Tradition & Innovation

Simchat Chokhmah

By Savina J. Teubal, z"l

Create a tradition? A tradition is based on accumulated experience, handed down from ancestors to posterity. Well, I believe I did just that! I created a ceremony, a rite of passage from adult to elder, to establish my presence in the community as a functional and useful human being. The ritual also served some personal needs: that of facing my mortality, for instance. Calling my ritual a tradition may be a misnomer since my ritual has not been "handed down to posterity." Nevertheless, I felt that a crone ceremony filled a significant need in our society. Subsequently, others have created similar rites of passage based on my own, and I have been asked to speak and write about this experience on various occasions. I think I can consider that I have "handed down" my experience.

I decided to have a ritual on the occasion of my sixtieth birthday. Sixty seemed to me an appropriate age because I had just begun to feel the physical changes that come with age, changes that required a modification of my lifestyle. However, the reason I was drawn to assume my new status with a ceremony was inspired by the Genesis narratives I have been so involved with for the past decade. I came to realize that the biblical stories that dealt with Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham were, in most cases, rituals. Each time a ritual was performed, the life of the protagonist changed radically. Ostensibly, the main theme dealt with in the Bible is succession: Sarah acquired a son; Hagar acquired a son; and Abraham acquired two sons. But the overall theme is the spiritual journey our ancestors set out on. Both Sarah and Abraham are advanced in age at the time of their calling, so I thought that their summons was a propitious one for us to follow. I therefore included in the ritual elements from the Genesis narratives: a blessing, a change of name, a covenant, a reconciliation with death, an affirmation of life.

How to face mortality in one's own ceremony is a difficult proposition, to say the least. It was feminist scholar Drorah Setel's inspiration that led me to consider wearing a kittel. The kittel is a white ceremonial robe worm by some congregants on solemn occasions such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during one's lifetime, and serves in death as the shroud. In this way the body is clothed in the same manner in the sanctity of life as well as in the sanctity of death. It is symbolic, in the larger scheme of things, of the cycle of life and death in harmony with the cosmos.

I began the ceremony wearing an ancient robe, woven and made by women of Macedonia, which I had bought some years ago in Yugoslavia. Halfway into the ritual, I changed into a white linen galabie that I had brought with me from Jerusalem, where I had been that summer. The galabie is a simple garment, like a long shirt dress, the customary attire of Middle Eastern men and women. This garment was particularly meaningful to me because my cultural background is Syrian and the galabie was worn by my ancestors. I think that anyone seriously considering taking part in a Simchat Hochmah ritual should include the experience of wearing a kittel, the garment they will be buried in. It is a sobering occurrence and was, perhaps, the most moving part of the ritual.

Another element from the Sarah and Abraham story that I chose to include in the ritual was a covenant or a promise. A covenant is a solemn commitment that binds two parties to fulfill an agreement in which each is rewarded by the action of the other. A promise is an assurance by one person to fulfill an agreement, perhaps give a reward, but the rewarding is not reciprocal. God made covenants with Abraham and made promises to Sarah. I elected to make a pledge in memory of the promises made to Sarah. I offered my community a Beth Chayim Chadashim grant to anyone who would continue my work in feminist Judaism.

I ended the ritual with the planting of a tree. Trees were a significant spiritual symbol for our ancestors: Sarah lived in Elonei Mamre, a grove of sacred terebinths at Mamre; Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, was buried under an oak in Beth-El; Abraham planted a tamarisk at Beer-sheva, etc. Trees symbolized the connection between the depths of the earth, where life is quickened, and the canopy above, where life becomes visible. I brought a young tree (in a pot) to temple and symbolically planted it with handfuls of earth and enjoined those who wished to partake in the planting.

I. Pesukei de Zimra Congregation (songs)

Welcoming Song: B'ruchot Habaot (music: Debbie Friedman; words: Marcia Falk and Debbie Friedman).

Lechi Lach [Go, take yourself] (Theme Song)

(Music: Debbie Friedman; words: Savina J. Teubal and Debbie Friedman).

II. Introduction (read by Community Elders)

We celebrate Simchat Hochmah to mark an outstanding event: the beginning of a new phase in our lives, different from all others. It is a rite of passage that honors one of the many stages in life between the time of birth and the time of death. Like many other celebrations (bar/bar mitzvah, graduation, wedding). Simchat Hochmah validates the part of life already lived, and empowers the portion of our future.

Every celebration/initiation brings with it the promise of a new and exciting future; Simchat Chokhmah is no exception: it marks the beginning of the Joy of Wisdom, the long-awaited reward of a full life. Because Simehat Hochmah marks such an exceptional transition in life it is necessary that the ritual be highly symbolic.

It seems especially fitting that Simchat Hochmah should be celebrated in the month of Cheshvan because the Torah portion to be read today is the awe-inspiring lech lecha, the call of divinity that has come down to us through the ages, a call made to Sarai and Abram, a call to the quest for a new spirituality.

