How did Shemini Atzeret Become Simchat Torah?
BY RABBANIT SALLY MAYER
The Torah describes Sukkot repeatedly as a seven-day holiday (Vayikra 23, Bamidbar 29, Devarim 16), but then adds that the eighth day will also be a festival. What is the nature of this eighth day? Three approaches toward the nature of Shemini Atzeret emerge from the Talmud and Midrashim. In Pesikta deRav Kahana (28), Rav Alexandri says that the verses hint to Am Yisrael to pray for rain. If Sukkot passes and we still have not taken the hint, Hashem gives us a whole day just to pray for rain. The special prayer for rain, tefillat geshem, is in fact recited on Shemini Atzeret. According to this view, Shemini Atzeret amplifies a theme that is latent during Sukkot, a theme that moves to center stage on the eighth day.
The Gemara (Sukkah 55b) provides a second perspective, based on the striking difference between the sacrifices brought throughout Sukkot and those offered on Shemini Atzeret. Though we offer a total of 70 bulls during the seven days of Sukkot, on Shemini Atzeret we offer just one. Rabbi Elazar explains that the seventy bulls of Sukkot correspond to the seventy nations of the world, while the one bull of Shemini Atzeret represents the Jewish people. Sukkot is a universal holiday; indeed, Zechariah (14:16–19) prophesies that one day, all the nations will celebrate Sukkot. Shemini Atzeret, however, is only for the Jewish people, a modest holiday dedicated to celebrating Hashem’s special relationship with His beloved people.
Rashi offers a third approach. Hashem is like a king who invited his sons to a meal for a certain number of days. When the time came to say goodbye, he asked his children, “Please stay with me one more day, kasheh alai preidatchem, your departure is difficult for me” (Rashi, Vayikra 23:36). According to this understanding, all of Sukkot is a holiday for Hashem to celebrate with His children, the Jewish people. Shemini Atzeret is neither an opportunity to emphasize a concept that was hidden during Sukkot nor a holiday with its own theme – it is simply a moving expression of Hashem’s desire that we stay with Him and delay our departure.
These perspectives may underlie the Amoraic debate (Sukkah 47b) over whether to say the blessing of shehecheyanu on Shemini Atzeret. If its main theme is to pray for rain, which we should have done on Sukkot, it is debatable whether it warrants its own shehecheyanu. If, in line with the second approach, Shemini Atzeret is a “personal” holiday for the Jewish people after the universal holiday of Sukkot, one can well understand that it warrants its own blessing. If, however, as Rashi writes, Shemini Atzeret is an expression of G-d’s yearning for us to stay a bit longer, it is hard to understand why it would be considered a new holiday. We normally would not consider staying one more day at the same vacation house to be a new vacation but rather an extension of our vacation. According to Rashi, why say shehecheyanu on Shemini Atzeret?
Perhaps the nature of Shemini Atzeret is exactly this. It celebrates our unique relationship with Hashem, that He loves us and does not want to see us go. It actually is a separate day – a day dedicated exclusively to celebrating our close bond with Hashem as His chosen, beloved people. “Kasheh alai preidatchem, your departure is difficult for me,” highlights a different quality of our relationship with Hashem, one not emphasized previously. And so Shemini Atzeret is not simply an extra day of Sukkot, but rather a unique day and one that deserves its own shehecheyanu.
This may be why Shemini Atzeret, the day of love, developed into Simchat Torah. We complete the public reading of the entire Torah, dance with the sifrei Torah and celebrate our bond with Hashem. Simchat Torah is not is not merely a completion of the Torah we have learned as a community each Shabbat throughout the year, but rather a celebration of Hashem’s deep love for us, of His unique connection with us, expressed through the Torah. As we celebrate this year, may we feel this incredible bond, and use this day as a springboard into a year filled with Torah and connection to Hashem.
Rabbanit Sally Mayer is Rosh Midrasha at Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum and teaches Talmud and Halacha. She lectures in communities around the world and served as an editor for the Koren translation of the Talmud.