Word of the Day / Hakafot Shniyot: Dancing With the Torah, Round 2

This custom demonstrates that Simhat Torah isn't over until the fat lady sings... two nights in row.

Moti Kimche

Just as the fall holiday season has finally wound down, as it did in Israel with the end of Simhat Torah on Thursday night, you would think that Israelis would breathe a sigh of relief and move on with everyday life. While many did just that, some kept on celebrating after the holiday was over, with a second night of singing and dancing with the Torah that is called hakafot shniyot (ha-ka-FOHT shnee-YOHT, literally “second encirclements”).

This second round coincides with the night Simhat Torah is celebrated outside of Israel, but because the holiday is over inside the country, hakafot shniyot are more like a Jewish-music concert than a synagogue service. There are musical instruments, sometimes accompanied by microphones and an emcee, all of which are verboten in Orthodox synagogues on Shabbat and festivals.

Hakafot (the plural of hakafah), meaning “ringing” or “circling,” is the word used for the ritual circling of the pulpit, whether it is with the four species on Sukkot or with Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah.

A form of the word appears in the Book of Joshua to describe God’s commandment to him to circle the walls of Jericho: “And ye shall compass the city, all the men of war, going about [hakef] the city once. Thus shalt thou do six days” [6:3].

A hakafah is also what a plane does when it’s circling, and the related hekef means “circumference,” as well as “perimeter” and “scope.” Behakafah means “on credit,” and lexicographer Avraham Even-Shoshan suggests that the link might lie in the related word tekufah, which means “period of time,” as in customers putting the groceries on their tabs and paying it off after a set time has elapsed. Coming back full circle, tekufah can also refer to the moon’s nearly circular orbit around Earth – which takes about a month, by which point those payment-deferring customers may well have to shell out for all that bread and milk.

Although local grocery stores don’t generally let their customers run tabs anymore, deferral is still a popular activity in Israel. An article from the business news site Calcalist reported last year that half of Israelis don’t have savings other than their pension funds and 30 percent consistently have an overdraft; its headline began “Living on credit [behakafah].”

Getting back to hakafot shniyot, there are various possibilities as to how and why this custom developed in Israel. In “Rite and Reason,” a compilation of Jewish customs, Shmuel Pinchas Gelbard writes that it may have derived from the practice of Sephardi communities in Israel to take out all the Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah eve and return them to the ark at the end of the holiday the next evening, after circling the bimah. Then again, it may be a kabbalistic custom dating to 16th-century kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria that has since become mainstream, or a way of showing solidarity with the Diaspora Jews celebrating Simhat Torah a day after Israelis. Basically, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on how this custom developed, so I don’t want to give you a whole song and dance about it.

Regardless of how they came about, hakafot shniyot demonstrate that Simhat Torah isn’t over until the fat lady sings… two nights in row.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.