September 27, 2021
We have now reached the end of the fall Jewish holiday season, and that means it’s time to celebrate the two holidays of Shemini Atzeret, the “Eighth Day of Assembly,” and Simchat Torah, the “Rejoicing in Torah.” In Israel, these two days are combined into one blockbuster holiday, but in the Diaspora, they each have their own unique identity.
Shemini Atzeret is a bit of a mysterious holiday. Although it has its own name, people sometimes wonder whether it is just a continuation of Sukkot. But actually Shemini Atzeret is very special. An ancient rabbinic teaching relates that on Shemini Atzeret, God expresses how hard it is to separate from us at the end of a month full of holidays, and for that reason, Shemini Atzeret is a “bonus holiday,” to give us just one more day of celebrating together before the year marches on. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a nineteenth century German rabbi, wrote that “Atzeret” means “storing up” because we must store up the gratitude and connection to God that we acquired throughout the entire fall holiday season. Indeed, we are about to enter a Jewish month barren of holidays, aptly called Mar Heshvan, “Bitter Heshvan,” and we will not celebrate our next holiday - Hanukkah - for nearly two months. Simchat Torah is one of the most fun days of the Jewish year. We celebrate the completion of our annual cycle of reading the entire Torah in synagogue. After seven “hakafot,” rounds of parading and dancing with the Torah, we read the final passages of the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy. But, we don’t stop there.
Immediately after completing the Torah, we begin again by reading the first passage of Breishit, Genesis. There is so much joy in synagogue on Simchat Torah! It is an especially fun holiday for children, who ride on their parents’ shoulders during dancing and delight in receiving little bags of treats so that they will associate the Torah with sweetness.
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah transmit the joy in the continuity of Jewish tradition. While next week it’s back to normal life, we will carry with us our memories of the beautiful holiday season, and move forward with reading the Torah again from the beginning, doing our part to continue the cycle that Jews have been engaged in for thousands of years.
We at AJC wish you a chag sameach, a joyous holiday!