Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah
You've spent seven days eating, drinking and perhaps sleeping in a walled, tent-like structure with a roof specifically designed to let in the rain and the sunlight. Over the course of the week, with the exception of Shabbat, you've gathered together a curious combination of palm branch, two willow twigs and three myrtle branches, and held it with a lemon-like fruit known as an etrog.
Suddenly, it's all over. But the best, as they say, is saved for last.
This Shabbat marks both the conclusion of Sukkot, and the beginning of the holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. (In Israel, they're celebrated on the same day.)
After a week of feasting under the stars and outward displays of Jewish tradition, it's time to bring the party back inside. And what a party it is: On the night of Simchat Torah — the name literally means "the happiness of Torah" — congregations all over the world parade their scrolls around the synagogue, singing and dancing until the wee hours. The following day, the festivities continue with more dancing and singing, and the reading of the final portions of Zot Habracha, the last parshah of the yearly cycle, and the beginning of Bereshit (Genesis).
Many questions have been asked about these two holidays. Since the merriment recalls the happiness of the Jewish people's receiving the Torah, the most fitting question is why is Simchat Torah celebrated now, more than four months after Shavuot?
An even deeper inquiry centers on Shemini Atzeret, which literally means the "eighth day of assembly," a reference to its being fixed on the eighth day following the beginning of Sukkot. But the holiday seemingly has nothing to do with Sukkot: Whereas during the times of the Tabernacle and the Holy Temple the sacrifices of Sukkot contained a decreasing number of bulls each day, the offering of Shemini Atzeret had just one bull.
And while the Torah explicitly commands dwelling in a booth during Sukkot, there's no command to do so on the holiday right after. In fact, those outside of Israel who continue to eat in a sukkah on Shemini Atzeret do so without making a special blessing.
The Midrash likens the uniqueness of Shemini Atzeret — and, by extension, Simchat Torah — to the day after a sumptuous banquet at a king's palace. During the banquet, the king receives visitors from all over, and they feast on delicacies. When the guests go home, the king urges his closest friend to linger just a bit.
"Let us now relax and enjoy whatever can be found," implores the king. "A little bit of meat, fish or vegetable dish."
Whatever is found doesn't matter; what does matter is quality time for the king and his friend — a source of profound pleasure.
This final holiday of the Hebrew month of Tishri represents the intimacy shared between the Jewish people and the Creator. After seven days of sacrificial offerings on behalf of the nations of the world — the total number of bulls offered during Sukkot (70) corresponds to the planet's many ethnic groups — and the welcoming of all underneath the sukkah, Shemini Atzeret remains with its seemingly modest offering of just one bull.
That bull signifies the pure unity of the Supreme Essence, and the unity shared between the Almighty, the Jewish people and the Torah. Such a realization can only produce pure joy — a joy of unbounded dancing and singing throughout the night.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected]