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Shemini Atzeret

October 4, 2012

By Rabbi Isaac Mann

In this D’var Torah I would like to expand upon an interesting insight into the character of Shemini Atzeret based on a teaching that I heard from my beloved teacher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, affectionately referred to by his students as “the Rav.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik addressed the rather perplexing phenomenon of a large segment of observant Jews disregarding the clearly stated halakhah that requires Jews living outside the land of Israel to have their meals in the Sukkah (as well as sleep there) on Shemini Atzeret as they would during the holiday of Sukkot albeit without the recitation of the blessing of leisheiv ba-Sukkah (“to dwell in the Sukkah“). This halakhic rule is based on the conclusion of a talmudic discussion (Sukkah 47a) and is codified in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Sukkah 6:13) as well as in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 668:1) without any dissension from any major halakhic sources, either from the period of the Rishonim (halakhic decisors prior to 1500 C.E.) or that of the Aharonim (post-1500 decisors). Yet we find, especially among contemporary Hasidim, the halakhah is simply not observed. Indeed, the custom that many observe is to go home on the night of Shemini Atzeret after the Ma’ariv services, make kiddush and eat their meal at home and only return to the Sukkah the following day just for kiddush. Again, not all observant Jews ignore the halakhah to hold their meals in the Sukkah on Shemini Atzeret, but a large segment does.

Various justifications have been proffered to explain this rather unusual deviation from stated halakhic practice. The most widely cited one is that the reason for eating in the Sukkah on Shemini Atzeret is that of sefaika de’yoma, namely a Talmudic enactment to preserve a Jewish practice in the diaspora of keeping two days of yom tov. Since we were not sure in the pre-calendar period (the Hebrew calendar was only established in 359 C.E. by Hillel II) if Shemini Atzeret is actually the eighth day of the Sukkot holiday or still the seventh, the Rabbis adopted the stringencies of both – namely, to eat in the Sukkah but not to make the blessing. Once the calendar was established, the obligation to keep two days was maintained but the “second day” was then only a rabbinic requirement and leniencies that might not apply to a mitzvah that is biblically ordained could be applied in some cases to those of rabbinic origin. Thus, one who finds discomfort in eating in a Sukkah due, let’s say, to cold weather would not use this excuse to absolve himself of a biblically required mitzvah during the seven days of Sukkot, but he would be more likely to do so for a rabbinic practice. As is well known, most Hasidim, as well as many other Jews of European origin, lived in cold climates, unlike their Middle Eastern and Sephardic brethren, and by the time Sukkot – and especially Shemini Atzeret – arrived, sometimes in late October, the weather had already turned quite frigid. Simhat yom tov (the joy of the holiday) required a warm and comfortable environment, hardly one that could be maintained in a cold Sukkah.

The above explanation, as well as others (including some question as to whether the final talmudic decision mentioned above is of talmudic origin or only a geonic interpolation) does not fully account for why the Hasidim, more so than any other group of observant Jews, have by and large ignored the uncontested halakhic rulings of generations of decisors. The Rav, in addressing this issue, suggested that for the Hasidim, and for Jewish mystics in general, Shemini Atzeret represents a unique concept. While all of the yamim tovim elicit simhah (spiritual and physical joy), the simhah of Shemini Atzeret is of a higher order – it is the simhah of a union between God and the Jewish people, a kind of “marriage” that symbolically takes place on that day.

Indeed, echoes of this idea can be found even in the Talmud (Sukkah 55b). There we are told that the seven days of Sukkot, during which time a total of seventy oxen are offered on the altar starting with thirteen on the first day and decreasing by one each subsequent day (based on Numbers 29:12-34), are a period in which God rejoices with all of humanity – all seventy nations of the world. But on the eighth day, when only one ox is sacrificed (Numbers 29:36), God rejoices only with the Jewish people. A comparison is made in the Talmud (ad loc.) to an earthly king who celebrates for seven days with all of his servants but then dismisses them and calls for another day of celebration only with his most beloved friend or friends (see Rashi to Numbers 29:36).

If we look upon Shemini Atzeret as this special day of rejoicing, of a kind of wedding, when only the King (God) and His bride (the Jewish people) celebrate, then we can fully appreciate why this “ceremony” does not take place in the Sukkah. The Talmud explicitly exempts a bride and groom and the wedding company from eating in the Sukkah, for they need to rejoice where the huppah is (Sukkah 25b). If Shemini Atzeret is considered a mystical wedding ceremony between God and Israel, then we do not celebrate it in the Sukkah.A far larger arena is necessary to contain the participants, who need room to sing and dance and eat and make merry.

While those of us who DO eat in the Sukkah on Shemini Atzeret may not be as mystically inclined as our Hasidic co-religionists, let us not forget that we all share in the joy and exuberance that comes with this special holiday and certainly with its “second day” – Simhat Torah – when we complete and begin anew the reading of the Torah, the mystical ketubah (marriage document) that binds us to our Creator.May the joy and happiness of these days, as well as the spiritual heights we reach, stay with us throughout the year. Hag Sa’me’ah!


Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.