Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah - Two Separate Opportunities
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are two holidays which come on the tail end of Sukkot. While they are not related to the holiday of Sukkot, they are often spoken of in one breath.
In Israel and in the Reform movement in the Diaspora, these two holidays are merged into one celebration, taking place over one day. Elsewhere in the Diaspora, they are two separate holidays offering us two distinct opportunities for reflection and growth.
After a month of intense holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot), Shemini Atzeret occurs directly after Sukkot. Like a fantastic vacation that we have decided to extend by one more day, G-d “extends Sukkot”. It is one more day to hold onto the joy that we have been immersed in while in the Sukkah. Atzeret actually means “holding back”.
Shemini means “eight”, and eight is a symbol of perfection. The eighth day – following the seven days of Creation – yielded flawlessness. Shemini Atzeret “holds back” the holiday of Sukkot for the purpose of bringing it to perfection. On the eighth day, we say goodbye too all of our guests and sit alone with G-d.
Similar to the lingering effects of Shabbat found in the Havdalah candle, Shemini Atzeret let’s us (and G-d) hold on for one more day. Many families eat one more meal in the Sukkah, and it is customary to read a special prayer asking for rain.
Embraced in the glowing aftermath from Shemini Atzeret, we enter Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah, the reading of the Torah is completed, and the cycle of reading it again begins immediately.
On Simchat Torah, we dance. We dance for the fate of being able to honor our Jewish heritage freely. We dance in pure joy for our relationship with G-d. We dance in celebratory bliss after having completed our Book (the Torah) and for the opportunity to begin reading it again.
Customs on this holiday include Hakafot or processions around the synagogue. Individuals carry the Torahs in the midst of dancing and singing. The honor of an Aliyah (being called to the Torah) is given to as many people as possible including the children who are called up to receive a special blessing.
As the last words of the Torah (the Book of Deuteronomy) are read, we recount how G-d revealed Himself to the people at Mt. Sinai. The Chatan Torah is the individual who is given the special honor of the Aliyah before this reading. The Chatan Bereshit receives the honor of the Aliyah as we begin to read from Genesis (the very beginning of the Torah).
Both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrations in their own rite. Following a holiday of reconnecting with the essentials, we are brought face to face with the “most essential” – G-d and the Torah. It is a time to rejoice in the very core of our Jewish faith.