The 7th Month, Tishrei and its Festivals -Part Four
The 7th Month, Tishrei and its Festivals -Part Four
Shemnei Atzeret and Simchat Torah…Looking Back, Looking Forward
A Parable…Once upon a time there was a king who invited all of his children to a lovely banquet that lasted several days. When the banquet was over and it was time for them to go, the king affectionately said to them, ‘My children your departure is difficult for me please tarry with me one more day.’ (Rashi on Lev. 23:26, from the Midrash). The king was requesting an atzeret…an additional day with His beloved children!
It is significant to notice that in the parable the king did not say, ‘our parting’ is difficult for me…instead he said, ‘your parting’ is difficult for me.
If we translate this parable to illustrate HaShem’s relationship to us, we know that He is never the one who moves away from us, for His Presence is always with us… but it is us who move away from Him when we fail to maintain that special G-D consciousness as we go about the routines in our daily lives. From time to time, however, we may be taken aback as it comes flooding into our hearts like one of those lovely “aha” moments. Like a “hidden spark beneath the surface,” it jolts us back into that profound awareness of His Divine Presence and then propels us forward with renewed strength and energy…and we can say with our forefather, Yaakov (Jacob) after his incredible encounter with the Malak, “Surely, HaShem is in this place and I did not know it! (Gen. 28:16). During the seven days of Sukkot, we were very much aware of Him as we spent time in our sukkah, thinking and meditating on His Presence there with us, sheltering us under the Shadow of His Wings (Psa. 91) as He protected the Children of Israel in the wilderness with the symbolic “Clouds of Glory” over their heads…
But after those lovely seven days of Sukkot is over…the question is… where do we go from here? Do we just pick up where we left off or are there additional ideas, concepts…even more of those hidden sparks beneath the surface to be discovered that would be well worth our consideration prior to our taking leave of this glorious season? Perhaps HaShem had this in mind when He gave us this additional day the Torah refers to as Shemnei Atzeret to fellowship with Him and with one another.
But before we consider these questions and delve into their spiritual aspect, let us first go to the Torah to see what we can glean and then address some of the traditions that have developed through the centuries.
From the Torah
There are only a few specific Biblical references to the Festival of Shemnei Atzeret. The first is in Leviticus 23:36, “On the eighth day shall be a holy gathering to you (mikrah kodesh)…and you shall do no servile work.” In the next reference, just three verses later, we find this day referred to as a Sabbath in connection to Sukkot, “On the first day (of Sukkot) should be a Sabbath and on the eighth day should be a Sabbath” (verse 39).
In both these references the celebration is referred to as a mikrah kodesh or a holy gathering which like the other festivals, sets it apart as a day of celebration. There is also mention in Numbers 29:35 of the eighth day Shemnei Atzeret, being set apart as a day of solemn assembly in which no work would be done. The eighth day of Sukkot is not mentioned in Deut.16 alongside the other festivals. It is only
referenced in the sections of the Torah given above and known as the Priestly Code.
But it is found in the Nevi’im, the Prophets in the Book of Nehemiah in reference to the time frame when Ezra and Nehemiah gathered the people together in the 7th month after their return from Babylon for the purpose of having them listen to the reading of the Torah regarding the commandments to construct sukkahs for the Festival of Sukkot that they had not kept since the days of Joshua.
The text in Nehemiah 8:17-18 states, ”And all the congregation of those who were come back out of the captivity made booths (sukkahs)and dwelt in the booths…and there was very great gladness. Also day by day, from the first to the last day, he (Ezra), read in the book of the Torah of G-d. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day (Shemnei Atzeret) there was a solemn assembly according to the prescribed form.”
There is also a reference to the Festival of Sukkot and Shemnei Atzeret in the Book of II Chronicles at the time when King Solomon finished building the Holy Temple and dedicated it to HaShem,”At that time Shlemo kept the feast for 7 days and all Yisrael with him, a very great congregation…”and on the eighth day (Shemnei Atzeret) they made a solemn assembly” (II Chron.7:8-11; See also I Kings 8:51-9:1).
The Jewish Encyclopedia states that, ‘’’aẓeret” denotes “day of assembly,” from “‘aẓar” = “to hold back” or “keep in”; hence also the name “‘aẓeret” given to the seventh day of Pesaḥ (Deut. xvi. 8). Owing, however, to the fact that both the eighth day of Sukkot and the seventh day of Pesaḥ are called “‘aẓeret,” the name was taken to mean “the closing festival “(Shemnei Atzeret pg. 269).
The question arises, is Shemnei Atzeret a festival separate from the 7 day Festival of Sukkot as some including Eliyahu Kitov, one of Israel’s most acclaimed religious authors have put forth when he states that “Shemnei Atzeret is a separate festival and is not tied to the festival of Sukot, but is only adjacent to it”(The Book of our Heritage, Vol 1, pg. 209)…or is it simply a grand culmination…the last great day of Sukkot?
