If Sukkot is the grand party where everyone is invited, then Shemini Atzeret is the private after-party. Literally, Shemini Atzeret means “the assembly of the eighth day”. For seven days we have rejoiced in the sukkah. Our celebration and joyous appreciation for the simple things is about to come to an end. Shemini Atzeret gifts us with one more day to linger. It is a more quiet and solemn rejoicing. It is the private after-party where only family and G-d are invited.
Shemini Atzeret helps us transition back into the physical lives we stepped outside of when Sukkot began. There is additional time to contemplate the recent holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot) as well as to think about the year ahead. We cling to the remaining hours without cell phones, business meetings, and keeping our houses clean.
Aside from eating in the sukkah, there are two additional customs connected to Shemini Atzeret. The first is Tefilat HaGeshem or the prayer for rain. Beginning on Shemini Atzeret, a prayer for rain is added to our davening until Pesach. This time of year is the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, but the prayer is recited in the Diaspora as well. The prayer for rain has come to signify our admitted dependence upon G-d and acts as a reminder of this relationship. We need rain to sustain our lives, and we also need G-d.
Reading the book of Ecclesiastes is another custom associated with Shemini Atzeret. If Shabbat does not fall during Chol HaMoed of Sukkot, we read Ecclesiastes on Shemini Atzeret. The somewhat depressing stanzas of these verses serve to remind us that we have the opportunity to search for joy in everything. As we reenter the “real world” following the holiday of Sukkot, we go forth with the wisdom of seeking joy from the simple things that serve our basic needs.
If you are not familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes, you may recall a song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” sung by the well-known Byrds. A proper time and season for everything, the song and the book, tell us. A time for birth and a time for death. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to weep and a time to laugh.
The writings in Ecclesiastes (and the song) continue to speak to us today. The author – traditionally assumed to be King Solomon – wrestles with conflict that continues to have meaning for us. We are encouraged to waver, to doubt, and to reconvene. We are inspired to find purpose and joy through our struggles and through life’s difficult moments.
The after-party is a time to dwell just a bit longer on the deep rooted meaning of sitting in the sukkah. We recount the past year and our efforts through the holiday season. We leave Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret with the charge to seek joy in all that we do.