Simchat Torah Processions

Dear Friends:

Oy!  The joy of Simchas Torah as we did it at P’nai Or!  

It was 1992, led by Rabbi Jeff Roth and held in Saxe Lodge in Saugerties, NY.   The attendees included a sprinkling of Musicians and Choreographers among the sixty or so attendees.  We were to create a Simchas Torah / rejoicing in the torah service reflecting Reb Zalman’s innovative work in which the kahal / community moves to each Sefirah / Divine Attribute in succession; we were to explore and create the sacred ritual dances of Simchat Torah

I was assigned, (along with a dozen others, including Tsurah August and Efraim Eisen), to the Sefirah of Tiferet / Harmony.  Five other groups were assigned to the other Sefirot from Chesed / Lovingkindness to Yesod / Foundation. 

Now, the groups each left and spent some intensive preparation time exploring the Sefirah to which each had been assigned.  In my group’s breakout session, we explored the meaning of our Sefirah, then brainstormed a selection of music for our dance. 

After the music had been selected, we choreographed the motions that we would later perform for the group as a whole.  After showing the community our group’s Tiferet-embodiment, we were also to teach them the steps so that they could partake in the Tiferet-connection we would create.  

That night, Simchat Torah, the space was set with different lighting for each Sefirah.  The groups came in sequence, Chesed / LovingKindness, Gevurah / Strict Justice, Tiferet / Harmony-Balance-Mercy, Netzach / Persistence-Eternity-Prophecy, Hod / Splendour-Beauty, Yesod / Foundation-Itch, each bringing music they had selected; each dancing the dance they had created. 

Everyone partook in all the night’s artistic creations, music, lighting and dance. 

Malchut / Kingship was a recapitulation of the first six.

It was a joyous event, filled with meaning and depth.  Getting God out of the head and into the body, and unleashing the creativity of our communities.

Years later, I received a Hebrew text composed by Reb Zalman and composed by him called Ma-amar l-hakafot / Discourse on the circlings (You can find this text if you have Yishmiru Da-at, on pages 25-28).  I didn’t immediately think to connect it with my 1992 Simchat Torah experience.  I found myself drawn to the text and feeling a desire to dig deeper.  I began working on a translation which I sent to Reb Zalman. 

Then one day, he sent me the following which he had written to give the context of the Ma-amar l-hakafot

So here’s Reb Zalman’s introduction setting a context to the text, along with a reproduction of the first page of the Hebrew text.  Im Yirtz hashem / God-willing, I will complete a translation and commentary of this wonderful piece for the community.  May your hakafot / Simchat Torah processions this year bring you the energy you need for 5769.  Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor

“It was in 1975, the time when we came to live in Philadelphia, having moved from Manitoba. It was at that time, that I decided to spend Simchat Torah in a way in which we would celebrate according to the basic teachings of the Kabbalah about the seven dances.

“Preceding Simchat Torah is the seven-day holiday of Sukkot. Each day of Sukkot, we go around with the Lulav and the Etrog / date palm bundle and citron circling the Torah reading tables, and praying the Hosha’not / Salvations and ecological prayers. Each day is another round beginning on the first day with Chessed / Loving-kindness moving to Malkhut / Kingship on the last day, Hosha’ana Rabbah / The Great Please Save day.

“There was something about sacred ritual dances that I had experienced before that time, in contrast to the exuberant dances of abandon of the Hasidim on Simchat Torah. They were dances that had been different: More sober and focused.  I’m referring to the Planet Walks designed by Murshid Samuel Lewis ob”m based upon some Sufi teachings.

“I noticed that the way in which one walked to Mercury was different than the way in which one walked to Jupiter, etc. And corresponding to our seven lower Sefirot, he also had dances based on Wazifa’s Divine attributes expressed in Divine epithets, like Rahim / Compassionate, Akbar / Greater, Rahman / Merciful, Mansur / Victorious, Jamil / Majestic, Wadud / Loving and Malik / Sovereign. The dancing required a great deal of awareness and shifts in attitude and affect. The way one moved the body was matched to the way one wanted to view the universe.

“This was what I wanted to try to bring into Simchat Torah in 1975. It was already indicated by the rubrics of the prayers, but I had never seen people actually paying attention to them in the way in which they did the dances.

“I first reached out to a colleague who promised that he would choose melodies to fit the sefirot – it did not happen. When I brought the idea to that first group on Simchat Torah and we began to dance, I could see that it was hard for them to get out of their habits of just dancing in the wild way which they had been accustomed to traditionally.

“I subsequently invited a group of people to come to Fellowship House Farm and to work on a full understanding of the Sefirot and how they would be expressed in the way in which we would walk and dance, and in the melodies, and in the colors of the lighting. Eventually, we were able to come to create walks and dances, with more focus on the specific Sefira: There was flowing music for Chessed or rhythmic and vigorous music for Gevurah; expansive with broad music for Tiferet, a march for Netzach, a flowing lento for Hod, rhythmic and a melodious tune with a throbbing beat representing a very strong second chakra, Yesod, and when it came to Malkhut a combining of all the dances we had done before.