There are differences of opinion that have been voiced by the rabbinical sages down through the centuries with no clear decision coming forth…but when it comes right down to it, how important is it really? All the sources agree that Shemnei Atzeret is indeed a Yom Tov and should that not be the focus and the true significance of the celebration? According to Torah, we joyously celebrate Sukkot by dwelling in our sukkahs for 7 full days and then on top of that, we are given an additional day, Shemnei Atzeret, the 8th day in which to celebrate even more and attain a higher level. This day is like a special gift from our Loving G-d and Father, HaShem, the Awesome Creator of the Universe!
From the Traditions…What About Simchat Torah and its Relationship to Shemnei Atzeret?
Simchat Torah is not one of the named festivals listed in the actual written Torah and its name was not used until a relatively late time yet the joy behind it is certainly alluded to for it is indeed an all-out celebration of “Rejoicing in Torah!” In Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, it is combined with the celebration of Shemnei Atzeret as the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings is completed. In the Diaspora it is celebrated as a separate day one day later.
The late 19th century Chasidic Rabbi, Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, z’l, known as Sefes Emes states that, “since Succos(Ashkenazi for Sukkot) is the festival of joy, the Sages wanted to combine its festivity with the celebration of the Torah, and that is why Simchas Torah—the completion and new beginning of the Torah reading—was made in conjuction with Succos” (Schonstein Edition, Interlinear Chumash, pg. 1024).
This, agreed the sages, calls for a time of great celebration, for as the cycle of readings is completed in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), meaning words we begin again in the book of Beresheit (Genesis), meaning beginnings. So we could say that the Torah is a never ending circle, or as some of the mystics have put it, a spiral…each time we end, we begin again…ascending up, going higher and higher!
A little background on the symbolism of the number ‘7’(as in the days of the week, the days of Sukkot, etc.) and ‘8,’ as in Shemnei Atzeret, the 8th day would be in order here. According to the renowned 17th century Talmudist, Kabbalist and philosopher Rabbi (Yehuda ben Betzalel Loew) known as the Maharal of Prague, z’l ,“The number seven symbolizes the complete purpose of human existence, combining the spiritual level of the Sabbath with the physical effort of the week. Going beyond seven, the number eight symbolizes man’s ability to transcend the limitations of physical existence. Thus, with a gematria of eight, ח stands for that which is on a plane above nature, i.e., the metaphysical Divine. The study of the Torah and the practice of its commandments are the ways by which Israel can strive to exalt human spirituality towards the realm above the natural (Maharal).”
The number eight, then in Judaism is highly symbolic…and accordingly it is on Shemnei Atzeret, meaning the 8th day, that we, because of the joys of the seven days of Sukkot preceding it, can excel in joy and have the opportunity to rise to an even higher plane…another dimension in joy…and this is where Simchat Torah the “Rejoicing of the Torah” comes in!
This calls for a time of great celebration, for as the cycle of readings is completed in the book of Deuteronomy or Devarim (meaning words) we begin again in the book of Genesis or Beresheit (meaning beginnings). So we could say that the Torah is a never ending circle, or as some of the mystics have put it, a spiral…each time we end, we begin again…ascending up, going higher and higher!
Rabbi Simon Jacobson in speaks of this celebration of pure joy…this “Rejoicing in the Torah” in this delightful description when he declares that, “Simchat Torah is the celebration of that new dimension. We therefore dance with absolute passion and no limits. Our legs carry us as our arms are wrapped around a Torah scroll. It is a dance that touches the very essence of the Jew, the very essence of the Torah, and the very essence of G-d. It is a dance that transcends our limited intellects and emotions, that encompasses all people, regardless of education, background and spiritual stations. It is an infinite dance that touches immortality itself.”
He continues by quoting the Rebbe Josef Yitzchak, “Simchat Torah means two things: We celebrate (simcha) with the Torah, and the Torah celebrates with us.” Although Simchat Torah is not specifically mentioned in the written or oral Torah, Jacobson says that it “marks the climax of the festival-rich month of Tishrei. As the final day of the holiday season, it epitomizes the power of the entire month of Tishrei. The awe of Rosh Hashanah the sacredness of Yom Kippur, the unity and joy of Sukkot, all reach their highest expression on Simchat Torah as we rejoice in the Torah and the Torah rejoices in us. Thus, Simchat Torah represents, in many ways, the highest point of the year, certainly the most joyous one.” He calls this celebration the “Dance of the Essence.” He goes on to say that, “We dance with each other and with G-d. We dance and celebrate the very essence of life and the gift of our mission“(60 Days – A Spiritual Guide to the Holidays pg. 142,143)
The Torah scrolls are passed from one person to the other in order to allow as many people as possible to have the honor of carrying one. Everyone takes part…men, women and young children! These joyous processions, called Hafakot or“circlings,” with congregants carrying the scrolls around the Torah platforms in synagogues and shuls “round the world are accompanied by clapping, singing and dancing!
