Throughout the week of Sukkos we are instructed to offer a total of 70 bulls in the Temple, but on Shmini Atzeres we offer only one (Talmud – Sukkah, chap. 5, “Hachalil”, pg. 55b, Rebbi Elazar). The Midrash (Tanchuma – Pinchas 15) offers the following parable:
There was once a king who made lavish banquets for all his servants several days in the year. But on the final day he told his most beloved and dedicated servant, “Make for me a small meal so that I can have pleasure from you.” Like the king in this parable, God, the King of the Universe, tells His servants to prepare an “international party” on Sukkos and to bring sacrifices on behalf of ourselves and the 70 nations of the world. But on the final day, Shmini Atzeres, He requests us to prepare a small meal for His beloved people, Israel.
A question can be raised: Why would God request just a small meal, rather than a giant feast for this unique and special occasion?
The B’nei Yissaschar (Vol.2, Ma’amarim on Chodesh Tishrei 13:1) provides a beautiful answer to this question. He explains that God specifically requests only a small meal with Israel because it is not the meal that is of importance! God requests a day for us to be close to Him, and therefore asks that we prepare a small meal and eat it hurriedly so that we can spend more time connecting to Him and enjoy that special connection. (We see this in practice on Shmini Atzeres, particularly in the Land of Israel where only one day of Yom Tov is observed, as we spend most of the time in shul praying, praising God and dancing with the Torah, leaving little time to eat a large meal!)
This explains the language used in the Tanchuma where the King (God) asks his servants to prepare a small meal, not so that he can “enjoy the feast,” but so that He “can have pleasure from you.”
The extent of our closeness to God on Shmini Atzeres is hinted to in the Torah reading of the day. We conclude with the final portion of V’Zos Habracha and commence again with Bereishis. (Simchas Torah is celebrated on the same day as Shmini Atzeres in the Land of Israel.) The Torah ends with the letter lamed and begins with a beis, spelling the word Lev, meaning heart, indicating that Simchas Torah is a time of rejoicing, “Simchas HaLev” (gladness of the heart) and closeness between God and Israel.
The B’nei Yissaschar (13:3) citing the Zohar (Mishpatim 2:114a) describes the degree of our closeness with God. The verse in Song of Songs (8:6) says, “Place me like a seal on your heart.” The closeness of the Jewish people with God is like the closeness of a seal on a paper. Even though the paper and the seal may go in different directions, once the paper has been stamped, an impression has been made on the paper that can never be removed. This, explains the Zohar, is the essence of Shmini Atzeres. As we “complete” the Torah, and “seal” the reading (the word “chotmin”, meaning “complete” as well as “seal”) with a final lamed and new beis (Lev) we are sealing God and His Torah in our hearts.
By further analyzing the word Lev, we will see that besides sealing God in our hearts on Shmini Atzeres, God also seals us with His holiness:
Each letter of the Aleph-Beis is essentially a word in itself that can be broken down into its composite letters. When we spell out the word LaMeD (the first letter of Lev) we have the “revealed” letter lamed and the “hidden” letters mem and dalet. The word Beis (the second letter of Lev) is comprised of the “revealed” letter beis and the “hidden” letters yud and sav.
The two “revealed” letters (lamed and bet) spell the word Lev, heart, while the “hidden” letters (mem, dalet, yud, sav) together possess the numerical value of 454, the same gematria (numerical value) as the word “Chotam”, meaning “seal” or “stamp”.
This numerical equivalency teaches us that as we read the final portion of the Torah and re-commence at Bereishis, God is stamping our hearts, as it were, with His Godliness. Once we have been stamped, the impression is “eternal”, hinted at by the “hidden” letters (mem, dalet, yud, tav) which spell the word “Tamid”, meaning “everlasting”. Shmini Atzeres, therefore, is a day of joy as we celebrate the unique closeness between God and Israel by opening our hearts to receive the eternal Divine imprint.
