The most significant ending and beginning in the whole of the Jewish year is upon us. The Torah is the core of Jewish identity, the document from which ultimately we derive our identity as a Jewish nation, our system of belief, the customs that identify us as Jews, the book that names us the People of the Book.
Although the universal custom these days in Orthodox communities is to read the whole of the Torah every year, this was to begin with neither unanimous nor preordained. In the days before Hebrew – English Chumashim, the custom developed of having a Meturgeman, an official who would translate the Torah reading into the venacular, Aramaic. Translation is a form of interpretation as well, and evidence of a translator interpreting the Bible is to be found in the New Testament.
This began to alarm the rabbinical authorities, and they needed an authorised translation of the Torah which could be confidently used in Jewish communities. A convert to Judaism, probably a Roman named Aquilas, marked his conversion by translating the Torah into Aramaic. This work, known as “Targum Onkelos” became the universal standard and is printed in Hebrew Chumashim to this day.
However reading and then translating took up twice the time, and for many centuries the custom was to read the Torah once every three years.
Gradually this custom disappeared, and from early mediaeval times it was felt that the annual Torah reading should be marked with particular ceremony, hence Simchat Torah, when one cycle of Torah reading came to an end and another began. The festival that emerged is not a day for riotous behaviour. Joyful and happy, it celebrates our identity as Jews and the unique gift to us of our character and distinctiveness. It is in fact a rejoicing at the privilege of being Jewish.