Overview of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
Although the Bible mentions Shemini Atzeret, the function of the holiday is not clear. During the Second Temple period, it seems that Shemini Atzeret was a day for the temple altar’s ritual cleaning. When the temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the day’s traditional function was no longer observed.
In Israel, Shemini Atzeret indicates the rainy season’s start, and the celebration includes the year’s first prayer for rain. It may be due to the ambivalent nature of Shemini Atzeret that it was annexed to the celebration of Simchat Torah, honoring the end of Sukkot and the completion of the Torah’s annual readings.
Simchat Torah is the more important day of the two holidays because it is an alpha-omega event. It is the culmination of the annual readings of the sections of the Torah and, at the same time, the start of the new cycle of reading the Five Books of the Hebrew Scriptures, starting with Genesis.
In the Book of Numbers, Shemini Atzeret is the ”eighth day” or an extra day after the seven-day long observance of Sukkot. It is not part of Sukkot, but functions as a transition day before Simchat Torah. Shemini Atzeret is spent solemnly, and the Jews are not allowed to work. According to many rabbis, it is also a day of rest for the Jews because they were kept busy with the activities and guests they have to attend to during Sukkot.
At sundown following Shemini Atzeret, the Jewish community celebrates Simchat Torah. The Five Books of Moses comprises the first part of the Torah or the Jewish Bible. The books, which are written in Hebrew, include Genesis (Bereshit), Exodus (Shemot), Leviticus (Vayikra), Numbers (Bamidbar), and Deuteronomy (Devarim).
Traditions and customs
Since most Jewish holidays are centered in the community and the synagogue, separate activities are observed based on the celebration’s location.
Many families still eat their meals in the sukkah at home, although the activity does not include blessings anymore.
In the community, it is usual to insert a short prayer asking for rain from the beginning of the observance of Shemini Atzeret until the Passover (Pesach – March 27 to April 3 in 2021). The prayer for rain is said in the second blessing of the Amidah prayer, the central prayer said during worship services. It is also called the “Standing Prayer” as the Jews recite the prayer while standing up and facing Jerusalem. Another prayer, Yizkor, is included, wherein the Jews request God to remember the souls of family members who have departed.
On the other hand, members of the community attending the liturgical service dance with the Torah when observing Simchat Torah. The Torah scrolls are removed from the ark, and the community members carry the scrolls around the synagogue and dance with them while circling the temple seven times. The activity, which they do on the eve of the Simchat Torah and following morning, is called ”hakafot.”
As the holiday ends the annual reading of the Torah, the final section of the Book of Deuteronomy (D’varim) is read on this day. The cycle of Torah readings starts anew by reading the opening section of the Book of Genesis (B’reishit). Men and children are called upon to read sections of the final book during the celebration of Simchat Torah. The honor is called ”aliyah.”
In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah is a one-day event. In Jewish communities outside Israel, though, they are observed as a two-day event.
Since they are major holidays, work, except the essential ones, is forbidden. On the night before the start of the Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, girls and women light candles while reciting the corresponding blessings. Families enjoy festive meals night and day and drinking grape juice or wine after reciting a Kiddush.
Celebrating Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah around the world
According to tradition, the Jewish community gathers at the synagogue to celebrate the twin holiday. But outside Israel, the Jewish communities celebrate the holidays by having street parties, with children holding flags and given colorful candies.
No special food is served during the holiday, although children are allowed to have sweets because the twin holiday is a joyous event. There are traditional favorites, though, such as candied apples and cookies in the shape of the Torah. Since the event is festive, adults typically drink wine and other alcoholic beverages.
Like in Israel, many Jews living in other parts of the world still eat with their family in the sukkah when celebrating Shemini Atzeret. However, they do not recite any blessings, to disassociate the day from Sukkot.
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