Question: I seem to see a lack of uniformity regarding the mitzvah of sukkah on Shemini Atzeret. What is the proper procedure to follow?
Answer: The question revolves around the festival status of Shemini Atzeret. This is not to say that there is a question as to whether Shemini Atzeret is a festival. Rather, is Shemini Atzeret, which immediately follows the last day of the festival of Sukkot [Hoshana Rabbah], part and parcel of that festival, or is it a separate festival to itself? We find three references to Shemini Atzeret in the Torah: two explicit ones and one hinted at that we derive by way of exegesis. The first reference is in Parashat Emor (Leviticus 23:36): “…bayom ha’shemini mikra kodesh yi’h’yeh lachem…– …on the eighth day there shall be a holy convocation for you….” The second reference is in Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 29:35): “Bayom haShemini Atzeret tihyeh lachem kol melechet avodah lo ta’asu – The eighth day shall be a restriction for you; you shall not do any laborious work.” The third reference is by way of a hint in Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 16:15): “Shiv’at yamim tachog la’Shem Elokecha …ve’hayita ach sameach – A seven day period shall you celebrate before the L-rd your G-d …and you will be completely joyous.” Rashi cites the gemara (Sukkah 48a) that this is a reference to Shemini Atzeret. This last verse seems to single out Shemini Atzeret as a separate festival in that it clearly states, “seven days shall you celebrate” – meaning that if there is any celebration on the eighth day, it should be deemed a separate festival.
Yet the very following verse (Deuteronomy 16:16) seems to be saying otherwise: “Shalosh pa’amim ba’shanah ye’ra’eh kol zechurecha et penei Hashem Elokecha ba’makom asher yivchar, b’chag hamatzot, u’b’chag ha’shavuot u’bchag ha’sukkot… – Three times a year shall all your males appear before the L-rd, your G-d, in the place that He will choose [Jerusalem]: on the festival of Matzot, the festival of Shavuot and the festival of Sukkot….” Note that there are only three times a year to appear – the three festivals enumerated in this passage. Obviously, then, it would seem that Shemini Atzeret is part and parcel of Sukkot.
Now, regarding the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah, the Torah clearly tells us in Parashat Emor (Leviticus 23:42): “Basukkot teshvu shiv’at yamim kol ha’ezrach b’yisrael yeshvu ba’sukkot – You shall dwell in sukkot for a seven day period, every native in Israel [to include both a Jew from birth and a convert] shall dwell in sukkot.” The Torah then goes on to give us the basic reason for the commandment to sit – or rather, to dwell – in the sukkah. As stated (Ibid. 23:43), it is “Lema’an yed’u doroteichem ki vasukkot hoshavti et Bnei Yisrael be’hotzi’i otam me’eretz Mitzrayim, Ani Hashem Elokeichem – So that your [future] generations will know that I made the Children of Israel dwell in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt, I am the L-rd, your G-d.”
We thus see that the command to dwell in the sukkah excludes this last day. Yet we, in the Diaspora, should view Sukkot and this last day no different from Pesach and its last day, where it is clear that due to safek yom [the doubtful day] we abstain from all melachah [prohibited labor] and abstain from eating chametz as well [even though it is doubtful whether this day is even Yom Tov at all].
The answer lies in the one difference: Pesach and its last day, Shemini safek shevii (the eighth day which may be the seventh day), both have the same name – Chag HaMatzot, the Biblical name for Pesach. But Sukkot and its last day, Shemini Atzeret, each have a different name.
This is basically the discussion of the gemara (Sukkah 46b-47a): though the eighth day is doubtful and may be the seventh day, since it flies in the face of all the verses that relate to this last of the three festivals – Sukkot / Shemini Atzeret – our sages instituted that we indeed dwell in the sukkah, however we do not recite its blessing. The minhag is to eat in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret, but that the last meal in the sukkah is the seudat shacharit [i.e.,the daytime meal] and then to depart the sukkah. Thereafter, any food one wishes to eat for the remainder of the day, one eats in the house. Others have a minhag not to eat in the sukkah at night – the eve of Shemini Atzeret – but make Kiddush in the sukkah in the morning, and then continue their meal inside the house. However, on the following day, Simchat Torah, which shares the same “name” Shemini Atzeret, as the previous day, we surely do not eat in the sukkah since it is teshi’i safek shemini – the ninth [day] which may be the eighth [day].