delay the service, or where theater-style seating might make the circuit through the congregation onorous, the hakafah should be eliminated. Otherwise, send that scroll around. I look forward to being able to honor it first hand, rather than just gaze wistfully upon it from afar.

  23. Oct 2007 Digest 207

                Here's a thought. We are not kissing the Torah. First, we touch it in order to acknowledge that, though sacred, it is ours, and meant to be used. We then draw it to our mouths (the "kiss") to draw its wisdom into our lives. We do similarly with the mezuza, which reminds us then to enter our homes wisely, with reverence for our loved ones. With the Torah, perhaps we use a prayer book or the tzitzit instead of our hand, to suggest that these are tools to draw Torah even more deeply into our lives.

  24. Oct 2007 Digest 198

                For me, the hakafot for Simchat Torah allows all to become one with the Torah--to rejoice and embrace it. It had always been my understanding that within Kabbalah the hakafot were representative of the seven sephirot--emanations of G-d--in addition  acknowledgement of the completion of the  reading of the Torah and starting again. As such Simchat Torah provides  the vehicle for providing a physical hakafah (the completion of the circle of  reading the Torah) into one of joy, in the form of dancing, music and  song.

                Also, one must remember that Simchat Torah's origins are not based on specifics in the bible. It has however become one of the most anticipated occurrences where Jews of all ideologies come to celebrate the Torah. And what better way than to see our children with their paper flags acknowledge their heritage?


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