WHAT IS SIMCHAT TORAH?
It’s the holiday that celebrates the conclusion of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah, after which we begin anew reading the Five Books of Moses, starting from the first chapter of Genesis.
WHEN IS SHEMINI ATZERET?
Shemini Atzeret 2014 begins on sundown Wednesday, October 15, ending on Thursday, October 16. In Israel, it is celebrated on the same day as Simchat Torah. In the Diaspora, Simchat Torah falls the day after Shemini Atzeret.
The Book of Numbers explains Shemini Atzeret simply: “On the eighth day you should hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupation.” That’s about it. the “eighth day”—shemini—concept suggests the holiday is part of Sukkot, a final eighth day of the holiday; it is, however, not part of Sukkot, though the two holidays share a focus on agriculture and Shemini Atzeret follows directly after the holiday of Sukkot. Rushing to interpret the meaning of this strange and loosely defined holiday, the rabbis never lacked for creative explanations. Some, for example, argued that as Sukkot is a time to commemorate dwelling in temporary structures as guests of the Lord, Shemini Atzeret is a bonus round of sorts, a reminder that God loves his chosen people so much he is reluctant to let them go back to business as usual. Other scholars argued that while Sukkot is a universal holiday, in which we’re commanded to invite guests into our homes, Shemini Atzeret is just for Jews, a time for God to bond with his favorite children.
There’s also the matter of the holiday’s proximity to Simchat Torah. In Israel, Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret are celebrated on the same day, right after Sukkot. Elsewhere, Simchat Torah is celebrated the day after Shemini Atzeret, that is, two days after Sukkot. We realize how confusing this is; luckily, there’s nothing for us to do but sit in a sukkah and be in a festive mood.
The focus of Simchat Torah is the Five Books of Moses—finishing reading them, that is. On Simchat Torah, minyan congregants read the Torah’s last portion and then jump right back to the beginning and read the first, creating a never-ending cycle of book reading.
Simchat Torah’s festivities begin, as do all Jewish holidays, on the holiday’s eve. The synagogue’s Torah scrolls, confined to the ark except when they’re being read during Torah services during the week, are removed, and members of the entire congregation (in some communities, only the men) pass the scrolls from hand to hand, dancing and chanting liturgy while circling the synagogue seven times. This is known as hakafot, or rounds. (Interestingly enough, hakafot is also the proper Hebrew word for the game of baseball.) While tradition only requires the revelers to remain inside the synagogue, many communities take the party to the streets, and children are customarily given colorful flags and candy.
In recent decades, Simchat Torah has become the occasion for political gatherings. In the 1970s and ’80s, there were frequent, massive demonstrations across America in support of Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union.
Whatever you like. There is no particular food associated with Shemini Atzeret. And while there is no echt dish for Simchat Torah, it is traditional to give children sweets to better emphasize the joyous nature of the holiday. Torah-shaped cookies and candied apples are perennial favorites. It has also become traditional for celebrants of Simchat Torah to enjoy the holiday festivities with the help of libations.
The only “do” for Shemini Atzeret is to begin the recitation of a special prayer for rain, tefilat geshem, marking the beginning of the rainy season following the harvest. This plea is recited regularly until Passover.
On Simchat Torah, the Priestly Blessing, usually recited during the Musaf service, is bumped up to Shacharit, the early morning service. One plausible explanation for that is that Kohanim, or the priestly line of Aaron’s descendants, are prohibited from performing the blessing while intoxicated, and the change of schedule allows them to perform their duties early on Simchat Torah morning and partake in the holiday’s festivities for the rest of the day.
Another tradition has to do with the congregation’s youngest members, who are honored with a collective aliyah during which they are all covered with a large tallit as Jacob’s blessing to his children is read out loud. “May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the children,” it reads, “and may my name be declared among them, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they teem like fish for multitude within the land.”
Some congregations also invite all eligible members for an aliyah, often repeating portions several times over to give everyone an opportunity to read from the Torah.
ANYTHING GOOD TO READ?
While Shemini Atzeret has no special readings, Simchat Torah is all about reading. We finish reading Deuteronomy, the last book of the Pentateuch, and start the cycle again, tackling Genesis from its opening verses.
ANYTHING ELSE TO DO?
• Watch Rabbi David Kalb explain Shemini Atzeret
• Get down with K’tonton’s prayer for rain, everybody’s favorite (and, possibly, world’s only) Shemini Atzeret-themed children’s book
• Sweeten things with some Torah-shaped cookies.
• Brush up on some of the celebration’s social aspects.
• Read our commentary on the Torah’s first parasha…
• …Or contemplate the last.