As Jonathan Sacks (who is himself quite famous) wrote in The Algemeiner, the famous English diarist, Samuel Pepys, paid his second visit to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Creechurch Lane in the city of London on 14th October, 1663. This was only shortly after Jews had been allowed back into England after being exiled in 1290, and this synagogue was in a private house. Pepys’ first visit had been for a memorial service, which was, of course, somber.
This visit was very different. This is how Pepys described it in his diary:
… after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles [i.e. tallitot], and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press [i.e. the Ark] to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing … But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.
Oh dear, Pepys. Why did no one tell you? 14th October 1663 was the festival of Simchat Torah – the Rejoicing of the Law. It celebrates coming to an end of the annual cycle of readings from the Torah and starting a new cycle. It’s a time for rejoicing, for dancing and singing in the streets (in some places) and in the synagogue. This and the festival of Purim are the only two days in the year when people go wild in the synagogue.
Where Judaism goes, misunderstandings are probably many. I remember, as a child, watching a rare TV documentary about Jews. The programme was about the differences between orthodox and reform Judaism. The documentarist (yes, it’s a real word) – as if to prove another difference in reform Judaism – pointed out that the children study the religion on Sunday and not Saturday. I burst out laughing when I heard that. The same is true in orthodox Judaism. How could children study on a day when writing is not allowed?
While misunderstandings are funny, they can have serious consequences. But I won’t dwell on that now, for next week is Simchat Torah – a time to rejoice.