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Shmini Atzeret

October 9, 2006

Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah
Neal L. Spevack

Shemini Atzeret is observed on the 22nd of Tishrei or the eighth day of Sukkot but is considered a separate holiday. Outside of Israel, Simhat Torah is on the subsequent, ninth day. Shemini Atzeret has its initial source in Lev. 23:36 ‘Seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering you shall not work at your occupations.’ It is also stated in Num. 29:35, ‘On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering you shall not work at your occupations.’

Shemini Atzeret is an agriculturally based holiday. Israel had no rivers like the Nile or the Tigris and Euphrates. Israel’s rainfall only came in the winter. Ancient Israel completed its harvest on Sukkot, and the rain followed to renew the ground so that the spring season plantings would grow. A traditional interpretation for the holiday comes from Rashi. The shoresh or root of the word Atzeret is `atzer (with an `ayin) meaning to detain or remain. Rashi explained this day as God’s way of showing endearment to his people. ‘Linger for Me a bit more. . . Like children who take leave from their father, and he says to them, ‘Your departure is hard for me.” In our liturgy, the Sages incorporated this connection to the land and Israel by including the phrase in the Amidah prayer ‘mashiv ha-ruah u-morid ha-gashem‘ (‘Who makes the wind to blow and the rain to fall’). The issue of God granting rain is perceived differently today. When we pray today, we recognize the natural order of things. Abraham Joshua Heschel felt the ‘ambiguity regarding prayer and natural phenomena’ He wrote:

In the dimension of the holy, the spiritual is a bridge flung across a frightful abyss, while in the realm of nature the spiritual hovers like the wafted clouds, too tenuous to bear man across the abyss. When a vessel sails into a typhoon and the maw of the boiling maelstrom opens to engulf the tottering prey, it is not the pious man, engrossed in supplication, but the helmsman who intervenes in the proper sphere with proper means, fighting with physical powers. What sense is there in imploring the mercy of God? Words do not stem the flood, nor does meditation banish the storm. Prayer never entwines directly with the chain of physical cause and effect; the spiritual does not interfere with the natural order of things. The fact that man with undaunted sincerity pours into prayer the best of his soul springs from the conviction that there is a realm in which the acts of faith are puissant and potent, that there is an order in which filings of spirit can be of momentous consequence. (Man Is Not Alone, pages 239-240)

Simhat Torah has no sources in the Torah. There is a midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:9) that recalls the minhag (custom) of making a festive meal after finishing the reading of the Torah based on the verse: ‘He [Solomon] went to Jerusalem, stood before the Ark of the Covenant of Adonai and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented offerings of well-being; and he made a banquet for all his courtiers’ (I Kings 3:15). The Geonim during the 9th century in Babylonia celebrated in their synagogues this completion of reading, but the name ‘Simhat Torah‘ is not mentioned yet. At that time the whole Torah (Five Books of Moses) took three years to read in the land of Israel. Eventually the Babylonian practice of a full reading of the Torah in one year became the prevalent custom and with that a ‘joyous’ celebration was incorporated into the ritual.

Simhat Torah gave me one of my first memories of participating in my synagogue ritual when I was young. I was only ten years old. After finishing a first summer in Camp Ramah (at that time in Nyack, NY, before the Berkshires) I learned the Torah trop (cantilation). Our synagogue building was brand new. My rabbi asked me if I would read during Simhat Torah evening from the new Sephardic style Torah the synagogue acquired. The scroll was well over 100 years old. I was the youngest Torah reader reading from the oldest Sefer Torah in the new synagogue building. Simhat Torah represented to me a new start of an age old cyclical tradition.

Although we encourage all to study the Torah, the Sefer Torah – Torah scroll – as a symbol leaves an emotional impact on people as well. We retain the physical format of a scroll to signify an unchanging ethical law and way of life. The Sefer Torah had a tremendous emotional impact on an individual who recently joined our Havurah. He thoroughly enjoyed our service but when he was given an aliyah to hold the Sefer Torah, it brought him to tears. He was estranged from our tradition for much of his life due to unfortunate personal experiences. His last connect was when he was a bar mitzvah. Yet in the proper setting there was something from his past that enabled him to connect to our tradition and sparked a visceral response by holding the Sefer Torah.

Frenzied dancing with the Sefer Torah during Simhat Torah is encouraged. In my community all individuals receive aliyot regardless of age or gender. Our literacy and accessibility to all is good reason that Muhamad referred to our people as ‘the people of the Book’. Our ritual practice of rereading the Torah each year gives us the opportunity to constantly renew our connection to our past and encourages us to find ways to relate it to our life today.