Holy Convocations: Minor Feasts
Messianic Rabbi Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy

(Note: all quotations are taken from the Complete Jewish Bible, translation by David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., unless otherwise noted)

"Rejoicing of (in) the Torah"

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”

2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV)

Simchat Torah is not one of the biblically prescribed feasts; it is not one of the Mikraey Kodesh (Holy Convocations, Leviticus Chapter 23) that we looked at in a different study. Actually, it is a rather practical solution to an otherwise semi-mundane chore. According to custom, the final reading of the book of Deuteronomy had just taken place, and a reading from the first chapter of the book of Genesis immediately followed; the Torah scroll needed to be re-rolled to facilitate another years worth of reading and study. Much work was involved (re-rolling a Torah scroll was no easy task!), so the rabbis decided to turn this time into a reason to rejoicewe have gracefully completed another complete reading of God’s Holy Torah! The eighth day of Sukkot (called Sh’mini Atzeret) was already a Biblically mandated assembly time, complete with festivities (see Numbers 29:35). As was the tradition since before the Common Era, the yearly cycle of reading was completed and restarted at this time also. The root word, simchah, means rejoicing.

The following rabbinic saying (from Pirke Avot) is quite appropriate for our study:

"Ben Bag Bag said: Turn it [The Torah] and turn it over and over again and again, for everything is in it, study it thoroughly, grow old and gray in its study, do not stir from it for you can have no better measure than this."

Like so many other practices in Judaism, the rabbis have also standardized the suggested reading schedule for this minor festival. The usual p’sukim (verses) are: Genesis 1:1-2:3; Numbers 29:35-31:1; Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12 (Parashah: V'Zot HaBrachah); and Joshua 1:1-18. If you have a Complete Jewish Bible, translation by David H. Stern, he recommends the following portions from the Brit Chadashah (New Covenant): Matthew chs. 5-7 (especially 5:17-20); Mark 12:38-34; Romans chs. 7-8; and Revelation 21:1-22:5. I want to break with tradition and midrashically look at the pasuk (verse) quoted at the onset of this teaching, 2 Timothy 2:15.

In HaShem’s order, acceptance is based on identity: Who are you? This question is of great significance to the Jew especially, but equally to the Gentile (Romans 1:16b). A study of the Torah will reveal the identity of both of these individuals. To be sure, misunderstanding who you are according to the Torah can have detrimental results. I want to start by briefly examining the meaning of the word Torah", and it’s definitions.

Definition: Torah = from the root Hebrew word "yarah" meaning "to shoot an arrow" or "to hit the mark". Properly used, the word "torah" means, "[the] teaching".

I have stated this in the introduction to my weekly Torah reading series, but it is helpful to repeat it here:

It is crucial for us to understand theologically, that the primary purpose in HaShem's giving of the Torah, as a way of making someone righteous, only achieves its goal when the person, by faith, accepts that Yeshua is the promised Messiah spoken about therein. Until the individual reaches this conclusion, his familiarity of the Torah is only so much intellectual nutrition. Only by believing in Yeshua will the person be able to properly understand HaShem, and consequently, his Word.

In a broad sense, Torah is the revelation of HaShem to His people. Within this framework, and depending on the context, the term "Torah" can mean:

(1) The five books of Moshe;

(2) that, plus the Prophets and the Writings;

(3) that, plus the Oral Torah, which includes the Talmud and

later legal writings;

(4) that, plus all religious teaching from the rabbis,

including ethical and "aggadic" materials; or

(5) all of the above as understood and interpreted in light

of what Yeshua the Messiah and the rest of the New

Covenant Scriptures have said about it.

*For the most part we will be using definitions 1, 2, and 5

According to God’s Torah, there are at least two very important covenants that both Jews and Gentiles need to understand.

    • Avrahamic: (Genesis 12:2, 3; 13:14-18; chapter 15; 17:9-14; Matthew 1:1-16; Romans chapter 4; Galatians 3:6-18)
    • Moshaic: (Exodus 34:27; Deuteronomy 29:1; Psalm chapter 119; Matthew 5:17-20; 23:1-3; Acts 21:19-26)

Question: How shall we as Jews and Gentiles understand our roles in such covenants? Before we answer this important question, let us turn our attention to a somewhat comprehensive examination of the Torah and its components. Such an examination will lay the necessary framework needed to understand our roles. We shall provide an answer to our question near the end of this commentary.


Written Torah: "Torah she-b’ktav"

With much assistance from various Internet resources let us thoroughly examine the two main Judaic perspectives of this Torah. The term "Law" in the English Bible derives from the Greek word "nomos", and nomos itself is a translation of the Hebrew word "torah". In the Hellenistic period that extended from the third century B.C. to the first century B.C. onward, the original Hebrew word Torah was rendered by nomos, which was the Greek word for "Law." The Septuagint (usually represented by the Roman numeral LXX) is the most important Greek version of the Hebrew Bible coming from the Hellenistic period, and it constantly translates the word Torah as nomos. Because the early Greek-speaking Jews and Christians used the Septuagint as their Scriptures, its impact on Jewish and Christian Greek documents is beyond description.

