Shemini Atzeret is not the easiest holiday to explain. We recite Yizkor [a special memorial prayer for the departed, recited in the synagogue four times a year; following the Torah reading on the last day of Passover, the second day of Shavuot, on Yom Kippur, and on Shemini Atzeret]. We also say the prayer for rain as the unofficial kick-off to winter in Israel. So what did the Tanakh have in mind when assigning a day after Sukkot to be a holiday and not proclaiming what we now call Simhat Torah (the day after Shemini Atzeret here in the United States)? There are perhaps eight different answers to this question that pay homage to the word Shemini (which means 8); however, there are four most commonly shared interpretations from the time of our sages to today:
Rabbinic Tradition – Shemini Atzeret is characterized as a day when the Jewish people “tarry” (from the Hebrew root of the word Atzeret) in order to spend yet another day with God at the end of Sukkot. Rashi cites the parable of a king who invites his sons to dine with him for a number of days, but when the time comes for them to leave, he asks them to stay for another day, since it is difficult for him to part from them. Sukkot may be considered more of a universal holiday, but Shemini Atzeret is specifically set aside for the Jewish people. Moreover, Shemini Atzeret is a modest holiday, which celebrates [God’s] special relationship with His beloved nation and ultimately, the only nation that accepted God’s Torah (Avodah Zarah 2a-3a).
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks – Shemini Atzeret is our quiet time with God; the sense of intimacy we feel when all the other guests have left. Simhat Torah was born when Jews had lost everything else, but they never lost their capacity to rejoice.
Rabbi Daniel Rowe (Executive Director of Aish HaTorah United Kingdom) – The number eight, shemona, also spells the word for expansiveness, shmena. For seven days of Sukkot, we retreat from the material world, learning a new dimension of life. On the eighth day we take those inner messages and bring them back to every part of our lives. Our appreciation should allow us to be sensitive to every blessing that we have. On Simhat Torah, we invite the Torah to formally “dance with us” in appreciation of those blessings and to literally allow everyone to bless God’s Torah and all that we have to better serve the world.
Tablet Magazine (October 2009) – “Some, for example, argued that as Sukkot is a time to commemorate dwelling in temporary structures as guests of the Lord, Shemini Atzeret is a bonus round of sorts, a reminder that God loves his chosen people so much he is reluctant to let them go back to business as usual.”
For me, thinking about the significance of Shemini Atzeret often brings me back 25 years to my freshman year at Brandeis University.
I remember nervously sitting in my parents’ rental van as we approached the dorm drop-off line, when I noticed a billboard beckoning new students to turn our respective radio dials to WBRS 100.1 FM Brandeis Radio. As the car line slowly inched forward, the deejay excitedly remarked, “Brandeis University – the university that gives off for a holiday called Shemini Atzeret, but very few people could tell you what Shemini Atzeret is…The first person who can tell us what Shemini Atzeret is will win a private tour of the Boston Celtics’ dressing room [in those days the Boston Celtics trained at the Red Auerbach arena at Brandeis]. I told my parents, “Stay here, I will be right back.” I ran to the studios proudly sharing my knowledge of Shemini Atzeret and claimed my prize.
Although none of these reasons debunk our storied Jewish tradition of having many reasons for doing what we do, commemorating Shemini Atzeret (and Simhat Torah for that matter) adds yet another opportunity to take a break, stop (Atzar), and appreciate the beauty of our community, our world, and our relationships with friends, family, and the Almighty.