14th October – On this day in 1663, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:
“[A]fter dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue [on Creechurch Lane]: … 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. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service … 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”.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, he had witnessed the service of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah), marking the end of the Sukkot(h), the annual cycle of readings from the Torah, which is always a celebratory rather than a solemn event. The associated activity that most bewildered him was the hakafot (dancing with the Torah). There would almost certainly also have been drinking of ritual wine (symbolising life), although he does not mention it. Indeed, a traditional source recommends performing the priestly blessing earlier than usual in the service, to make sure that the priests are still sober when the time comes!
On a related note, Bevis Marks Synagogue, London’s oldest surviving Sephardic Synagogue, built in 1701 (as a replacement for Creechurch Lane Synagogue, originally built in 1657), is visited, although not entered, on our “London Wall” standard walk. And Sandy’s Row Synagogue in Spitalfields, London’s oldest surviving Ashkenazi Synagogue, founded in 1854 (on the former site of a French Huguenot Church, originally built in 1766), is passed on our “Aldgate, Bishopsgate and beyond” standard walk.
Further details of all our walks are available in the “Our Guided Walks” section of this web-site.