Join us on a fascinating journey through the history of Simchat Torah flags: From the Middle Ages, through the early Zionist movement and to this very day
The custom of waving specially designed holiday flags on Simchat Torah (‘The Rejoicing of the Torah’, the day after the festival of Sukkot in which the annual cycle of the Torah reading is completed, and the congregants dance and celebrate with the Torah scrolls) has been part of Jewish life for hundreds of years, with its roots firmly in the diaspora, and yet it seems that in the modern Jewish State of Israel, these decorated flags have undergone their most significant design and stylistic changes.
When not busy elbowing each other during the hakafot in an attempt to touch and kiss the Torah scroll leading the procession, the Jews of 16th century Eastern Europe grappled with the question of how to involve the children of their communities in the Simchat Torah celebrations. In order to solve the problem, the community adults designed a symbolic item which fit the children’s dimensions – the Simchat Torah flag.
The enjoyable custom soon spread to different communities throughout the Jewish world. We find Simchat Torah flags wherever we look: 18th century woodcuts from Amsterdam, greeting cards from 19th century New York, and Eastern European communities of the early 20th century. But it was in Israel that the flags underwent their most interesting changes and development.
The Jews of Eastern Europe designed Simchat Torah flags reminiscent of the banners of European knights and cities, but replete with Jewish motifs. Thus, the members of the community hinted that the flags of the Jewish people – in contrast with medieval Christian tradition – were flags of the Torah and its commandments, and not symbols of warfare and bloodshed.
This changed drastically in the period of the Zionist pioneers. A plethora of nationalistic messages began to appear on Simchat Torah flags: Theodor Herzl’s picture was woven into the fabrics, the Star of David was drawn together with the Torah scrolls, and the banners were embroidered with nationalistic Zionist slogans: “For our nation, land and Torah”.
From the very outset of the Zionist settlement, Jewish heroes were “used” for Zionist purposes. In 1902, the figure of Moses appeared on a Simchat Torah flag in Belarus, holding what appears to be the new law book of the Jewish people, in which it says, among other things: “Our hope is not yet lost” (a line from “Hatikvah”, which would become the national anthem of the Jewish State).
In the 1930s, the pioneers abandoned the pious figures which traditionally adorned the Simchat Torah flags, replacing them with Israeli children dressed in youth movement garb. Immigrants from the various diasporas sometimes joined these sabras, dressed in more traditional attire. With the establishment of the State of Israel, drawings of exultant young girls waving flags together with their classmates or neighbors finally began to appear on the flags, something the Jews of Eastern Europe would never have envisaged.
The joy and celebration of the early Zionist period and the foundation of the state were slightly dampened in the 1950s and 60s. Flag designs from this era clearly reflect the longing and desire to be reunited with meaningful historical and religious sites: the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb and the Tower of David repeatedly make appearances.
The Israeli victory in the Six Day War changed all of this. As soon as Jerusalem was reunited and the Old City came under Israeli control, the Western Wall (together with Rachel’s Tomb) became the site where the young boys and girls depicted on the flags rejoiced. The nation’s new heroes, IDF soldiers, began to appear on the flags. The architects of the military triumph took the place of the devout Jews of the past.
The 1980s ushered in a rift we are familiar with to this day: congregations of a more secular nature continued to produce flags showing girls and boys together, and went even further, adding popular cartoon characters whose connection to the holiday is questionable, while the more religious communities reinstated religious figures (new and old), or depicted only boys with skullcaps in the synagogue on their banners.
The Simchat Torah Flag Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.