Photo Credit: Rabbi Dr. Naphtali Hoff
Rabbi Dr. Naphtali Hoff

A story is told of a man and his wife who possessed almost no material goods. They owned only one item of significance: a special pair of tefillin. One year on Sukkos eve the husband chanced upon a lovely esrog and wanted very much to buy it, but he had no money with which to pay for it. Eager to fulfill the obligation to take the four species, he sold his tefillin in exchange for the beautiful fruit.

When his wife found out what he had done, she became angry. She took the esrog and threw it on the ground, causing it to become invalidated. Calmly, the husband turned to his wife and said, “We have neither of the mitzvos at this point. The tefillin were sold and the esrog is invalid. Let us at least have shalom bayis [marital accord and harmony].”

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The day of Shemini Atzeres does not “have” or demand any distinctive mitzvos. Unlike Sukkos, which precedes it, the holiday does not come along with any positive commandments, nor does it demand much in terms of advance preparation. It doesn’t seem to have any particular identity and perhaps for that reason is the least understood of all the Jewish holidays.

What exactly is the nature of Shemini Atzeres and why did Hashem include this day in the Jewish calendar?

Before we attempt to address these questions, let us first explain, based on the thoughts of Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim, Vol. 1, p. 239ff.), the unusual sequence of the entire month of Tishrei, beginning with Rosh Hashanah. The month opens in the most somber of settings. We sound the shofar to awaken us from our spiritual slumber as Hashem, our Lord and King, sits before the Books of Judgment in determination of who will be inscribed in the Book of Life, and who, chas v’shalom, will be recorded in the Book of Death.

The holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, soon follows. It is then that we beseech Hashem to forgive us for the iniquities we have committed and we pledge to improve our behavior in the year to come. We spend the day in great fear, fasting and abstaining from the most basic of physical activities in hope of divine mercy.

Sukkos comes next. Under normal circumstances, this would appear to be a quite peculiar sequence. Within one week’s time our focus shifts from the highest levels of spirituality and abstention to one of joyful physicality, sitting in our sukkahs and enjoying fine festive foods.

However, the idea behind this change is the inherent difficulty of sustaining the great degree of inspiration and commitment that one achieves on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Once the aura of these awesome days has dissipated, we tend to find ourselves behaving as we had in the past, with little semblance to the new person we promised to become. Hashem therefore gave us the holiday of Sukkos to help us internalize the important achievements of the Yamim Noraim.

When we sit in the sukkah and look up at the sky through its incomplete, temporary covering, we are reminded of our true Source of protection, as well as the direct role Hashem plays in our daily lives. This brings us a great sense of humility, and diminishes our desire to sin. In the words of the Zohar (Emor 100b), “when one sits in the sukkah he is spared the influence of his evil inclination.”

This idea helps explain the following perplexing midrash:

Why do we make the sukkah [shortly] after Yom Kippur? Since we find the Holy One, blessed be He, sitting [in judgment] on Rosh Hashanah before the entire world, and on Yom Kippur He signs the judgment, perhaps the Jews’ judgment that year was to be exiled. Therefore, we … “exile ourselves” from our homes into the sukkah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, considers it as if we were exiled to Babylon. [Yalkut Shimoni, Emor]

As we transition out of the seriousness of the Yamim Noraim, our thoughts quickly move to the festive days of Sukkos, during which we celebrate the new harvest. Because of our great sense of happiness, celebrating the fruits or our hard labor, we are prone to feelings of arrogance and self-reliance.

“And you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ ” (Devarim 8:17)

The enormous sense of accomplishment that accompanies the harvest is likely to awaken a strong degree of pride, which, the Torah tells us, is a primary factor in loosening our sense of dependence on and allegiance to Hashem.

It is for this reason that we are commanded at this time to leave our comfortable, secure surroundings and enter a sukkah. There we are to remain for seven days, living directly under Hashem’s protection.

We also attempt to negate the affects of the evil inclination by taking the four species on each day of Sukkos (other than Shabbos) and shaking them in all six directions. In the words of the Talmud (Sukkah 37b), “[The species are waved] to and fro in order to restrain harmful winds; up and down, in order to restrain harmful dews.”

According to Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin (Pri Tzaddik, p. 262), the “harmful winds” to which the Talmud refers are wicked desires. The “harmful dews” are heretical thoughts.

All of these described actions from Rosh Hashanah through Sukkos fall into the general category of sur mei’rah, abstention from evil conduct. The goal in each case is to rid us of the evil that has permeated and sullied our souls throughout the course of the year.

* * * * *

Shemini Atzeres, on the other hand, introduces a new dimension to our relationship with Hashem. For the first time we focus on asei tov, building a new bond with our Creator through the active performance of positive deeds. On Shemini Atzeres (also called Simchas Torah in Israel; in the Diaspora the two dates follow in succession but are in essence one) the focus becomes a close, intimate connection with our most holy possession, Hashem’s Torah.

In fact, the word atzeres is derived from the Hebrew atzor, which means to remain behind, separate from the rest of the group.