Lech Lecha, Go, take yourself
...to a place that I will show you
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great
And you shall be a blessing
I will bless them that bless you...[Gen. 12:2]

Because the greatest portion of their spiritual life commences in their old age, the physical beauty of old age is also stressed in the biblical narratives: Sarah is beautiful to her husband, to kings, and to God. Although Sarah's distinction is placed in the context of sexual desire in the biblical passages, the true nature of the stories has little to do with sexuality; rather it emphasizes the beauty of the matriarch's innermost being; a time when physical beauty acquires a new dimension; when the core nourishes and glows through the exterior. It was not only the birth of a child that was of utmost importance to our ancestors but the inner vision of forging a destiny and establishing a legacy.

It is this vibrant beauty from within that marks, not only an elder's accomplishments in life, but the inner enlightenments we call wisdom.

Wisdom is the process by which visions are realized.

Wisdom is not an end result but a process acquired through fairth in the future reality of one's own vision(s), whether subliminally or supernaturally guided.

It is in the context of vision becoming reality that we celebrate Simchat Hochmah, by including in the ceremony some of the stps taken by our ancestors:
A title or change of name.
A blessing.
A covenant or promise (individual or communal).
A reconciliation with death; an affirmation of life.
A rejoicing, in which the individual and the community celebrate the occasion, perhaps by recounting past and future visions.

I have included portions of the Sabbath service in the ritual because I want Simchat Hochmah to be a truly Jewish ritual that springs from specifically Jewish roots. The highlight of the Sabbath morning service is the reading of the Torah portion. The Torah is a religious symbol of Judaism, and without Torah, at least to me, there would be no Judaism.

We dress Torah, we carry her, we care for her, we crown her. The Torah, the actual scrolls, are as close to an image of goddess as we have left to us from antiquity. Torah is the source of Jewish wisdom (hochmah), whose roots are our foundations and whose branches spread out to infinity.

III. Birchot Hashachar (Morning Blessings)

These are the obligations without measure:

To honor mother and father
to perform acts of love and kindness
to attend the house of study daily
to welcome strangers
to visit the sick
to rejoice with lovers
to console the bereaved
to pray with sincerity.
to make peace when there is strife.

And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.

IV. Kaddish D'Rabbanan (Scholar's Kaddish)

(Music: Debbie Friedman)


Sh'ma Israel: you are ancient and ever changing
Sh'ma Israel: The Holy Name is the Name of many
Sh'ma Israel: find comfort beneath the wings of Shekhinah
Sh'ma Israel: the sacred way is before you.

V. Tefillah (prayer)

Congregants talk about people who are or have been significant in their lives. Silent period.

VI. Ritual and Torah Portion

1. The participant leaves the sanctuary to change into the kittel. As she changes, she recites the Birkat Hama'ayan (based on a traditional prayer):

I bless the wellspring of life and death
that sanctifies me with mitzvot [commandments],
and commands me to enwrap myself in a comely garment
and find peace and rest
beneath the wings of the Shekhina.

Then she returns to the bimah while the congregants sing LECHI LACH.

2. Naming ceremony

In recognition of our status as elders of the congregation, with a vision and destiny for our community, the new elders will receive their title and a blessing from the congregation.

People who do not feel that the name given to them by their parents represents the essence of their being may at this time ask the congregation to recognize them with a new name.

Since the service honoring the elders of this congregation is Simchat Hochmah, the joy of Wisdom, the title we have chosen to bestow on our elder is Hachamah (Wise Woman) and Hacham (Wise Man). A tallit [prayer shawl] is held up over the bimah where the elders congregate, and a blessing (written by Marcia Falk) is given by the officiant and then sung by the congregation.

3. Aliyah

The Torah is taken from the ark and welcomed with song. The participants read the portion "Lech Lecha" (Gen. 12:1-2, 17:15) and Savina gives a d'var torah.

VII. The Covenant and the Promise

Note: Either a promise or a covenant may be elected by the participant in memory of the promises and covenants received by our ancestors.

A covenant or promise serves as a bond between the participant and her community both during her lifetime and after her death. The congregation surrounds the participant as she announces her legacy to them. They then bless her, specifically, in song or recitation.

VIII. Elonei Mamre (The terebinth grove of Mamre)

The ceremony ends with the symbolic planting of a tree by the participant.

When I came, I tended the trees my ancestors had planted
Now I plant the trees for those who come after me.
I plant this tree so that its roots will mingle with my ashes
So that those of you who come after me will be blessed in its shade
Find nourishment in its beauity and comfort under its canopy
May this tree grow to be filled with the presence of the Shekhinah.

Congregants file by the tree singing LECHI LACH.

End of Ceremony.

Complete Ceremony

NEW! Set of 18 Blessing Cards for Major Jewish Holidays