The Law also meant the "Law of the LORD" (Luke 2:23, 24, 39). It is the will of the LORD; the Law is not simply a legal code but a totality of the revelation of HaShem. It gives the people of God instructions on how they should live justly and how they should carry on their ordinary lives by showing mercy to their neighbors. Among other functions, the Law was designed to provide detailed instructions about how the ancient Isra’elites should prepare and offer sacrifices to their God. It also showed them how to make distinctions between clean and unclean foods and other things, and it taught them how to deal with criminal justice in their community. Moreover as Yeshua summarized so well, "The weightier matters of the Law" are "justice and mercy and faith" (Matt 23:23). Of course the Pentateuch does contain legal codes. What is more, they are to be understood as the Will or Teachings of HaShem. "She-b’ktav" referrs to "that which was written".

When we look back into the history of the Bible, it is evident that the Scriptures have had a long process of development. Judaism makes reference to the entire corpus of ancient Scriptures by use of a moniker called the "TaNaKH" (an acronym formed from the three Hebraic sections of the "Old Testament", namely "Torah", "Nevi’im", and "Ketuvim", viz "Law", "Prophets", and "Writings". First the Torah came into existence; the prophetic writings and then the rest of the TaNaKH books, technically referred to as the Hagiographa, followed the Torah. The Torah was recognized as Scripture much sooner than the Prophets and the Hagiographa. At the time of Yeshua the last section of the TaNaKH did not yet enjoy canonical status; it was only late in the first century A.D. that we Jewish people recognized the Hagiographa as part of our Scriptures.

The Gospels, therefore, constantly mention "the Law and Prophets" when they refer to the Scriptures. That phrase was synonymous with the Bible at the time of Yeshua. "After the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the officials of the synagogue…" (Acts 13:15), "do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets" (Matt 5:17), and "on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 22:40) are just a few examples. There are eight other instances in the B’rit Chadashah where the expression Law and Prophets is used to denote the Bible of that time: Matthew 7:12; 11:13; Luke 16:16; 24:44; John 1:45; Acts 24:14; 28:23; Romans 3:21. Quite often, however, either Law or Prophets is shown to be standing alone and still conveying the same meaning, viz, the Scriptures. For instance, in the New Testament there are passages like "have you not read in the Law that…" (Matt 12:5) and "so that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled…" (Matt 26:56). Similar instances are also found in Matthew 2:23; 5:18; 12:5; Luke 2:22, 23; 16:29; 18:31; 24:27; and John 6:45.

The purpose and meaning of the Written Law or Torah, now codified in the Pentateuch, emanates from the Ten Commandments, which specify the covenant relationship between God and ‘Am Isra’el. The "covenant code" or the "book of the covenant" (Ex. 24:7) immediately follows the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). The Covenant Code (Ex. 21:23) generally deals with civil and criminal laws, and consequently the literary form of the code takes a familiar legalistic structure.


Casuistic and Apodictic

There are two forms in the legal code: casuistic and apodictic. The casuistic form is found in the first section of the Covenant Code (Ex. 21:1-22:17), and the apodictic form is found in the second section (Ex. 22:18-23). The casuistic form first states a condition (the technical term for this is "protasis") and normally begins with words like "if" or "when." The protasis describes the circumstances or conditions that prompt the consequential injunctions. The second part, that is, the injunction, is called "apodosis." It contains a statement of legal consequences that may or may not begin with the word "then." Here are two examples: "When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do" (Ex. 21:7) and "If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it" (Ex. 21:35).

The apodictic form, usually found in the second part of the Covenant Code, states commands in the second person "you." It gives commandments or prohibitions in direct forms without any description about circumstances. For example, we read in Exodus 22, "You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live. Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death" (vv. 18:19) and "You shall not revile God, or curse a leader of your people" (v. 28). This apodictic form is most common in other legal codes like the Priestly and Holiness Codes.

The Priestly Code is another legal document found in parts of Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus. It specifically deals with matters related to religious concerns and ritual procedures. Perhaps the oldest and most distinct section of this code is the Holiness Code in chapters’ 17-26 of Leviticus. The basic theological thrust of this code is stated in the following passage, "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy" (Lev 19:2).

The book of Deuteronomy, as the name indicates (it means the "second Law"), contains legal codes pertaining to kingship, human relations, family life, and civil and cultic matters. It is a comprehensive guide to every aspect of community life, even though it constantly reminds the readers about the history of HaShem’s dealings with Isra’el. The core of this book became the source of King Josiah’s reform in 621 B.C. The Written Torah reflects not only the nomadic life before the settlement in the Promised Land, but it also presupposes the social milieu of Isra’el during the times of the kingdoms.


