Everyone knows that Sukkot consists of seven days, followed by Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah (in Eretz Yisrael both on the same day and outside Eretz Yisrael, on separate days).
Many people mistakenly think that Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah is the continuation of the festival of Sukkot. However, if you examine the Mussaf sacrifices brought on the seven days of Sukkot, there is a clear pattern: On each day of Sukkot, two rams and 14 sheep are sacrificed, but regarding the oxen, we start with 13 oxen on the first day and each day we reduce this number by one – 13, 12, 11, etc., until on the seventh day, seven oxen are sacrificed, making a total of 14 rams, 98 sheep and 70 oxen.
If Shemini Atzeret were the continuation of Sukkot, you would expect the Torah to tell us to offer two rams, 14 sheep and six oxen on Shemini Atzeret. However, the Mussaf sacrifice of Shemini Atzeret bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Sukkot sacrifices.
On Shemini Atzeret in Mussaf, we offer one ox, one ram and seven sheep (Bamidbar 29:36). Incredibly, this is the identical Mussaf sacrifice offered on both Rosh Hashana (Bamidbar 29:2) and Yom Kippur (Bamidbar 29:8).
What about the name? In the Torah, Shemini Atzeret is called “Atzeret” (Bamidbar 29:35). Can you think of another “Atzeret” in the Torah? Another name for Shavuot is Atzeret. (Although Shavuot is not categorically referred to as Atzeret in the Torah, Onkelos and our Sages call it Atzeret. The Sages say that if not for the sin of the golden calf, the Shavuot would also have been Atzeret).
The Midrash (Psikta d’Rav Kahana, 28, Shemini Atzeret) says that by all rights Shemini Atzeret should have been 50 days after Sukkot, just as Shavuot comes 50 days after Pesach. However, after Sukkot the rainy season begins, and if you waited 50 days after Sukkot, Am Yisrael would have to travel to the Beit HaMikdash in the rain. So, to spare them that inconvenience, Hashem made it a day immediately after Sukkot, when Am Yisrael were already in the Beit HaMikdash.
We see from this that Shemini Atzeret is the culmination of Sukkot, as Shavuot is the culmination of Pesach. However, just as the essence of Shavuot is completely different from the essence of Pesach, so too the essence of Shemini Atzeret is completely different from the essence of Sukkot.
To better understand what is going on, we need to continue reading the above Midrash. R’ Levi says that originally Hashem planned that Am Yisrael would have one festival in each of the summer months. Pesach in Nissan, Pesach Sheini in Iyar, Shavuot in Sivan, Rosh Hashana in Tammuz, Yom Kippur in Av, Sukkot in Elul and Shemini Atzeret in Tishrei. However, after Am Yisrael sinned with the golden calf, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot were moved and “squashed” into the month of Tishrei, together with Shemini Atzeret. The original plan, if we hadn’t sinned, was to have Shemini Atzeret (Tishrei) 50 days after Sukkot (in Elul).
If so, Shemini Atzeret seems to be the parallel of Shavuot; however, the sacrifices brought on Shemini Atzeret tell us that this is not so. According to the number of sacrifices, Shemini Atzeret bears more resemblance to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur than to Shavuot! How do we make sense of all this?
The truth is that, in essence, today Shemini Atzeret is the equivalent of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
If we examine the “original plan” of Hashem before the sin of the golden calf, the question is why HKB”H planned to have Rosh Hashana on the 17th of Tammuz? On the 17th of Tammuz, Moshe Rabbeinu was supposed to return from 40 days and nights on Har Sinai with the luchot, and ceremoniously present them to Am Yisrael, who would accept them joyously – and the Geulah would commence. The date of the 17th of Tammuz was intended to be the day the world was “reset” to the way it was when Hashem created it at the beginning of time – “Hayom Harat Olam.” The 9th of Av was intended to be Yom Kippur, another day of enormous celebration, not for atonement of sin (if the Geulah had commenced, there would have been no sin to atone for), but a day when the unmarried girls danced in the vineyards in search of a shidduch. This was to be followed by Sukkot in Elul to celebrate the end of the agricultural cycle of the year. Finally, in Tishrei – Shemini Atzeret, to celebrate the beginning of a new agricultural cycle, the beginning of the rainy season.
When Am Yisrael sinned, however, the essence of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot changed, and their dates were moved, but Shemini Atzeret remained with the same essence and on the same date as in the original plan. Rosh Hashana now commemorated the day Adam HaRishon was born, sinned and was forgiven. Yom Kippur now commemorated the day Am Yisrael was forgiven for the sin of the golden calf. Sukkot now commemorated self-sacrifice and devotion to Hashem, moving out of the comfort of our homes and placing ourselves in His care.
The “new,” altered Mussaf sacrifices of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur now embody forgiveness and a “new start” – which always was and still is the essence of the unaltered Shemini Atzeret sacrifice. The start of a new agricultural year, the rainy season when Am Yisrael is not working in the fields but sitting and studying Torah (which is why Shemini Atzeret is also the new start of the cycle of the Torah).
Shemini Atzeret does bear similarity to Shavuot (both called Atzeret) in that it is the culmination of the originally intended Sukkot (the end of the agricultural cycle). Shemini Atzeret is the beginning of the new agricultural cycle.
In Heaven, the angels still celebrate Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot in Tammuz, Av and Elul, according to the original plan. Down here, at least until the Mashiach comes, we are not in sync with them on that, but we reacquire that synchronization on Shemini Atzeret.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: A total of 70 oxen were brought on Sukkot, decreasing each day by one 13, 12, 11 … 7. What is the reason for this?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: The order of the Ushpizin, the guests in the Sukkah, according to Ashkenazi minhag is by order of the generations: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, David. The Sephardim, however, switch the order: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Aharon, Yosef, David. Why? The Sephardi minhag orders the Ushpizin according to the order of the Ten Sefirot (A Kabbalistic construct), not the generational order.