Today is Shemini Atzeret, a Jewish holiday that most Jews know very little about. It’s mentioned in the Torah (Lev 23:36, 23:39 & Num 29:35) which says that after the seven-day festival of Sukkot, those Israelites who made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem should linger an extra day. “Shemini” refers to the “eighth day” and “atzeret” means to pause, assemble or, as we might say, “hang out.” One can imagine that after spending a week celebrating the harvest festival in Jerusalem, revelers might want to stick around for the “after party.”
For traditional Jews in the Diaspora who add an extra day to their holiday observances, an eighth day of Sukkot will always coincide with Shemini Atzeret. Because a yizkor (memorial) service is always held on the last day of Sukkot, it is held on Shemini Atzeret. We will offer our Shemini Atzeret / Yizkor service this evening at 7:00pm in the Gumenick Chapel. There’s not much more to the holiday except a few additional prayers. Once the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the details of the after party were forgotten over time.
In the early Middle Ages, Shemini Atzeret came to be associated with the ritual of completing the yearly cycle of readings from the Torah. The special day to celebrate the beginning of the Torah reading cycle was called Simchat Torah. Traditional Jews in the Diaspora who observe two days of Shemini Atzeret always observe Simchat Torah on the second day, which is tomorrow. Israeli and liberal Diaspora communities usually observe both holidays on the same day, which is today. I hope all of our Temple members will do something to honor the Torah, today or tomorrow.
Simchat Torah is a joyous holiday with a relatively young history. It involves bringing the Torah scrolls out of the ark to read from them and to march and dance with them. Many congregations will conduct a Consecration Service on or around Simchat Torah to honor the newest students in Religious School who have embarked on the path of Jewish learning. We will have our Consecration Service at 7:00 p.m. tomorrow evening, followed by our Simchat Torah/Kabbalat Shabbat service at 7:30pm.
It is our custom at Temple Israel to open up the Torah for everyone to see it up close and to touch it. It has been said, “For Torah to touch you, you have to touch the Torah.” It’s a wonderfully immersive experience to be surrounded by a Torah scroll and see our ancient history spread out before us, from Creation to the time when we stood ready to enter the Promised Land.
Please join us tonight for Yizkor, to remember our departed loved ones, or tomorrow night to celebrate Shabbat, Torah and Jewish learning. Following tomorrow night’s service will be a special “after party” oneg featuring ice cream for our Religious School Confirmands and a “Mazel Tov” cake for our newest Bat Mitzvah, Samantha Rothschild, whose service will be on Saturday.
Although some of our holidays may not be so recognizable, our love and reverence for Torah and Jewish learning should be obvious to all.
Happy Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah!
…and Shabbat Shalom,
R’ Moshe Tom