Hakafot (הקפות plural); Hakafah (הקפה singular)—meaning "[to] circle" or "going around" in Hebrew—are a Jewish Minhag in which people walk or dance around a specific object, generally in a religious setting.
In Judaism, there is a custom on Sukkot to encircle the reader’s platform (Bema) with the Four species on each of the seven days of the holiday. On Simchat Torah, the custom is to take the Torah scrolls out of the Ark and to encircle the reader’s platform and throughout the synagogue with great joy, singing, and dancing.
Circular Hakafot are a symbol of perfection and unity, or sometimes a symbol of communal cooperation, and are cultural practices of different peoples. In the United States, Native Americans prayed for rain or the defeat of enemies while they danced in circles around images of their gods. According to the story told in the Book of Joshua, the People of Israel (Israelites) walked around the city of Jericho once a day for a week and seven times on the seventh day, with the priests leading the way, carrying the Ark of the Covenant each time. On the seventh day, the people blew ram’s horns’ and shouted, causing the walls to fall and allowing them to enter the city. In the Temple period, when they wanted to add area to the Temple Mount, they first encircled the desired area and only after added land to the Temple Mount.
During the Shacharit prayers on the first day of Sukkot and the five intermediate days when work is permitted (Chol HaMoed), a Torah scroll is taken from the Ark and held by one of the members of the congregation at the reader’s platform. The other members of the congregation encircle the reader’s platform once while holding the Four Species and sing the day’s Hoshanot Piyyutim. Ashkenazi Jews have the custom of doing these Hakafot at the end of the Musaf prayers, while some Sefardi Jews have the custom of doing them before the Torah reading service. However, no Hakafot are done on Shabbat.
On Hoshana Raba—the sixth, and final, day of Chol HaMoed—the Torah scroll is taken out and encircled like the previous days, yet is done so seven times in accordance with the encirclement of Jericho by the People of Israel. Likewise, in addition to the special Hoshanot Piutyim for Hoshana Raba, the congregation also sings the Hoshanot Piutyim of the other days.
The custom of Hakafot on Simchat Torah appears to have begun no earlier than the 15th century. From the times of the Rishonim the custom was recorded of taking the Torah scroll out on Hoshana Raba and Simchat Torah. The Maharil (Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin), “the father of Ashkenazic custom,” writes: “Before taking out the Torah scroll, the reader says the line “You showed” (אתה הרית) and the congregation answers with each verse. And when he reaches the line “The Torah shall come forth from Zion” (כי מציון תצא תורה), the Torah is removed from the Ark.” The Rema (Moses Isserles), in the 16th century, records the custom of Hakafot and the joy that accompanies the removal of the Torah scrolls from the Ark.
Even though the practice of Hakafot is done is most communities in Israel, in the past it was not an accepted custom in some Western European communities and was sometimes strongly resisted. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Geiger notes in his book “Diveri Kohelet” (an important source for the customs of the Jewish community of Frankfurt), that the custom of Ashkenazi Jews was not to do Hakafot and he chastised whoever tried to do Hakafot, as was the custom of Poland. Likewise, the four communities of the “Provence Customs” did not accept the custom of Hakafot.
Hakafot are held (in most communities) at night, at the end of the Maariv prayers and during the day in the Shacharit prayers, either before or after the Torah reading. Today, the practice is to extend the Hakafot of Simchat Torah and bring singing and dancing with the Torah scrolls throughout the synagogue. All of the Torah scrolls are taken from the Ark, and members of the congregation circle the reader’s platform seven times or more as they carry the Torah scroll with them and say the Piuyt “God of the winds, save us now” (אלוהי הרוחות הושיע נא).
In every round of Hakafot the reader, or another member of the congregation, walks at the front of the procession and reads verses of prayer arranged alphabetically along with the congregation. At the end of these verses the congregation erupts in song and dance with the Torah scrolls. Children take part in Hakafot by carrying tiny Torah scrolls or special flags decorated with the symbols of the holiday, and adults entertain the children by dancing and carrying the children on their shoulders. In the Diaspora, there is a custom to put an apple with a lit candle on the flag.
