Whenever I would leave home to go back to college, or New York, or wherever I was living as an adult, when my dad drove me to the airport there was that hug goodbye. My dad would always say, “I know I’ve seen you for the week, but I’m always sad to see you go.” The visit could have been an utter disaster, but he’d always say it and he would always mean it.
The high holidays are in their home stretch. After a literal month of festivities, Tishrei will finally be coming to a close. Growing up reform, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were strenuous enough, having to sit in Temple for as much as 3 hours! Now I pretty much do that every day (between shacharis, mincha, and maariv.) But back then I only had a passive awareness of Sukkos, and no concept of the intermittent days known as Chol HaMoed, nor the explosive finale of Simchas Torah.
With keeping Shabbos, then going into a two day holiday, then having a couple days to take care of regular life, only to go back into Shabbos and begin the cycle again! Why not throw in a couple of fasting days? The whole thing is head spinning. So in the midst of all of that, many among us (including the most observant) don’t realize that there’s a small but separate and important holiday lumped in with the ending of Sukkos that according to the rabbis, is the day any Jew can get the absolute closest to Hashem. It’s a little holiday known as Shemini Atzeres.
Shemini Atzeres literally translated means the “eighth day.”
The tail end of Sukkos has three days that kinda get lumped together. The first is Hoshanah Rabba, then Shemini Atzeres, and finally Simchas Torah. Hoshanah Rabba is the official final day of the Sukkos festival. One of the rituals we do during Sukkos is a beseeching to God for salvation. We march with our lulavs and esrogs around the bima chanting “Hoshanah.” Each day of Sukkos has a different set of Hoshanah supplications, until the last day where we do all of the Hoshanah prayers for all the days, hence the name Hoshanah Rabba (or the Big Hoshanah.)
Simchas Torah on the other hand technically isn’t a holiday. It’s not listed anywhere in the Torah, nor is it a “rabbinic holiday.” When a person finishes reading a major Jewish book (a book of Talmud, all of Peirkei Avos, etc.) they are supposed to have a celebration known as a siyum. Well when the Jewish people finish reading the book of books (aka the Torah) you better believe we have a siyum. And that’s really what Simchas Torah is. But because we’re keeping Shemini Atzeres for two days (outside of Israel), the second day is called Simchas Torah.
What is it though?
Okay, so I’ve told you what Shimini Atzeres isn’t, how about what it is? The Torah says the following.
[For] a seven day period, you shall bring a fire offering to the Lord. On the eighth day, it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall bring a fire offering to the Lord. It is a [day of] detention. You shall not perform any work of labor. (Vayikra 23:36)
The first seven days are Sukkos. But then we get the commanded eighth day that is a “holy convocation” (meaning it is it’s own holiday) and it’s a day of… detention? That doesn’t sound pleasant.
Luckily Rashi clarifies things. [God says to Israel,] “I have detained you [to remain] with Me.” This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to feast with him for a certain number of days, and when the time came for them to leave, he said: “My sons! Please, stay with me just one more day; it is difficult for me to part with you!
To give a little context to what Rashi is talking about, Sukkos isn’t just a holiday for the Jews, but a holiday for the whole world. In our prayers during the mussaf service, it lists the sacrifices that were brought during the days of the Temple. Each day of Sukkos lists 2 rams, 14 lambs, but when it comes to the bulls, the number changes. The first it is 13. Then the second day it is 12, then 11, and so on. If you add up all the bulls for each day you get the number of 70 which corresponds to the 70 nations of the world.
So metaphorically speaking, on Sukkos, God’s throwing a big party for the nations of the world. However when it comes to Shemini Atzeres, we only bring 1 bull. Isn’t that a little bit of a let down? If the Jews are supposedly God’s chosen people and we’re doing all this work, why does everyone else get a twelve course meal, but we get take out?
Here are some other odd things about our “day of favor.” Every holiday has at least one mitzvah tied to it. For Pesach we need to eat matzah and drink four cups of wine. Rosh Hashanah we need to hear the shofar. For Sukkos we shake the lulav and esrog and sit in the sukkah. Shemini Atzeres has no mitzvah. We can sit in the sukkah, but we aren’t permitted to say the blessing “leshev b’sukkah” to sanctify the meal.
So where’s Rashi getting the idea for this favorable sentiment?
The Holy After Party
Rev Chaim Falagi wrote the following about praying on Shemini Atzeres;
Be very careful on the prayers of Shemini Atzeres, to say them with great intent. Besides the fact that the rectification of all the days (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos) is completed on Shemini Atzeres, everything depends on Shemini Atzeres. There is no greater time of favor for Hakadosh Baruchu to hear our prayers for whatever we want.
Rabbi Daniel Glatstein goes into a bit more detail on the topic in his more detailed lecture. To cut to the chase, sure it may feel like a bit of a let down that everyone else gets the banquet meal and we seem to get the left overs. But think about it this way. Imagine you’re celebrating your anniversary with your spouse. Yes, the big meal at the restaurant and the sight seeing date are incredible. But what’s it really all about? That moment after all that, where it is just the two of you, in your apartment, splitting a bottle of wine on the couch. No more showing off, untie the tie or kick off the high heels, relax, feel close, and be goofy and vulnerable.
That’s what Shemini Atzeres is.
It is a pristine and intimate day between God and the Jewish people where God says, you’ve done a month of work (two months if you count Elul) don’t worry about any other mitzvahs, don’t worry about making any sacrifices, don’t worry about preparing for shofar or lulav or your sukkah. Just be here with me for one more day.
It is in that intimacy that we can really share ourselves and anything our heart desires and God will listen. It even has the power to reopen the Book of Life that was sealed on Yom Kippur! Don’t you think that in that moment, where a father says goodbye to his son at the airport, there isn’t anything in the world that father wouldn’t want to hear from his son?
In a world of text messages and ADHD levels of anticipation, our minds have been rewired to crave the next thing. We just finished Marvel movie #22 and we already know the next 5 movies and the Disney + TV series. Yes we have Shabbos to combat that wired hyper focus. But Shimini Atzeres is a day to reflect on the changes we’ve set out on and a unique way to connect to God with no demands. To take all the lessons we learned from the sukkah back with us as we reenter the home and the mundane chaos of our lives. Take a moment, or a meal, or the day, to appreciate all you’ve done and all you have been given. Then just be.
Can you think of a better way to end the season?