By Rabbi Shawn Zevit
“On the eighth day (of Sukkot), you will have a holy day … it is a day of cessation, of quiet and solemn gathering (“Atzeret”) (Leviticus 23:36).
This Shabbat and weekend — depending on whether you celebrate seven or eight days of Sukkot and, depending on this, whether you combine or add on to the eighth day the later celebratory day of Simchat Torah, completing the yearly cycle of Torah reading — comes the rather obscure Shemini Atzeret.
A part of Sukkot? A separate festival in its own right? The Torah leaves it open for us to interpret.
Although the observances of Shemini Atzeret generally share the characteristics of the rest of Sukkot, there are four significant differences.
The first is that there is no more shaking of the lulav and etrog. Second is that although we have our meals and recite Kiddush in the sukkah (though customs vary), we no longer say the blessing to sanctify us through the commandment to dwell in it, as we did the previous seven days. The third is that in the synagogue, after the Torah reading, we recite the memorial prayer (Yizkor).
And finally, the special prayer for rain (Geshem) is added to the repetition of Musaf and thus begins the period of an additional call for the appropriate amount of rain in the year ahead in our prayers, which lasts until Passover.
The earliest rabbinic reference to Shemini Atzeret calls it yom tov acharon shel ha-hag, the last day of the festival. The Talmud (Taanit 20b-31a), however, declares, “The eighth day is a festival in its own right.”
At the same time, the Talmud (Taanit 28b) attempts to distinguish it from Sukkot, as there are 70 temple sacrifices given throughout Sukkot, compared to only one given on Shemini Atzeret. The Sefer HaChinuch adds that by the holiday of Shemini Atzeret (which is the eighth day of Sukkot), although we have no special commandment on the day, we do not need anything to focus our happiness on the miracle of life itself and the Source of All.
The Sefer HaChinuch goes on to say that the sages have told us that, in reality, Shemini Atzeret is not the eighth day of Sukkot, but rather a separate holiday, which occurs at the end of the Sukkot holiday. Building on the midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:24), “let us now rejoice together, you and I, with whatever you can find …”), the sages are described as taking us into the realm of “Divine inner wrestling.” No big sacrifices, no ornate rituals, forget the big meal — let us keep our connection simple and focused on our relationship, not outward practices and symbols.
For our biblical ancestors, I can only imagine what it meant to look at each other face to face in the Jerusalem where they had gathered from so many locations to celebrate the final big harvest. They faced the temporality and vulnerability of life ahead, the reliance on rains for survival and, in those days, a half a year before Passover could offer the possibility of regathering at a time no other Jewish holidays were on the calendar.
Will the earth be our sustainer or our grave? Will we live through all the uncertainty ahead and be able to gather again to rejoice in liberation, freedom and just rulers and leaders? There is much to identify within the poignancy and intimacy of Shemini Atzeret that resonates with our current political, socioeconomic and ecological upheaval.
What will the world look like when we are next able to gather again safely in person?
For the sages and our people post-Temple times, they reveal their own inner struggle with what it means to detach from each other after such an intense month of introspection, soul-baring and then harvesting our experience.
They interpret God’s longing and difficulty of saying goodbye into the eighth day of Sukkot as telling us “Please, stay with me one more day, as it is difficult for me to part with you, so I will add on one more day, so you can spend with me and each other before your departure” (Rashi on Leviticus 23:36).
The Zohar further suggests that we may have some leftover spiritual work from all the Holy Days, which is to forgive ourselves for our failings and also commit to the change we may have become aware of needing to enact. “From now on, for one day, let me and you rejoice. This is the meaning of the verse “On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly; ‘you’ means offering sacrifices for yourselves” (Zohar 3, Emor 104:2).
When all the prayers have been offered for the Yamim Noraim and Sukkot, all the high rituals and sermons offered — our tradition, in ever-evolving interpretation and expression, brings us back to each other, the earth and the breath of all life in the bonds of love.
I would add to the centuries of thought, “If you remember nothing else — remember our connection, remember the love that exists by virtue of creation itself, and our ability to be together as all people and creatures these last days, and seal that love and connection in your own hearts for time-release over the year ahead. We will leave our intense days of communal return, reflection and celebration to meet the future head on and be active players in it for the sake of peace, justice, liberty and a fairly represented voice for all. Remember in the quiet of Shemini Atzeret that love remains when all the external trappings fade.”
As we gather to celebrate Shemini Atzeret, we remind ourselves that this content does not depend on a particular commandment, place or situation. Stop — in the name of love!
Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit is the rabbi at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, co-founder/director of the Davennen Leader’s Training Institute, associate director of the ALEPH Hashpa’ah program and co-chair of the clergy caucus of POWER Interfaith PA. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.