The Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly & the Rejoicing of the Law
Note: In Israel, these two festivals are celebrated together on the same day.
Shmini Atzeret - Different from Sukkot
Although perceived as the last day of the festival of the Sukkot, the "Feast of the Eighth Day" is in reality unconnected with the previous days, especially in agricultural and national conceptions. In contrast to the abundance of sacrifices that used to be offered up during the festival of Sukkot in Temple times, only one sacrifice was made on this festival.
Also, we can detect original prayers and psalms in the liturgy of Shmini Atzeret which traditionally marked it off from Sukkot.
On the other hand, the one behest of the Bible which stood out on the Eighth day was the command, yet again, to be joyful.
The celebration would now be in the home and not in the Sukkah. The festival thus marks a change in emphasis - from the universalism of Sukkot (as represented by the 70 sacrifices for the nations of the world) to the intimacy of a people and its Maker: "Now bring a sacrifice for yourselves" - Zohar.
Although the word Atzeret means "Assembly" it also has the meaning of holding back. And our sages were unable to find any special purpose to the festival of the Eighth day except as expressed in the following parable:
God is like a king who invites all his children to a feast to last for just so many days; when the time comes for them to depart, He says to them: "My children, I have a request to make of you. Stay yet another day; I hate to see you go."
That the sages saw Shemini Atzeret in terms of "sweet sorrow", is typical of their attitude to all festival days. These were days of joy, not of burden; of pleasure, not only of duty, in which they were guests in the palace of the Lord.
The Prayer for Rain
On Shmini Atzeret, (also Simhat Torah in Israel,) a prayer for rain is invoked in the Synagogue.
It appears at a stage in the festivities after the harvest was brought in and after the season of sitting in the Sukkah, both of which would be affected by untimely rains.
The prayer itself was composed by Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Kallir who also is the author of the Hoshanot that are said throughout Sukkot and who was one of the greatest and certainly most prolific of the liturgical poets. He composed piyyutim, liturgical poems or poetical prayers for all the festivals and they were widely adopted into the prayer services. Ha-Kallir lived in the Land of Israel probably towards the end of the sixth century, although some scholars place him in a later period.
The season chosen for the recitation of this prayer for rain reflects the weather conditions and agricultural needs as they exist in the Land of Israel.
Even though this prayer at this time of the year may not be relevant for Jews scattered to other parts of the globe, their continued recitation of this and similar prayers serves to heighten their consciousness of the Holy Land and to help them maintain their spiritual bond with the Land of Israel.
The central theme running through the prayer for rain is ZEKHUT AVOT, "the merit of the fathers." The Jewish people plead for rain and sustenance, claiming not their own worthiness but for the righteousness of their saintly ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This theme also runs through all of the prayers for forgiveness and atonement on Yom Kippur.
Sometime after the 11th century, Shemini Atzeret also came to be known as Simhat Torah, "Rejoicing of the Torah." In the Diaspora, this name was applied only to the second day of Shemini Atzeret.
Although the name was not known in the talmudic period, the practice of reading the final portion of the Torah, Deuteronomy 33-34, on this day was set by the Talmud. From this practice, there gradually grew a tradition of a special, joyous celebration to mark that completion.
The basis for such a celebration is found in the Midrash which described Solomon as having made a special feast after he was granted wisdom. Said Rabbi Eleazar:
"From this we deduce that we make a feast to mark the conclusion of the Torah, for when God told Solomon, 'I have given you a wise and understanding heart like none who came before you or after you . . .' and he immediately made a feast for all his servants to celebrate the event, it is only proper to make a feast and celebrate when finishing the Torah."
While the tradition of added merriment on this last day of the holiday in honor of completing the Torah began during the ninth and tenth centuries of the common era, at the time of the Geonim, the name Simhat Torah came into use even later.
The custom of reading of the last portion of the Torah was set by the Talmud, but that of reading of the first chapter of Genesis was not introduced on Simhat Torah until sometime after the 12th century. The reasons given for this additional reading were:
1) to indicate that "just as we were privileged to witness its completion, so shall we be privileged to witness its beginning" and
2) to prevent Satan from accusing Israel that they were happy to finish the Torah (in the sense of getting it over with) and did not care to continue to read it.
Initially it was the custom for the same person who completed Deuteronomy to read the Genesis portion from memory without using a scroll, on account of the general rule that "two scrolls are not taken out for one reader."
Eventually the practice developed of calling two different persons, one for the reading of the last portion of Deuteronomy and one for the first portion of Genesis, and two different scrolls began to be used.
Each of these ALIYOT (callings to the Torah) came to be regarded as great honors.