Hashem says to Israel, “I have detained you to remain with Me [on Shemini Atzeres].” This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to feast with him for a certain number of days. When the time came for them to leave, he said, “My sons, please, stay with me just one more day, for it is difficult for me to part with you.” [Rashi on Leviticus 23:36]

Rashi’s comments are based on the words of the Talmud found in Sukkah 55b:

To what do the seventy bulls that were offered during the seven days of [Sukkos] correspond? To the seventy [gentile] nations. To what does the single bullock [of Shemini Atzeres] correspond? To the unique nation [the Jewish people]. This may be compared to a king who said to his servants, “Prepare for me a great banquet” but on the last day he said to his beloved friend, “Prepare for me a simple meal that I may derive benefit from you.”

The same is true of Shavuos, the atzeres to Pesach. When Bnei Yisrael unquestioningly accepted the Torah, declaring that they would first do (the mitzvos) and then hear (i.e. to achieve understanding – Shemos 22:7), they widened the gap that separated our nation from all others. Hashem responded in kind, reserving that day as an atzeres, giving us an opportunity to reaffirm our connection to the single most precious gift ever bestowed upon us – His Torah.

Despite this basic connection between the two days of atzeres, there is a fundamental distinction between them as well. Shemini Atzeres is observed immediately upon the conclusion of Sukkos. In contrast, we celebrate Shavuos only after counting “seven complete weeks” (Vayikra 23:15). The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 7:4) offers the following insight to better understand this fundamental difference:

In truth, Shemini Atzeres should have followed Sukkos after an interval of fifty days, just as Shavuos follows Pesach. However in the weeks following Shemini Atzeres, the time is not suitable for traveling (the roads are dusty or muddy and difficult for walking). Hashem was like a king who had several married daughters, some who lived nearby while others resided at a great distance away. One day they all came to visit their father the king. The king said, “Those who live nearby are able to travel at any time. But those who live at a distance are not able to travel at any time. So while they are all here with me, let us make one feast for all of them and rejoice with them.” [However] with regard to Shavuos…Hashem says, “This season is fit for traveling.”

It seems clear that in order for an atzeres to have the maximal effect, some time should exist between the primary holiday and its respective atzeres, as is the case between Pesach and Shavuos. The primary reason why Shemini Atzeres is celebrated immediately upon the conclusion of Sukkos, without any such gap, is out of compassion for the pilgrims, so that they wouldn’t have to trek back to Yerushalayim under possibly inclement circumstances.

But why should this be so? Why would we require such a separation? One likely explanation is that delay allows us to prepare for upcoming events. The Jewish people needed time to prepare for receiving the Torah. Had they arrived at Har Sinai immediately after leaving Egypt – a land steeped in idolatry and immorality – they would not have been able to fully appreciate the gift they were about to receive.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in Horeb (pp.84-90) that each of the yamim tovim represents a different aspect within the development of the Jewish nation. On Pesach our nation experienced its physical birth. For the first time, after centuries of servitude, we were able to begin developing as an independent nation.

Sukkos symbolizes the physical survival of the Jewish people. Following the Exodus from Egypt, our nation survived in the desert for forty years without natural sources of food, drink, or shelter. They managed to do so only because Hashem provided for our needs. Food fell from shamayim in the form of mon (mannah) while water poured forth from the well. Our clothes and our shoes never wore out. The heavenly clouds provided us with protection from the elements.

Atzeres, on the other hand, both in the form of Shavuos and as Shemini Atzeres, places a greater emphasis on the spiritual side of our relationship with Hashem. Shavuos was in effect the spiritual birth of our nation. Only with the acceptance of the Torah could we recognize our true, spiritual essence, fundamentally separating ourselves from all other nations.

Shemini Atzeres represents our spiritual survival. It highlights our ability to continue to grow and develop spiritually, to live among the nations and still be able to preserve a close connection with Hashem – “it is difficult for me to part with you.”

The preparation that was necessary in each instance was one that moved us from a physical experience, either in the form of gaining our basic independence or as the basis for our ongoing survival, and elevated us to a loftier, more spiritual plane.

Because of each atzeres, we were able to achieve our true purpose, by learning Hashem’s Torah and making it the basis for our future national growth and development. It is possibly for this reason that neither day of atzeres possesses its own, unique mitzvah. Instead, we focus on the source of all mitzvos, Hashem and His Torah. By learning from it on Shavuos and dancing with it on Shemini Atzeres (Simchas Torah), we reaffirm our commitment to Torah in the most basic of ways – intellectually, physically, and emotionally – without the assistance of any outside motivators.

As the Talmud makes clear, the idea of atzeres is to add a special, intimate dimension to the primary preceding festival. Following the seven-day period of Sukkos comes a special addendum, to help solidify our relationship with our Maker. For this special “bonding time,” removed from the presence of the nations, no extra mitzvos are required. The simple union of Hashem with His people is sufficient.

On Simchas Torah we show our strong sense of love and commitment by dancing with the Torah in circles. As we dance round and round, we strengthen our level of holiness, building a strong defense against future sinful urges.

What emerges is a whole new perspective of Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah. What appeared at first to be an unclear and insignificant addendum to Sukkos now emerges as the climax of the entire month of Tishrei. All the effort we exerted in cleansing ourselves from our impurities of the past is now channeled into the creation of a new bond with Hashem, one built on the love we possess for Him and His Torah.

May we merit achieving a true level of Simchas Torah, of joy and elation with Hashem’s holy Torah, and use that as an inspiration for a year of continued growth and spiritual achievement.

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