Oral Torah: "Torah sh’be’al peh"

Although the Written Torah seems to be precise in its description of legal codes and commandments, it would be impossible to write down every conceivable human behavior and ascertain whether or not the Torah allowed each one. Concerning the prohibition of work on the Sabbath, for example, we notice that nowhere in the Torah is there a definition of what constitutes labor (Heb: melachah) on the Sabbath and what does not. Amos (8:5) and Jeremiah (17:21-24) mention keeping the Sabbath in concrete terms—forbidding trading and bearing a burden—but it is impossible to enumerate all the probable behaviors and circumstances and give judgment as to whether or not they violate the Sabbath. This became more of a problem as time went on and the historical and cultural circumstances changed in later periods. The violation of the Sabbath is a very serious offense for Jewish people everywhere (a capital offence in ancient times), but the absence of a precise definition of working on the Sabbath in the Pentateuch has been a persistent problem. Unless people have a clear definition of what constitutes labor on the Sabbath, they cannot objectively observe it. Even for contemporary pious Christians, this is a serious problem. Like Amos and Jeremiah, the believing community had their own understanding about the Sabbath, and that became the tradition of the community. Since the time of Ezra in the post-exilic period, many experts on the Law (scribes, sopherim) were interpreting the Torah in and for their covenant community, and the community regarded their words as having the same binding authority as the Written Torah.

The traditional interpretations of the Torah by the experts on the Torah as well as those of the Chazal (Our Rabbis of Blessed Memory), particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, became the "Torah sh’be’al peh" (Torah from the mouth), also known as unwritten or Oral Torah. The Oral Torah gained equal footing and took on the same kind of binding authority as the Written Torah. The function of the Oral Torah is to "make a fence for the Law" (Avot 1.1). The Written Torah is to be protected by keeping and observing the tradition (Oral Torah). Consequently, Judaism has been able "keep" the Written Torah merely by observing the Oral Torah. By obeying the tradition in concrete terms (no business on the Sabbath, for instance), they could observe the commandment about the Sabbath.

During the highlight of the period of Rabbinic Judaism it was believed that HaShem revealed his Will not only through the Written Torah, but through unwritten traditions as well. The rabbis claimed that the Oral Torah, which was transmitted by word of mouth, was also given to Moshe at Mount Sinai, teaching that it had in fact existed side by side along with the Written Torah ever since. "Moshe received the Law (written and unwritten) from Sinai (from God) and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, the prophets transmitted it to the men of Great Assembly" (Avot 1.1). This unwritten Torah was eventually written down and collected in the voluminous book referred to as the Talmud. The Mishnah, which was compiled by Rabbi Judah the Prince (born in A.D. 135), is the most important tradition in the Talmud.

Do not think this practice to be strange. We find this phenomenon in other religions as well. Islam has the Hadith and Christianity (Catholic and Orthodox) has the apostolic traditions. The Protestant churches do not recognize the apostolic traditions as authoritative as the written Bible, yet they do recognize their importance for theology.

I have taken the time to elaborate on the detailed components of the Torah so that we might better appreciate the next section dealing with those two important covenants mentioned earlier. What of the Avrahamic and Moshaic covenants? How shall we as Jews and Gentiles understand our roles in such covenants? It is to this next section that we turn in an attempt to answer our questions.



(The following explanation was taken from Torah Rediscovered, Ariel and D’vorah Berkowitz, FFOZ Publications):

‘A person cannot appropriate the full blessings of the covenant with Moshe (the Torah) unless he first enters into the covenant with Avraham. The latter is done by faith and faith alone. The covenant of promise (through Avraham) gave Israel the physical promises. Not only are these physical promises a reality; they are also pictures of the spiritual relationship we have with HaShem. Moreover they are illustrative of the spiritual promises of inheritance obtained by all believers through faith in Yeshua.

‘For those who trust HaShem for the promises, the proper order for faith and obedience is set by the sequence in which the covenants were given. In other words, faith must precede obedience. But the kind of faith accepted by HaShem is one that naturally flows into obedience. True obedience never comes before faith, nor is it an addition to faith. It is always the result of true biblical faith. To rephrase this in terms of the covenants: the covenant of promise (Avraham) must come before the covenant of obedience (Moshe). If we were to put Moshe first, attempting to secure those promises by obedience, we would be going against HaShem’s order. (This, by the way, is the key to unlocking the difficult midrash used by Sha’ul in Galatians 4:21-31.) All we could hope for would be a measure of physical protection and a knowledge of spiritual things. But we could not receive justification or a personal relationship with the Holy One through obedience to the Torah; it all had to start with faith. Avraham came before Moshe, but Moshe did not cancel out Avraham! The two complemented each other—as long as they came in the proper order.’

