Originally, different customs existed regarding the reading of the Torah on Shabbat. In Israel, the Torah was read in a three-year cycle, while in Babylon the custom was a yearly cycle. Eventually, the Babylonian custom became universally accepted, and to this day Jews throughout the world publicly read the entire Five Books of Moses in the course of every year. The reading of the Torah is both completed and begun again on Shemini Atzeret (in Israel on the eighth day, and in the Diaspora on the ninth day). This occasion became known as Simchat Torah, the “Joy of the Torah.” The Midrash traces the concept of rejoicing upon finishing the Torah back to the celebration made by King Solomon when G-d granted his request for wisdom.
Simchat Torah is a day of tremendous happiness. Completing the reading of the Torah and beginning it again is an occasion marked by dancing, singing, feasting and many beautiful customs. Both in the evening and during the day, all the Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark and the community dances with them around the bimah, while reciting prayers and singing songs that thank G-d for the precious gift of the Torah. This ceremony is known as Hakafot, literally circuits.
The incredible joy that is felt on Simchat Torah is a testimony to the love that the Jewish people have for the Torah. The Luvavitcher Rebbe pointed out that greater joy is expressed on Simchat Torah than on Shavuot, even though Shavuot is the festival that marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. He explained that on Shavuot we were passive recipients of G-d’s gift of the Torah, but on Simchat Torah, we celebrate the fact that we are active partners with G-d in the Torah. We read and study the Torah, and through the wisdom of our Sages, and the customs of our communities, implement it in our daily lives. Simchat Torah reflects the Jewish people’s love for the Torah, their involvement in the Torah and their devotion to G-d, Giver of the Torah.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch links Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah to the yearly pattern of all the festivals. He notes that Passover, celebrating the physical creation of the Jewish people, is followed by and linked to Shavuot, when the Torah was given – i.e. the spiritual creation of the Jewish people. Sukkot celebrates the physical preservation of the Jewish people through Divine Providence. Sukkot in turn is followed by and linked to Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the festivals celebrating the spiritual preservation of the Jewish people, through their attachment to the Torah.
It is significant that immediately after completing one cycle by reading the end of Deuteronomy we begin the new cycle by reading from Genesis. There is no interruption in our communal study of Torah; we start again as soon as we have finished because the Torah has infinite depth — one can never really finish studying Torah. When we complete one cycle, we understand one more level of Torah and are now more capable of understanding the next level, and the next, and the next…. What we celebrate on completing the Torah, is the renewed and improved opportunity that we now have to learn Torah even better.