Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are timeless lessons of continuity, growth, study and celebration of all of God’s gifts, especially the spiritual ones.
By: Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel
At the conclusion of Sukkot, the culmination of the High Holiday season, there is yet one more holiday that the Jewish people observe: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah (Leviticus 23:36). In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are observed together on a single day while in the Diaspora they are observed over a two-day period.
Shemini Atzeret, translated literally as “the 8th Day of Assembly”, is one of the few Jewish holidays that has no special rituals and certainly no ritual objects. There’s no matzah to eat, no shofar to blow, and no lulav (4 species) to shake. So what is this ritual-less holiday and why do we need it after just having completed so many holidays?
The answer is simple as it is beautiful. Although not widely known, the seven-day holiday of Sukkot is actually a holiday for all of mankind, for all of humanity. In the times of the Temple in Jerusalem there were 70 sacrifices that were brought over the course of the Sukkot holiday representing the 70 nations of the world.
Sukkot symbolizes the Jewish people’s eternal desire to live in peace with the entire world. So too, it symbolizes the Jewish people’s wish for the entire world to recognize the One God of Abraham who created the world and to have the entire world realize the value and centrality of the Land of Israel, Jerusalem and of the awesome power of the Holy Temple.
Shemini Atzeret, on the other hand, represents a holiday strictly between God and His people, the people He chose to spread monotheism throughout the world. No rituals, no special mitzvot, not even a single prayer unique to it. The message of Shemini Atzeret is that for the last 7 days we have celebrated Sukkot, a holiday for the entire world. Now God says, so to speak: “I want a holiday with just My family alone, My children, those charged with spreading My Name throughout the world.”
Simchat Torah, the companion to Shemini Atzeret, celebrates the completion of the Torah reading cycle. And what is done immediately upon reading of the final Torah portion which discusses the death of Moses? We immediately begin the Torah reading cycle anew! We go right to Genesis 1:1 to read the story of creation. Not tomorrow, not next week, and not next Shabbat. Immediately. This teaches us that there is no break from Torah study: there is always more to learn. And indeed it is so. As the Talmud teaches, the one who has studied something 101 times knows it better that the one who only studied it 100 times. The Torah’s timeless teachings and stories have endless depth, meaning, and interpretation. There is always more to learn and so we do.
Have a Chag Sameach – a blessed holiday and a wonderful New Year!
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