In some communities and the Hasidic world there is a custom to observe “The Sixth Hakafa” in remembrance of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. During this Hakafa, all the Torah scrolls are placed on the Bima and covered with a Talit (during “Second Hakafot” after the holiday they also dim the lights of the synagogue) and the congregation sings a sad nigun. The Modzitz Hasidim sing the song “Ani Ma’amin” [I believe in the coming of the Messiah] of Azriel-David Fastig—a Modzitz Hasid who wrote the tune in a traincar on the way to Treblinka—which is closely identified with The Holocaust.
In Israel, Hakafot are held on the 22nd of Tisheri (Shemini Atzeret) and in the Diaspora on the 23rd of Tisheri (Simchat Torah). However, in some congregations in the Diaspora there is a custom to do Hakafot both on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. This custom is accepted by some Hasidic communities (for example the Chabad Hasidim) and some Sefardi communities. Yet there are those who oppose this custom out of fear that it will belittle Second Day Yom Tov of the Diaspora.
At the conclusion of holiday and the beginning of the Second Day Yom Tov of the Diaspora (Simchat Torah in the Diaspora), there is a custom in Israel to do Second Hakafot, during which people go into the streets with Torah scrolls and dance another time. The source of this custom is attributed to Rabbi Hayyim ben Joseph Vital, who described the customs of his teacher, Isaac Luria, in Safed. Vital explains Luria had the custom to visit a number of synagogues after Simchat Torah which delayed the end of the prayer services and did Hakafot. From there the custom spread to Hebron and the Beit El Synagogue in Jerusalem, and subsequently spread to other congregations in Jerusalem before becoming accepted across Israel. The custom spread from Israel to communities in Italy and the Near East—Turkey, Baghdad, Persia, Kurdistan, and India.
Aside from Luria, additional reasons are recorded:A connection with the Diaspora, which was beginning celebration at the same time
After the conclusion of the holiday, one is allowed to play instruments and more people can therefore take part in the celebration, upholding the idea that “with more people comes a greater blessing of God.”
A source for the custom today comes from Rabbi Frankel, a Rabbi in Tel Aviv during the British Mandate, who initiated Second Hakafot in Tel Aviv in 1942 at the conclusion of Simchat Torah in solidarity with the Jews of Europe who were destined for a great tragedy.
At the end of the 1950s, people on Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi began the custom of Second Hakafot to connect the irreligious kibbutzes with the experiences of their neighbors, and its successes caused Bnei Akiva branches in large cities to adopt the practice. After the Six-Day War and the changes within the religious-nationalist community, the custom spread across the country. It became a proposal of synagogues, community centers, Yeshivas, and community councils.
In some Ashkenazic communities from Western Europe there is a custom that when a bride to comes to the Chupa, she circles the groom three or seven times, and afterward stands by his side. The earliest source for this custom comes in 1430 CE in the commentary of Rabbi Dosa HaYoni on the Torah, which notes that Austrian Jews had the custom of brides to circle three times. He attributes it to Jerimiah 31:21, which states, “Since God created new things in the world, woman shall encircle man.” As time passed the custom changed to seven times in some communities, and the change may have resulted from the importance of the number seven in Kabbalah. As time passed other explanations for the custom’s change—for example a symbol that just as the walls of Jericho that fell after Joshua and the people of Israel circled it seven times so too should the walls between spouses fall as well. An additional reason given is that Hakafot are a commemoration of the seven conditions of betrothal in the Book of Hosea symbolic of the engagement between God and Israel. Alternately, the custom remembers the three ways in Jewish law a marriage becomes binding: money, contract, and sexual intercourse. It is also possible that the custom was created with the influences of other cultures in the region.
In Mizrahi communities there used to be a custom among those who dealt with the dead to encircle the bed of a deceased person seven times before burial and to say verses of Psalms, like Psalm 90 and “May God who gives strength” [אנא בכח] as a way to ward off evil spirits. The custom came from Kabbalah but today is rarely practiced except for far-off places when an important person dies. This was also the practice of an older generation of Ashkenazi Jews, as well as the Perushim; that when family members died they were treated like Rabbis and important community members.