Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
The final two days of Sukkot, called Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, are considered separate holidays and NOT part of Sukkot. However, the Torah refers to the holiday as the 8th day (Leviticus 23:36): “Seven days you shall bring gifts to God and then, on the eighth day, you shall observe a sacred festival and bring a gift to God…” Well, is it a separate holiday or not? The Torah does not offer any additional details but the Talmud makes it clear that it is an independent festival.
Thus, the following are clear. On the 8th day unlike the previous seven, we no longer “dwell” in the Sukkah nor do we use the lulav and etrog. In fact, the previous day – the last day of the 7 day holiday of Sukkot is called Hoshana Rabba. This day formally marks the end of the penitential period concluding the long High Holiday “season” that began “way back” on Rosh Chodesh Elul – 50 days before!!
Two notable liturgical insertions are made on Shemini Atzeret. The first is the recitation of Yizkor (like on Yom Kippur but also on the 8th day of Pesach and the 2nd day of Shavuot). The other is the prayer for rain that is included in the recitation of the Musaf Amidah. This prayer, referring to the rainy season in Israel, concludes with the declaration of God’s might “causing the wind to blow and the rain to fall”. These words are then included in the Amidah prayer until Pesach.
The companion prayer for the prayer for rain is the prayer for dew which is recited on the first day of Pesach marking the intimate “cycle of seasons” and our connection to the land of Israel and the three Pilgrimage festivals. It might be logical for someone living in the Diaspora to ask, “But, I do not live in Israel. Why do I need to include this reference”? The answer is the dramatic and unbreakable affirmation of Jews all over the world to the Land of Israel.
Simchat Torah literally means “the Joy of Torah” and it is on this day that we dance and sing while holding the Torah scrolls. And it is on this day that the annual cycle of Torah readings ends and begins!!
Whereas quotations were found in the Book of Leviticus for the three pilgrimage holidays and Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, there is no biblical reference to Simchat Torah. It seems as if Shemini Atzeret, in the early Middle Ages, began to be associated with the ritual of completing the yearly cycle of readings from the Torah leading to the even later development of a “separate” Simchat Torah holiday with its own festivities and synagogue rituals.
The festivities of Simchat Torah begin during the Evening service, Maariv, with the hakkafot – the seven times the worshipers circle the synagogue dancing and singing with the Torah Scrolls. For each hakafa, there is a different introduction and the Torah scrolls are often passed from one worshiper to another.
Following the kakafot, all of the Scrolls are returned to the Ark and the reading of the last Torah portion, V’Zot Ha’Bracha is commenced. This is the only time during the year that the Torah, as part of the service, is read at night!
The celebration continues the following morning. Once again all the Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark and the joyous hakkafot begin again. The Torah portion is read but instead of the usual 5 aliyot, it is customary that everyone present to have an aliyah to the Torah.
It is also customary to call all the children forward for an aliyah to the Torah. Since they are not yet old enough to have an aliyah of their one, it is customary that an adult, lead them in reciting the blessings. This is considered a great honor as a large tallit is held over the children’s heads as the blessings are recited.
The last two aliyot are special honors and are given to people that the community especially wants to honor. The first is called Hatan or kallat Ha-Torah (Groom or Bride of the Torah). This person is being honored with the final aliyah from the Torah completing the Book of Deuteronomy. The second aliyah is known as Hatan or Kallat Bereshit, The Groom or Bride of the Book of Genesis and is the individual honored with the first aliyah of the new Torah reading cycle.