Shemini Atzeret is a Jewish holiday that’s observed on the 22nd day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei in Israel but is observed on both the 22nd and the 23rd day of this month outside of Israel. This places it on the Gregorian calendar somewhere between late September to early October—depending on the year. This holiday follows on the tail of the Jewish Festival of Sukkot—a festival that’s celebrated for seven days. This makes Shemini Atzeret the eighth day of the festival and it’s observed as both a part of that celebration as well as a celebration in its own right. It’s a holy day and a celebration and it’s this dual nature that is the heart of this holiday.
Origins & Significance Of Shemini Atzeret
The word Atzeret is found in four different places in the Hebrew Bible. It isn’t mentioned in Deuteronomy 16 but is instead found in the Priestly Code of the Bible. The problem with this day is that no one knows the meaning of this word. Early rabbinic references call it Yom Tov Aharon Shel Ha-Hag—which is the last day of the festival. However, the Talmud declares that the eighth day is a festival in its own right.
While Shemini Atzeret generally shares much of the same characteristics as Sukkot, there are significant differences between the two events. There is no more waving of the Lulav and Etrog. Although the Kiddush is recited during meals, the blessing to sanctify isn’t dwelt upon, and the memorial prayer Yizkor is recited in the synagogue after the reading of the Torah. And finally, the prayer for rain, also know as Geshem, is added to the repetition of Musaf. This begins the period of calling for rain, which lasts until Passover.
When Shemini Atzeret is mentioned in the Torah, it’s always in the context of Sukkot—the Feast Of Tabernacles. The word Shemini means “eighth” in Hebrew, and since it’s referred to in relation to Sukkot, it is generally assumed that this day is the eighth day of Sukkot. However, that characterization isn’t entirely accurate. The celebration of Sukkot involves eating in the Sukka, either booth or tabernacle, and the Four Kinds (trees and fruits that are used in the celebration). The Four Kinds are a palm branch (Lulav), two willows (Aravot), three myrtles (Haddasim), and a single citron (Etrog).
The Torah mentions those objects should only be used for seven days, not eight days if Shemini Atzeret is really the eighth day of Sukkot. That’s why Shemini Atzeret differs from Sukkot so much. It’s also worth mentioning that the Talmud describes this day as a holiday in its own right—something else that strikes it apart from Sukkot. This means that Shemini Atzeret is not only an end of Sukkot but is also a holiday in its own right.
Some people see Shemini Atzeret as a way to guard the seven days of Sukkot. The word Atzeret is usually translated as assembly, but it also shares a linguistic root with the Hebrew word “Atzor.” Atzor is a word that means to stop or to delay. Therefore, this day is often characterized as a day when people delay so they can spend an additional day with God after Sukkot. Sukkot is often seen as a holiday that can be enjoyed universally, while Shemini Atzeret is reserved only for Jews. Shemini Atzeret is also more of a modest holiday than Sukkot and is a day on which the special relationship between God and his people is celebrated.
In Diaspora, this holiday spans two days. The second day is known as Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah begins at nightfall and ends the following night. On both the eve and the morning of Simchat Torah is a dancing procession known as Hakafot. This is when people march and dance with Torah scrolls around the reading table in the local synagogue. In some synagogues, hakafot is also done on the eve of Shemini Atzeret.
The Prayer For Rain
All through Sukkot, Jewish people hint at their desire for rain through several rituals. These rituals include the Water Libation that’s practiced in the Temple and the Four Kinds that represent the deep connection between water and plant growth. A tradition that continues this water theme is the Prayer for Rain during Shemini Atzeret. Because Israel has historically relied on substantial rain to water its crops, and still do, the Prayer for Rain is recited with a mournful melody while the cantor wears a white robe known as a Kittel.
This prayer of rain matches closely the Prayer for Dew that is spoken on the first day of Passover. According to the Talmud, since the world depends on rain it’s proper to pray for it at this time of the year. Without the seasonal rain, Israel will face excessive thirst, famine, and disease, so this prayer gives expression to the anxiety that Jews feel. The reason that this prayer is delayed until Shemini Atzeret is so that the rain doesn’t interfere with the participant’s need to eat in the Sukkah.
The liturgy performed on Shemini Atzeret also introduces the following phrase to be recited every day until Passover begins in the Amidah prayer: Mashiv Haruach U’Moreed Hashem. This translates to “He Who Makes The Wind Blow and the Rain Fall.” This prayer for rain has six parts, each of which refers to events that have happened in antiquity. Events that show the importance of water to Isaac, Abraham, Jacob, Aaron, Moses, and the 12 Tribes Of Israel.
Non-Rabbinical Jewish Tradition Observances
Since Shemini Atzeret is a holiday that’s mentioned in the Bible, it isn’t just observed by Rabbinical Jews. It’s also practiced in Karaite Judaism and Samaritans. Let’s take a closer look at a few of the customs in each of these two religious branches. Jews in Karaite Judaism accept the Written Law and not the Oral Law. As such, this holiday is observed as a single rest day and is not associated in any way with the practices of Simchat Torah.
The Simchat Torah is a rabbinic innovation. Nonetheless, the Karaite cycle of weekly readings from the Torah reaches its inevitable conclusion on Shemini Atzeret, as it does in the Rabbinic cycle. In some circles in the Karaite community, the day is referred to as the name of Simchat Torah. And because the Karaite calendar isn’t based on astronomical calculations like some other calendars, but only on the observation of the New Moon and the ripening of the barley, the 22nd day of the 7th month doesn’t always fall on the same date as 22 Tishrei on the Jewish Calendar. In 2016, Shemini Atzeret fell on the same day on both calendars, but during the previous year, it fell two days later on the Karaites calendar than it did on the Jewish calendar.
In the Samaritan tradition, only one day of Shemini Atzeret is observed because only the first five books of the Bible are seen as canonical. In this tradition, prayers in the synagogue are also made shortly after midnight. No work is allowed on this day in this tradition either. When the holiday comes to an end, the succahs are dismantled and the nets and poles are stored until the next Harvest Festival. This concludes the holiday.
When is Shemini Atzeret?
|This year (2023)||October 7 (Saturday)||Multiple dates - more|
|Next year (2024)||October 24 (Thursday)||Multiple dates - more|
|Last year (2022)||October 17 (Monday)||Multiple dates - more|