Shemini Atzeret, which falls on October 17 this year, is the postscript to the seven days of Sukkot. Its role is as an extra day of spiritual celebration of the protective relationship between God and his chosen people, the Jews, which was demonstrated during their 40 years of exile after Moses received the 10 Commandments on Sinai on their behalf. It combines both thanksgiving for the harvest and prayer for rain to assure next year’s harvest.
History of Shemini Atzeret
Most of the Jewish holidays commemorate a historical event, like the flight from Egypt, or focus the faithful on some worthwhile, daunting goal, like atonement. Not so for Shemini Atzeret. No one is sure how or why there even is a Shemini Atzeret.
Rabbis have been arguing for centuries about what the name even means. That’s because no one really knows what the word “atzeret” means. It’s usually translated as “assembly,” or “gathering,” and it may be derived from the verb “atzar,” which may mean “to stop,” “to pause,” or “to keep in.” But generally, today, “atzeret” is considered to mean “a solemn gathering.”
In the books of Leviticus and Numbers, God specifies that the eighth day of Sukkot should be a “day of assembly.” Over the centuries, however, in the Diaspora, Shemini Atzeret was stretched into two days. But during the Middle Ages, the second day was reserved for the reading of the final section of the Torah for the year and the people’s renewed gratitude for receiving the Torah. Because of the significance of reading the Torah on that day, it eventually was given its own name and became a separate holiday – Simchat Torah, or “rejoicing in the Torah.”
On Simchat Torah, congregations carry the Torah around the synagogue in a celebrational procession. This is the day to interact personally with God’s given word. In Israel today, and for Reform Jews in the rest of the world, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on the same day.
Shemini Atzeret timeline
God forgives the Jews for their sin of idolatry in the Golden Calf fiasco.
The Babylonians destroy the First Temple in Jerusalem.
The second day of Shemini Atzeret morphs into a separate holiday, becoming Simchat Torah.
An Orthodox German rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, infers from the word "atzeret" that when the Talmud declares the eighth day from the beginning of Sukkot to be a separate holiday, it means we are to store up the gratitude and devotion cultivated earlier in the week.
Shemini Atzeret FAQs
What is the meaning of Shemini Atzeret?
Culmination of Sukkot (Tabernacles) Shemini Atzeret ( שְׁמִינִי עֲצֶרֶת—”Eighth [day of] Assembly”; Sephardic and Israeli pronounced shemini atzèret; Ashkenazic pronounced shmini-atsères) is a Jewish holiday.
Is Simchat Torah part of Sukkot?
It’s believed that in the Middle Ages, Shemini Atzeret was a two-day holiday following Sukkot. During that time, the second day was transformed into a separate holiday, Simchat Torah, the day on which Jews celebrate the end of reading the Torah in its entirety and the beginning of the next cycle.
Is Shemini Atzeret mentioned in the Bible?
Although the Bible does mention Shemini Atzeret, it’s not clear what purpose the day served. Some believe that during the time of the Second Temple, constructed in about the sixth century BCE, it was the day that the altar was ritually cleansed. After the destruction of the temple, the day was associated with the year’s first prayer for rain, since the rainy season in Israel begins as Sukkot ends.
How to Celebrate Shemini Atzeret
Make tortilla Torah treats
It's a day many devote to kids and family activities. Have fun by making edible Torah scrolls. Place two pretzel rods side by side, wrap each in a small tortilla, bind the two together with a slice of fruit leather, and pop two gold-wrapped ROLO® candies on the top of each one.
Unroll the scrolls
Some congregations unroll the entire Torah. They may stand side by side in a long line around the synagogue and hold it up end to end for everyone to see.
Show the kids how clouds let loose as rain. Fill a clear glass with water, add a layer of shaving cream, then add a couple drops of food coloring. As the shaving cream cloud becomes saturated with color, it rains colors into the bottom of the glass.
5 Facts About The Torah Atzeret That Will Blow Your Mind
It's strictly measured
Each column of a Torah scroll is five inches wide so that it can accommodate the longest Hebrew word in the scriptures three times.
It takes years to write
For the last 1,000 years, every Torah scroll has been required to have 304,895 words, and it can take up to three years to write one.
You can't erase it
If a sofer, or person who writes a Torah scroll, makes a mistake, he has to use a piece of glass to scrape it off, since Jewish law does not permit using metal, which is used to make weapons.
Style standards are sacred
If a sofer makes a mistake writing the name of God, he must trim out the entire column and store it in a special place for keeping errors until it can be ritually buried with other unusable text.
There are two ways to handle it
While Ashkenazi Jews take their Torah scroll out of its protective cover to read it, Sephardic Jews leave their scroll in its wooden case.
Why We Love Shemini Atzeret
We need a break
Shemini Atzeret signals that the solemnity, soul-searching, spiritual work, and preparations for the tightly packed "Jewish Holidays" are finally coming to an end. It ushers in a quieter time of the year, a new year, in which we can begin all over again with high hopes. This is a day to wind down and recover from holiday overload.
We eat well
Although there are no special foods associated with Shemini Atzeret, as there are for Passover, it's still a time for good eating. Since it's harvest time, most Jewish homes serve up dishes made with fall foods such as sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and pecans. And it's always time for a challah!
We need rain
Although Shemini Atzeret is like a bonus day after Sukkot and a day of respite, it still highlights the relationship between God and the Jewish people. It's the day to pray for rain in the synagogue, anticipating that God will favor us with another good year to be thankful for next year.
Shemini Atzeret dates