Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
By: Karen Engle, ICEJ Managing Editor
Shemini Atzeret occurs the day after Sukkot’s last (seventh) day. In Hebrew, shemini means “eighth” and atzeret means “assembly,” so Shemini Atzeret means “eighth day of assembly.”
It is a holy day connected to Sukkot but also a separate festival that, in Second Temple times, marked the beginning of Israel’s rainy season. It also involved cleansing the altar of sacrifice, but this effort ended with temple’s destruction in AD 70. Shemini Atzeret is always mentioned within the context of Sukkot in the Bible, as in Leviticus 23:26 and 39:
For seven days you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation, and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. It is a sacred assembly, and you shall do no customary work on it. … Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep the feast of the Lord for seven days; on the first day there shall be a sabbath-rest, and on the eighth day a sabbath-rest.
Though linked to Sukkot, God gave Israel different instructions for how to celebrate it, and unlike the other seven days, it was without sukkahs, lulav, and etrog.
Another feature of Shemini Atzeret that developed in rabbinical Judaism as part of the eighth-day celebrations is called Simchat Torah, which marks the conclusion of Israel’s annual Torah readings. It is the only time where the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark (a chamber that houses the scrolls) at night, paraded throughout the synagogue, and read. The next morning, the final section of Deuteronomy is read followed by the first words of Genesis, kicking off the new reading cycle. For both, when the ark is opened, worshippers dance, sing, and celebrate with exceeding joy, often for several hours.
Interestingly, on Simchat Torah, the entire Jewish community assembles, comes into direct contact with Torah, and expresses deep joy in having received it—a beautiful picture of the joy that will be experienced with the return of Jesus, our Living Torah.