“And the same order was also based on the seven days of creation and I rigged up a set of color beams, illuminations that would shine, one for each day. For the light of the first day “He created light,” I took it to be ultra-violet and I used a black light; for the light of the second day, the color of the sky and the water, blue; for the light of the third day, the color of the vegetation that is created with chlorophyll as the main color, green; for the light of the fourth day, the color of the sun, a yellow star, yellow; for the light of the fifth day of creation, when all the egg layers, the visions of the birds, were created, I used the color of the yolks, orange; for the light of the sixth day, for the animals and humans, the hemoglobin, for blood, red; and for the light on the Sabbath, representing the cessation of all that that came before it infra-red, and we danced to a strobe light.  These are also the colors I designed for the Bnai Or Tallit.

“These dances were also based upon the archetypal people associated with each Sefira: The males were Abraham (Chessed), Isaac (Gevurah), Jacob (Tiferet), Moses (Netzach), Aaron (Hod), Joseph (Yesod) and David (Malchut); the females were Miriam (Chessed), Leah (Gevurah), Hannah (Tiferet), Rebeccah (Netzach), Sarah (Hod), Tamar (Yesod) and Rachel (Malchut).

“After we spent some time studying and embodying the attitudes, movements and feelings, connecting them with the right rhythms and melodies, people were able to experience the generosity of Chessed, getting it into their bodies, feeling what it is like to be generous and expansive in the way in which I had envisioned.  For the second dance, that of Gevurah,  they felt what it is like to be severe, limit-setting and focused, specific.  They got to feel what it is like to open to the compassion of Tiferet; then to embody and feel what it is like to be in Netzach, focused on the task-like agent aspects and the fulfillment of tasks; then to be in the body and to feel Hod dancing unselfconsciously, with the kind of freedom to move in the flowing way like so many contemporary dances; then to enter the burlesque aspect of Yesod.

“Finally, for Malkhut, corresponding to the Shabbat, we would either lie down on the floor and yield, surrendering to gravity or go through all these of the six and find them in the body-attitudes and to see if one could really take ownership of each one.  In this way, during the up-coming year, whenever one of them was needed, they would be available for our embodiment. For instance, when I will need to get generosity going in myself, will I still remember how I danced that dance of Chessed / generosity on Simchat Torah; and when I will need to go and speak to my boss about a raise in salary, will I be able to put on the the body the feeling of Gevurah.

“Because the teaching goes into the dances and when we need to, we are borrowing from those modes to be used during the year and that is one of the purposes of the dances of Simchat Torah. The word Hakkafot, meaning the circle dances also is a synonym for borrowing, to pay back later.  (Hachenvaniy makkif)

“Now the Ma’amar / discourse I wrote about the Hakkafot that you may have read is trying to say something from a more conceptual point of view. A conceptual understanding is useful, because it’s not only the body and the affect that will launch the power and impact of those dances, but there has to be also a certain kind of understanding too.

“With each circle dance, one will also find in the Siddur a prayer connected to it, beginning with the first hakafah: Anna Hashem Hoshi’ah na, Annah Hashem Hatzlicha na, Anna Hashem Annenu b’yom Kor’eynu / God please help, etc. and the prayers reflect the aspects of each hakafah and continue until in the fifth one,”King of the worlds,” the sixth one, “Helper of the poor helpless” and the seventh, “Holy and awesome one;” so that each one of the prayers has a very specific connection to the dances in the texts.

“So I hope that when you will read this you will be able to see the dynamic way in which the main themes modulate, as, e.g., in the octave where Chessed is the main theme and the harmony is Gevurah that it will gradually develop until the previous harmony, Gevurah, becomes the main theme in its own right.

“I would love it if someone were to write these themes into a symphony in seven movements that we could use for the Simchat Torah dances.”


4 Responses to “Simchat Torah Processions”

  1. Jeff Marker Says:

    I was privileged to be at both these occasions. I still have the hoshanot that Reb Zalman used on Hoshana Raba in 1992. My wife used some of them at our havurah for the first day of Sukkot this year.

    I don’t remember which sephira I was part of on that occasion, but at Fellowship Farm we were free to choose, and I was drawn between Netzach and Hod. I ended up going with Netzach. Being archetypically task oriented we created our dance in about half an hour. I noticed that the Hod people, archetypically striving to create the perfect esthetic experience, worked up to dinner and then met some more, right up to hakafa time, to create the perfect dance experience.

    It was a great privilege to be present on both occasions.

  2. Gabbai Seth Fishman (Blog Editor) Says:

    Please see Rabbi Ayla Grafstein’s YouTube site, where Reb Zalman is featured from a Simchas Torah 2004 retreat at Elat Chayyim. Here’s a link to the specific clip:

  3. Chaplain Gloria Krasno Says:

    Those wonderous dances have been with me
    through the years since ‘Fellowship Farm’.
    The explorations/ the associations/ the Spirit that prevailed
    brought the Sefirot to life through the Hakkafot . . .

    And wasn’t it the Tiferet circling that linked to Jacob’s struggle
    and led to not a skipping, but a sliding rythymic limp
    keeping the balance between the Chesed/ Gevurah polarities
    and the Netzach – Hod twins

    How sweet it was . . . and with great gratitude, it still is!

  4. Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan Says:

    For the past several years, I have been incorporating Reb Zalman’s teachings about the Sephirotic qualities of each of the hakafot into our congregational celebrations. I have chosen music befitting each hakafah and emphasized the nature of the physical embodiment of each quality. (For Malchut, I have emphasized a regal and centered walk.) But reading the in-depth description here gives me a lot more guidance for making this practice even more concrete and meaningful to my congregants in future years, G-d willing. Thank you again, Reb Zalman.

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