The essence of Simchat Torah, the “Rejoicing in the Torah” is a concept that unites all Jews…even in the times of horrific adversity. Holocaust survivor, Ellie Weisel z’l, a Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist and prolific author and winner of the Nobel Peace prize has been called the “messenger to mankind.” He speaks poignantly of this idea in his book entitled Night…a profound work in which he relates his experiences as a prisoner of Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. He writes the following…
“You shall rejoice in your festival; Deuteronomy 16:14 is the most difficult commandment in the Torah. I could never understand this puzzling remark. Only during the war did I understand. Those Jews who, in the course of their journey to the end of hope, managed to dance on Simhat Torah, those Jews who studied Talmud by heart while carrying stones on their back, those Jews who went on whispering Zemirot shel Shabbat (Hymns of Sabbath) while performing hard labor . . . ve-samachta be-chagekha was one commandment that was impossible to observe—yet they observed it.”
Hoshana Rabba – The Seventh Day of Sukkot
We would be remiss if we did not mention Hoshana Rabbah, the 7th day of the Festival of Sukkot as it is a precursor to Shemnei Atzeret/Simchat Torah. Its name means “the Great Hoshanah”… it also has to do with a processional “circling” called a hakkafot around the sanctuary seven times…but with the Lulav instead of with Torah scrolls. Seven liturgical poems are recited…calling upon HaShem to rescue and redeem the Jewish people and send the winter rains to give life to the earth. Hoshanah Rabbah was viewed by the rabbis of the Talmud as a type of mini-Yom Kippur, a day on which the entire Jewish community is judged by God to be worthy or not of the seasonal rains.
Although Hoshanah Rabba is not mentioned in the Torah, the theme of the blessing of rain as it is connected to judgment is reminiscent in several passages in the Torah including that of the second passage in the traditional Shema blessing… “And it shall come to pass if you diligently hearken to My commandments which I command you today, to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your hearts and with all your souls: I will give the rain of your land in its due season, the early rain and the late rain…”
After Shemnei Atzeret/Simchat Torah a special prayer for rain in the benediction that praises HaShem for reviving the dead is added to the Amidah or “standing prayer”. Why you may ask? Arthur Wascow explains that as, “rain revives the parched and deadened earth” and “gives life to seeds that are buried underground, “we look forward to the great redemption and revival as promised in Torah as Shemnei Atzeret ends. He explains further that in the phrase we add to the Amidah, “Who (speaking of HaShem) makes the wind blow and the rain fall,” the word that is used for the wind is the Hebrew word, ‘ruach’…”the word that means not only the rush of air in the world but also the rush of breath within our bodies,” that G-d given breath when He created us, “and the rushing spirit in our souls…”(Seasons of our Joy, pg.71, 73).
He continues in his analogy by adding in part that perhaps the rain that we pray for is not only in the form of raindrops falling to ground to replenish the earth and bring life, but also in the form of teardrops of sadness or empathy for our fellow or teardrops of t’shuvah we cry to cleanse and replenish our spirits and our souls
An additional reference along these lines regarding renewal and the giving of life can be found in the powerful prophetic passage in Ezekiel 37 which speaks of HaShem breathing His breath, His ruach, into the dry bones to make them live again.
This passage coupled with the promise about the Mayim Chayim or Living Water that will flow out from Jerusalem presents a lovely image of what is to come (Zech 14:8).
Water has long been linked to Torah and to life. When the Holy Temple stood, the Water Pouring Ceremony, Simchat Beit Hashoevah, literally translated as the “Rejoicing of the Water-Drawing House” was performed every morning of the seven days of Sukkot. Hoshanah Rabba was the last day of this ceremony. (For more info see https://www.meaningfullife.com/sukkot-water-pouring-ceremony/)
Looking Back…Looking Forward
And so we near the end of this 7th month, the month of Tishrei with all its wonderful festivals, one after the other, we come to the close of the joyful Festival of Sukkot…and its last great day, the Eighth Day, Shemnei Atzeret…“the festival of abiding of staying behind, of remaining with G-d” (Judaism Eternal by Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, pg. 14).
Our minds go back full circle to the parable at the beginning of this article and to the request of our loving Father to his beloved children to stay with Him one more day and we do…but we again ask the question, where do we go from here as we take leave of this glorious season…do we just pick up where we left off? Yes and no…
The Rebbe Sholom Dovber addresses this dilemma in a profound way…”After the Tishrei holiday season begins the period of ‘Ve Yaakov loloch le’darko’ meaning And Jacob went on his way. Every Jew goes on his way, back to his work, in fulfilling his unique mission in life. But now, he comes armed with the deep inspiration and energy that he has achieved from celebrating all the holidays in this month.”(Magen Avraham, Orech Chaim 428-4). I would assert that this is not only for the Jew, but for the non-Jew as well…for all whose hearts are turned towards HaShem and Torah!
Each of us can take all of these special moments with us, storing them in our hearts and minds, and like “hidden sparks beneath the surface” let them emerge and re-emerge to encourage and inspire us to endeavor to reach new heights in our connection to HaShem… for we have had the opportunity to have experienced the “8,” the new dimension of our faith! Baruch HaShem. May we all be blessed!
by Elisheva Tavor 26 Tishrei (Hoshanah Rabba) 5782