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The Simchat Torah Flag

Guest Blog by Prof. Shalom Sabar
Department of Jewish and Comparative Folklore
Department of Art History
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
 Image:  Simchat Torah Flag, East Europe, late 19th century.

"A flag, what is that?  A stick with a rag on it?  No, sir.  A flag is more than that.  With a flag, people are led where one wants to lead them-even into the Promised Land.  For a flag men will live an die; it is indeed the only thing for which they are ready to die in masses…if they are educated for it."  (Theodor Herzl, letter to Baron Hirsch in Paris, June 3, 1895)

Simchat Torah flags are a beloved memory for many.  Growing up in Israel in the 1950's, I remember the flags often have an apple with a lit candle on the end; and gold glitter all over.

What is the source of this popular item?  Is it an ancient custom?  How and where did it develop?  This blog will briefly address these questions.  


Simchat Torah is not a biblical holiday, nor does it date from the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud.  The Simchat Torah custom of concluding the reading of the Torah and starting once again was determined in Babylonia at the time of the Geonim (late 6th to mid-11th c.) and spread throughout the Diaspora.  Many popular traditions from various Jewish communities determined its modes of celebration.  Simchat-Torah-Flag.jpg


The focus is the Torah scroll itself and on Simchat Torah, the community 'dances' with the Torah in the festive hakafot (circumambulation).  In Italy, two magnificent chairs carried the hatan Torah (Torah Bridegroom) who read the last Torah verses and the hatan Bereishit, the man who read the first verses of Genesis.

 The flag
The term Degel is Hebrew for Flag and is known from the Bible, particularly in Numbers and the Song of Songs.  However, in biblical times there were different meanings for this term and only later it came to connote "flag".  

Early Simchat Torah Flag
In Eastern Europe, the flag was associated with children as they were given a key role in the observance of this holiday.  Children participated in the Hakafot and were given fruits and candies, as is shown in earlyy 20th c. postcards from Warsaw and New York labelled with the Yiddish words "Simchat Torah flag."

Flags of Eastern Europe
Simchat Torah flags were used only once, so none survive from before 1860.  The oldest flags depict children  marching together as the tribes of Israel, carrying flags with symbols of the holiday as well as other traditional Jewish symbols, such as symbolic animals inspired by the Bible and the Mishna (Rabbinic Judaism's redaction of the oral tradition):  the lion (symbol of the tribe of Judah - see Genesis 49:9), eagle, deer, gazelle, etc.

Zionism and the Move to the Land of Israel
In 1902, flags from Belarus displayed the opening line of the First Aliyah (immigration to Israel) anthem.  Traditional images continued to appear along with new ones, featuring, for example, Zionist leaders, such as Hertzl and Nordau.  The swallowtail outline of the flag and pictures of Moses and Aaron came to the U.S. along with the E. European immigrants. In Israel, following the Six-Day War the liberated holy sites and the heroes of the war appeared on flags created before the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  After the 1980s, images were either "secular" or "yeshiva" oriented.  The Simchat Torah flag's meaning has gone full circle-from militaristic to spiritual and back to militaristic.  

The flag
The term Degel is Hebrew for Flag and is known from the Bible, particularly in Numbers and the Song of Songs.  However, in biblical times there were different meanings for this term (in Numbers, for example, it means "a military unit, a camp"); only later it came to connote "flag".

 


 

 

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