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Shemini Atzeret

September 28, 2010

The three pilgrimage festivals – Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot – are mentioned several times in the Torah – in Parshiyot Mishpatim, Ki Tisa, Emor, Pinhas, and Re’eh.  But it is only in two of these parshiyotEmor and Pinhas – that the Torah refers to what we now know as Sh’mini Atzeret.  In the former, we read only that “on the eighth day, you shall observe a sacred convocation and bring and offering by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering and you shall not work at your occupations” (Lev. 23:36). In the latter, we read only that “On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering [and] you shall not work at your occupations” (Deut. 29:35). This is followed by a description of the various offerings to be made.

Sh’mini Atzeret has a dual identity.  On the one hand, it is its own mo’ed (appointed time): “Sh’mini Hag Ha’Atzeret“; and on the other, is viewed as the completion of the festival of Sukkot – we sit in the sukkah, but do not recite the b’rakhah, “leshev ba’sukkah“.  The Torah also refers to an atzeret – a gathering – on the final day of Pesah (Deut. 16:8), suggesting that it is essential to the conclusion of the multi-day festivals.

One of the important parts of the synagogue service on Sh’mini Atzeret, is the recitation of the Yizkor prayers.  Almost ten years ago, Ismar Schorsch, then the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote that he had found “in his father’s old  mahzor (Heidenheim) . . . [that] the brief Yizkor service [was named], ‘seder matnat yad – the order of giving.'”  He wrote that, as a result, he had ultimately discovered that the name pointed to the reason that Yizkor was affixed to the last days of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot..”

The very end of the Torah reading for Sh’mini Atzeret, as well as the last day of the other two festivals, as Rabbi Schorsch noted, we read in Parashat Re’eh: “Three times a year – on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks and on the Feast of Booths – all your males shall appear before the Lord at the place that He will choose.  They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed, but each with his own gift (k’matnat yado), according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you.” (Deut. 16:16-17)  Thus, the link between Yizkor and Pesah, Shavuot and Sh’mini Azeret is matnat yad – giving.  The Yizkor prayers we recite on those days reiterate this connection: etein tz’dakah ba’ado (ba’adah) – “I will give charity on his / her behalf”.

We currently are living in difficult financial times.  Yet, the giving of tzedakah is a significant positive commandment for all Jews.  The Mishneh Torah tells us that “It is a positive commandment to give charity to the poor among the Jewish people, according to what is appropriate for the poor person if this is within the financial capacity of the donor.” (Hilkhot Matnot Aniyim 7:1)   Furthermore, it tells us that “[e]ven a poor person who derived his livelihood from charity is obligated to give charity to another person.” (Hilkhot Matnot Aniyim 7:5)

Our children see how we act on our choices – both in the way we spend our money for their needs and in the way we give our money to worthy causes.  When children see us giving our money to those causes, they grow up to be givers as well.  We are expected address the most serious inequalities in our world, although it is not required that we alone solve those issues.  We are not permitted to impoverish ourselves by giving to others.  Nor are we expected to devote all of our resources to Jewish causes, for we share our world with others.  The Talmud (Gittin 61a) permits such gifts as being mipnei darkhei shalom – “for the sake of peaceful relations”.  But the Mishneh Torah instructs us that we are expected to support those in need in our community first. (Hilkhot Matnot Aniyim 7:13).

While the Temple was standing in Jerusalem, people were obligated to not come empty-handed to that holy place.  Today, when the Temple no longer exists, we must fulfill the “not empty-handed” obligation by our charitable pledges and by promptly redeeming them at the festival’s conclusion.  We have always been a generous people.  Now, at this difficult economic time, let us make our own connection – one hand to another.

Rabbi Michael G. Kohn was ordained at The Academy for Jewish Religion and is the Rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham in Meriden, Connecticut.