Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah
The fifteenth day of this seventh month is the Festival of Sukkot, a seven-day period for God. The first day shall be a sacred holiday when you shall not do any laborious work… The eighth day is a sacred holiday to you… it is a time of assembly when you may do no laborious work.
Technically, the festival of Sukkot ends after seven days, as indicated in the verses above. It is, however, immediately followed by the festival of Shemini Atzeret, which is considered the eighth day of Sukkot (outside of Israel – the eighth and ninth days). The Hebrew words Shemini Atzeret mean the Eighth [day] of Assembly. The commandments of Sukkot, the sukkah and the lulav do not apply to this day, because it is an independent festival.
Shemini Atzeret is understood by some commentaries as a festival on which we try to “hold on” to the sanctity and inspiration of Sukkot. Other sources suggest that it is a time when God’s chosen people, spend an extra day (or two) with Him, after the pomp and circumstance of Sukkot. The Sages explain this idea using the metaphor of a king who made a feast for all the citizens of his country. After the week of feasting was over, he asked his closest friends to stay with him an extra day for a simpler, more intimate gathering. In the days of the Temple, special offerings were brought on Sukkot representing the Jewish people’s prayers for all the nations of the world. On Shemini Atzeret, however, a single special offering was brought, symbolizing the Jewish people and their unique relationship with God.
Over the years, Jewish custom attached a second significance to Shemini Atzeret. Originally, different customs existed regarding the reading of the Torah on Shabbat. In Israel, the Torah was read in a three-year cycle, while in Babylon the custom was a yearly cycle. Eventually, the Babylonian custom became universally accepted, and to this day Jews throughout the world publicly read the entire Five Books of Moses (the complete Torah scroll) in the course of every year. The reading of the Torah is both completed and begun again on Shemini Atzeret (in Israel on the eighth day, and in the Diaspora on the ninth day). This occasion became known as Simchat Torah, the “Joy of the Torah.” The Midrash traces the concept of rejoicing upon finishing the Torah back to the celebration made by King Solomon when God granted his request for wisdom.
Simchat Torah is a day of tremendous happiness. Completing the reading of the Torah and beginning it again is an occasion marked by dancing, singing, feasting and many beautiful customs. Both in the evening and during the day, all the Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark and the community dances with them around the bimah, while reciting prayers and singing songs that thank God for the precious gift of the Torah. This ceremony is known as Hakafot, literally circuits. In the morning, the Hakafot are repeated, and the last section of the Torah is read. On a regular Shabbat or festival, only a few men are called up to the Torah, but on Simchat Torah, every man in the synagogue is called up. (The expression is “given an aliyah.”) In many synagogues even children are called to the Torah. After reading the final portion as many times as necessary for everyone to have a turn, one honoree, the Chatan Torah, “Groom of the Torah,” is called up for the privilege of saying the blessings on the last verses of Deuteronomy. Immediately afterwards, another honoree, the Chatan Bereshit, the “Groom of Genesis,” is called up to say the blessings on the first verses of the Torah reading.
An atmosphere of intense joy fills the synagogue, and in many places the dancing continues for hours. Children often carry miniature, toy Torah Scrolls and dance with flags inscribed with phrases about the Torah. Refreshments are usually made available in the synagogue during the celebration.
The incredible joy that is felt on Simchat Torah is a testimony to the love that the Jewish people have for the Torah. A great Chassidic rabbi pointed out that greater joy is expressed on Simchat Torah than on Shavuot, even though Shavuot is the festival that marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. He explained that on Shavuot we were passive recipients of God’s gift of the Torah, but on Simchat Torah, we celebrate the fact that we are active partners with God in the Torah. We read and study the Torah, and through the wisdom of our Sages, and the customs of our communities, implement it in our daily lives. Simchat Torah reflects the Jewish peoples’ love for the Torah, their involvement in the Torah and their devotion to God, Giver of the Torah.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch links Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah to the yearly pattern of all the festivals. He notes that Passover, celebrating the physical creation of the Jewish people, is followed by and linked to Shavuot, when the Torah was given – i.e. the spiritual creation of the Jewish people. Sukkot celebrates the physical preservation of the Jewish people through Divine Providence. Sukkot in turn is followed by and linked to Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the festivals celebrating the spiritual preservation of the Jewish people, through their attachment to the Torah.
It is significant that immediately after completing one cycle by reading the end of Deuteronomy we begin the new cycle by reading from Genesis. There is no interruption in our communal study of Torah; we start again as soon as we have finished because the Torah has infinite depth — one can never really finish studying Torah. When we complete one cycle, we understand one more level of Torah and are now more capable of understanding the next level, and the next, and the next…. What we celebrate on completing the Torah, is the renewed and improved opportunity that we now have to learn Torah even better.