Simchas Torah & a Lost Minhag of the Gra
By Eliezer Brodt
Chol HaMoed Succos is the Yarzheit of the Vilna Gaon (for an earlier post on the Gra see here and here). In this post I hope to show a source for a “forgotten” Minhag of the Gra.
In 1921 the great bibliographer (and much more) Yitzchak Rivkind described a strange custom he saw during the time he learned in Volozhin (after it was reopened and headed by R’ Rephael Shapiro), in an article about Minhag HaGra. On Simchas Torah they would open the Aron Kodesh when saying Aleinu, both at night and during the day, and while singing the Niggun of Mussaf of Yom Kippur would bow on the floor exactly like we do on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. When he asked for the source of this Minhag he was told it comes from the Gra. When he visited Vilna sometime later he found the only place that they observed this unique Minhag was in the Kloiz of the Gra, but nowhere else in Vilna.
In 1933 R’ Meir Bar Ilan printed his memoirs in Yiddish for the first time (in book form); in it he describes the great Simcha in Volozhin on Simchas Torah, that of his father the Netziv and of the Talmidim. He then writes that when they got to Aleinu they would open the Aron and with Niggun of Mussaf of Yom Kippur would sing and bow on the floor exactly like we do on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. However, this custom is not mentioned in the Maaseh Rav or any of the other collections of Minhagim of the Gra.
Earlier this year (2018) R’ Dovid Kamenetsky published a very important manuscript related to the Maaseh Rav. This work sheds light on how this important sefer of the Gra’s Minhaghim was written. The Gra had a very close talmid named R’ Saadyah who wrote up the various things he witnessed the Gra doing. This formed the basis of the Maaseh Rav who then went and added to it from other sources. This original manuscript work was recently discovered and printed by Rabbi Kamenetsky; in it we find that R’ Saadyah writes that on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur the Gra would fully bow (prostrate himself) during Aleinu, and did the same on Simchas Torah at night. Thus we now for the first time have the actual exact source of the Gra doing this.
בר"ה וי"כ וש"י כשאומר הש"ץ זכרנו:... כשהגיע לכורעים הי' כורע ונופל על אפיו בפשיטת ידים ורגלים וכן בשמחת תורה בלילה היו אומרים מזמורים ותפילות ...בים ואח"כ היו נופלים על אפיה' כנ"ל באימ[ה] בעלינו...
A possible explanation for this Minhag is that when things were getting a bit too wild, i.e. too leibedek, they did this to remind the crowd it’s a Yom Tov. This is not the only minhag done like Yomim Noraim, in one account we find “The Musaf was chanted with the music of the New Year's ritual.”
 HaIvri, 10:35, (1921), pp. 6-7. See Yaari, Toldot Chag Simchas Torah, p. 366.
 MeiVolozhin Ad Yerushlayim, 1, p. 115.
 See TorasS Hagra, p. 212. On this work see Toras Hagra, pp. 127-226.
 Between Worlds, p. 93