HOUSE OF PRAYER
What are we required to do to receive this seal from God and to ensure that it is maintained?
The Sfas Emes proposes that the Sukkah has the status of a Beis Knesses (house of prayer), while the home has the status of a Beis Midrash (study hall). He verifies this idea in the following way. Both Jews and Gentiles are connected to prayer, as it says in Isaiah (56:7), “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Since the Sukkah is compared to a house of prayer, then we can understand why, on Sukkos, we offer sacrifices on behalf of ourselves as well as the 70 nations of the world.
However, since the home has the status of a study hall, and that Torah study is unique to the people of Israel (Talmud – Sanhedrin, chap. 7, “Arba Misos”, pg. 59a, Rebbi Yochanan, V’zos Haberacha 33:4), then it makes sense that we offer up only one bull on Shmini Atzeres – Simchas Torah.
The Sfas Emes continues by explaining that the transition of leaving the Sukkah and entering the home on Shmini Atzeres indicates that we are leaving the holiness of the synagogue and entering the spiritual dimension of the study hall, which is even higher than that of the synagogue. The Sfas Emes likens this transition to the verse in Psalms (84:8) which says, “May they go from strength to strength,” to which the Talmud (Berachos, chap. 9, “Haroeh”, pg 64a, Rebbi Levi bar Chiya) says refers to entering the study hall after leaving the synagogue each morning. Just as we move from a place of great holiness (the synagogue) to an area of even greater holiness (the study hall), so too we move from the Sukkah into the home, on Shmini Atzeres.
The Sfas Emes also quotes the famous verse (Proverbs 6:23), “Mitzva is a candle and Torah is light,” and explains that the mitzvos involved in the festival of Sukkos are the candles, allowing one to receive the ultimate light of Torah on Shmini Atzeres.
Additionally, the seven days that lead up to Shmini Atzeres can be compared to the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuos. Just as we cried out to God in prayer at Pesach time, and therefore merited to see the light of Torah which we received at Mount Sinai seven weeks later, so we receive the “candle” by fulfilling the mitzvos of Sukkos (which also has the essence of prayer) and merit to see the light of Torah at the end, on Shmini Atzeres.
In order to reach the great light, we must first acquire the candle. Just as we need Pesach to get to Shavuos, so we need Sukkos to reach Shmini Atzeres. [As Shmini Atzeres connects with Shavuos because they share the same essence of Torah, this could explain why they are both referred to as “Atzeres” (Numbers 29:35 and Mishnah Chagiga 2:4.]
Shmini Atzeres and Shavuos are the only holidays that do not have a special mitzvah associated with the Yom Tov, but are “holidays” in the sense that we stop doing any creative activity. (Kedushas Levi)
With the awareness that by leaving the Sukkah and entering the home, we are ascending in holiness, and, with the understanding that by performing the mitzvos of Sukkos we merit to receive the Torah on Shmini Atzeres, we must recognize that God gave us Shmini Atzeres out of great kindness to His People (Rabbi Uri of Strolisk).
Without Shmini Atzeres, we would find it extremely difficult to return to our homes after tasting the great holiness of the Sukkah for seven days. Once God provides us with a holiday to celebrate specifically in our homes, we can leave our Sukkah with less pain in our hearts.
Again however, the pain is diminished only if we are moving into a home that is a place of Torah. Only in this way can we move ‘meChayil el Chayil’ (from strength to strength).
Shmini Atzeres offers a unique opportunity to attach ourselves to God and enjoy that special relationship. If we make our homes places of study, adorned with Torah books, and we are dedicated to the study of Torah, if we open our homes to host Torah classes (Avos 1:4), and create an environment which is conducive to learning, then the “candle,” the mitzvos of Sukkos, will lead us to receive the beaming light of Torah on Shmini Atzeres, ensuring a special connection with God which will stay stamped on our hearts for eternity.
Piska Tava, Good Yom Tov, Warmest wishes, Aba Wagensberg