What does this mean for the Jew as well as the Gentile? Apart from a being well reasoned theological argument for combating legalism, the concept taught here defines our identity, as, not only being grounded in the Torah—but it is who we are in Messiah! If the blood of the Sinless One has redeemed us from sin and unrighteousness, then we now have been clothed in his holiness! We now have a new identity—the righteousness of HaShem! The old man has died with the death of our Messiah; the new man has been raised unto life everlasting just like him (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)! And all of these promises are secured for us within the pages of God’s Torah!


Shomer Mitzvot

In Judaism, keeping the Torah is central to performing the will of HaShem. Indeed, as properly understood from HaShem’s point of view, the whole of Torah was given to bring its followers to the "goal" of acquiring the kind of faith in HaShem that leads to placing one’s trusting faithfulness in the One and only Son of HaShem, Yeshua HaMashiach. To this end, the Torah has prophesied about him since as early as the book of Genesis (3:15), and continues to speak of him until its conclusion in Revelation (22:20). In this capacity, the Torah acts like its etymological counterpart ("yarah") in that it "teaches" its adherents how to properly identify with HaShem by helping them to "reach the mark". To be sure, the Hebrew word used to identify "sin" literally means, "to miss the mark".

Obedience to the Torah (referred to in Judaism as "shomer mitzvot") has long since been an oft-misunderstood subject, both in the Jewish community and the Christian one. It is my understanding that the errors can be corrected once a person resolves the issues surrounding legalism, begins to understand the intended nature and function of the Torah in the first place, and then faithfully applies it to their own lives. Because the Messiah has already come, the Torah is now a document meant to be lived out in the life of a faithful follower of Yeshua, through the power of the Ruach HaKodesh, to the glory of HaShem the Father. It should not be presumed that it could be obeyed mechanically, automatically, legalistically, without having faith, without having trust in HaShem, without having love for HaShem or man, and without being empowered by the Ruach HaKodesh. To state it succinctly, Torah observance is a matter of the heart, always has been, and always will be.

It is my desire that this continuing series of teachings will assist the average non-Jewish believer, or new Messianic Jewish believer in his desire to become a more mature child of God.

"And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD's commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer"
(Deuteronomy 10:12-16, NIV).

Torah Observance is a matter of the heart. It always has been and always will be. The Torah Proper (first Five Books of Moshe) instructed the people of Isra’el to "love ADONAI your God with all their heart, all your being and all your resources" (Deuteronomy 6:5). This is where "shomer mitzvot" begins—by loving HaShem, and accepting Him on His terms. By this, I mean accepting His means of covenant obedience. For today, this means acceptance of Yeshua, His only Son, for Jew and non-Jew alike.

Covenants require a response on the part of the follower. HaShem, for His part, has provided the "promise of inheritance" for all those who participate in the Avrahamic Covenant. The response to this covenant is "faith". The nature of the Moshaic Covenant is "blessing, maintenance, and enjoyment of promise". For them that wish to participate, the response to this covenant is "obedience". It’s that "easy".

We can study the Torah year after year, but if we fail to grasp this central truth, then our study is in vain! It was never HaShem’s desire to have his children study the Torah as a means unto itself! To be sure, many well-meaning people, Jew and Gentile alike, are doing just that. In my opinion, this is tantamount to idolatry. How dare we turn God’s Holy Word into something it was not intended to be! I woulike to challenge the reader not to fall into this very easy and dangerous trap. We as believers should be worshipping the God of the Torah, and his Messiah—not the Torah itself!

So much more could be said on this subject of Torah, especially as it pertains to becoming submissive to the lifestyle found with its wonderful pages. To be sure, the Torah life is the very life that the Holy One, blessed be He, preordained for us to walk in as we live out our identity in Messiah (read Ephesians 2:10b)! For a more complete approach to how Torah and grace go hand in hand read my commentary called ‘Torah vs Grace: Understanding the Continuity between the TaNaKH and the Renewed Covenant’.

"Rejoicing in the Torah?" Yes, by all means! In Messiah, there certainly is something to rejoice about! "Study to shew thyself approved…"? You bet! The goal or aim of the Torah is the Messiah (Romans 10:4)! How else are we to recognize who we are?

“Baruch atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-‘Olam,
asher natan Toraht-emet,
uv’suraht-yeshu-ah l’amo Yisra’el
ul’chol ha-amim al-yadey bano Yeshua HaMashiach, Adoneinu.”

(Blessed are you O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
who gives the Torah of truth,
and the Good News of salvation to his people Isra’el
and to all the peoples through his son Yeshua the Messiah, our Lord.)

May your study of Torah be filled with blessing and joy!

Messianic Rabbi Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy