Shemini Atzeret

A Meaning in the 21st Century
By Julius Rabinowitz

This coming Shabbat we celebrate the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, a one day holiday that seems to be lacking an identity to most American Jews. Biblically, a holiday in which we are to hold a “solemn gathering”, accompanied by the annual celebration of the “prayer for rain”-albeit intended for the desert land of Israel and not for the temperate climes and year-round rainfall experienced in the Northern Hemisphere where most Diaspora Jews live. And its main “drawing” power seems to be the inclusion of a Yizkor service, less than two weeks after we gathered in synagogue for the very same commemoration. Indeed, when one looks at the Biblical origins and rabbinic modifications of the holiday, its identity appears to be bound up in the previous Sukkot holiday and its seven day joyous observance, and a respite before yet another joyous celebration the next day for the Simhat Torah holiday.

With this kind of foundation, it is a wonder that the modern Jew whose holiday observance motivation is anything other than obligation bound, would pay it any meaningful attention.

This year, however, because of its falling on a Shabbat, we include within the Shaharit service the reading of one of the Megillot, the book of Ecclesiastes or in Hebrew, Kohelet. Kohelet, traditionally attributed to King Solomon, is composed of a series of rather pessimistic comments about life. Incredibly, in most synagogues one or two chapters from the work are simply read, either in Hebrew or in English, to an audience that has little background in the work and with virtually no chance of being able to penetrate its deeper meanings.

So consider the likely reaction of a congregant who hears verses such as this read aloud, unaccompanied by any explanation or discussion:

“The wind goes toward the south, and turns about unto the north; it turns about continually in its circuit, and the wind returns again to its circuits.”

This is one of a series of verses that illustrate Kohelet’s expression of the futility of life with no linear goal-oriented objective available. Instead, Kohelet argues that the world never changes. Nothing new occurs in one’s life, and nothing can be shown for life’s investments. In sum, the winds are simply a metaphor for the circular and seemingly aimless direction of our lives as we go round and round without any clear purpose, except perhaps the eventual “return to dust.” The frustrations of life’s drudgery and lack of meaning for this continuous journey that has no objective other than to return to the start line and perhaps try once again to achieve a success, but which is doomed to failure from the get go.

If this is what the Kohelet reading experience holds for the modern Jew, the Shemini Atzeret experience has not improved one iota, and one might even be excused for avoiding it entirely.

But it need not be this way. There is an incredible teaching opportunity available with virtually any portion of this work–if properly prepared. Consider one option:

Simhat Torah
celebrates the arrival of the end of the Torah cycle, followed a few short moments later by another celebration, the beginning of yet another Torah cycle. One cannot miss the metaphorical circle being practiced through this endeavor. Yet it hardly speaks of the circular aimlessness of Kohelet. Each time we take this annual journey through the Torah reading cycle we do not simply proceed in a circular path and return to the “start” line. Rather, we have the chance of generating a whirling swirl upwards that adds another layer, another dimension if you will, to our circular experience. In essence, each time we live the Torah reading cycle we have the opportunity of adding a new level of understanding to its teachings, and meaning to our lives, and thus never return to the same “start” line.

This contrasting juxtaposition of the richness of the Torah cycle experience to the Kohelet theme of circular frustration underscores the teaching opportunity presented by the book’s reading on Shemini Atzeret. With the proper substantive foundation-whether arising from a teaching or discussion format accompanying the Kohelet reading experience, we can consider the alternatives to the futilities of life’s daily frustrations and pessimistic perspectives that Kohelet presents. Instead, we have a chance to understand that Kohelet’s frustrations derive from the emphasis placed on the daily human activities with their short-sighted view of garnering material gains that satisfy our bodily yearnings. However, when set alongside the teachings that Torah provides, these same daily movements can be seen to provide a “profit,”-not to our pocketbook but to the spirit of our eternal lives, and thereby provide meaning to life’s journey.


Julius Rabinowitz is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is a part-time IP consultant-attorney for General Electric Company.