The people so honored were called HATANIM, Bridegrooms (of the Law). The one who presided over the completion of Deuteronomy was called HATAN TORAH, Bridegroom of the Torah. The one who presided over the beginning of Genesis was called HATAN BERESHIT, the Bridegroom of Genesis.
It became customary for the men so honored to sponsor a festive meal later in the day. In our own day, those so honored usually sponsor a special Kiddush following services.
The ritual custom most closely identified with Simhat Torah is that of the hakkafot. Hakkafot is the term used to designate ceremonial processional circuits, whether in the synagogue or elsewhere.
On Simhat Torah, all the Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark, and carried around the central platform in seven hakkafot. This takes place during the evening service and also before the readings from the two Torah scrolls (described above) during the morning service. Hasidic practice in the Diaspora is to conduct hakkafot also at the evening service of the first day of Shemini Atzeret, as in Israel.
Although the custom of hakkafot on Simhat Torah is of rather late origin, dating from about the last third of the 16th century (in the city of Safed), the practice of hakkafot goes back much further.
Processional circuits are first mentioned in the Bible, as a build-up to the downfall of the walls of Jericho. There were seven circuits around Jericho; once a day for six days, and seven times on the seventh day.
The lulav (and aravot too) were carried around the Temple altar during the seven days of Sukkot; once a day during the first six days, and seven times on the seventh day (see above). From there developed the custom of hakkafot around the synagogue with the lulav and the etrog.
At traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies the custom of hakkafot is still to be seen in the circling by the bride around the bridegroom at the very start of the ceremony, usually seven circuits.
Three such circuits (Persian custom) can be said to symbolize the three-part passage from the Prophets which describes Israel's relationship to God in terms of an idyllic betrothal and marriage:
I will betroth you unto me forever;
I will betroth you unto me in righteousness and judgment, in loving-kindness and mercy;
I will betroth you unto me in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord.
(see also weekday morning prayer for putting on tefillin).
Song and Circuit Dancing
In addition to the prescribed passages, it is commonplace for the congregation to join in the singing of many additional songs, generally verses from the Bible or the prayerbook that have been put to music.
It is also the practice in the more traditional congregations for the worshippers to join a circle and dance in between each circuit. Those holding Torah scrolls also join the dancing.
In the yeshivot, the schools of higher Jewish learning, and in those congregations where traditional youth predominates, the singing and dancing that accompany the hakkafot can last for many hours. It is sometimes even carried outdoors. The whirling bodies and the stomping feet, perhaps a performance of acrobatic feats by someone inside the dancing circle, all accompanied by continuous song, provide a scene of ecstatic joy.
Small children are generally given decorative flags or miniature scrolls and they too follow the Torah scrolls in the processions.
Special Blessing for Children
In addition to involving the children in the Torah procession, it also became customary to include them in the Torah reading which follows.
Although a child under the age of thirteen is not generally called to the Torah for an aliyah, on Simhat Torah there developed the custom of kol ha-ne'arim which means "all the children," and refers to the fact that all of the children in the congregation are called up collectively and given a joint aliyah.
A tallit is spread over the heads of the entire group and the blessings, led by one adult, are recited.
At the conclusion of the reading, the congregation invokes Jacob's blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh as a special blessing for the children.
"May the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the children. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac . . ."
Simhat Torah in Israel
In Jerusalem, it is now customary on Simchat Torah morning for some congregations to join together in a mass dancing procession through the city to the Western Wall.
Led by scrolls of the Torah carried under the canopies, literally thousands of people, young and old, eight and ten abreast, dance and sing their way to the Western Wall in a procession that stretches for as far as the eye can see.
The original custom of holding the hakkafot at the conclusion of Simhat Torah inspired the custom in Israel of carrying the Simhat Torah celebration also into the night after the holiday. Public gatherings with bands and music featuring hakkafot and singing and dancing are then held.
In one public square of Jerusalem, it is customary for the Chief Rabbis and high government officials to participate. At that celebration there is featured the varied practices of the different Jewish communities: Hasidic, Yemenite, Bukharan, native Israeli, etc. A different group is responsible for each of the hakkafot, doing it in their respective traditional dress and with their traditional melodies.
At one time, this was also the moment for identification with Soviet Jewry, who held their own extensive celebrations in Moscow, Leningrad and other major towns on this date.
Hakkafot also take place at Israel's army bases, and even men near frontline positions have been known to participate in them during quiet periods. In the midst of the Yom Kippur War which lasted till after Sukkot, television crews recorded scenes of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren, visiting forward army bases, having brought with him a small Torah scroll, and of men joining him in some traditional dancing with the Torah.
The materials in this file have been adapted and extended from the "SUCCOT" folder written and produced by the former Publications Division of the Youth and Hechalutz Department, WZO and from "SUKKOT", a leaflet by the American Zionist Youth Foundation, WZO, New York.