Pinchas–Shemini Atzeret

“On the eighth [hashemeni] day [of Sukkot] you shall have a solemn gathering [atzeret]: you shall not work at your occupations.”  (Num. 29:35)

We are given no further information about the nature of this holiday beyond this verse.  This indistinctness led to much discussion in rabbinic literature about whether the eighth day, known as Shemini Atzeret, is the end of Sukkoth or a completely independent festival.   The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that God asks all those who made the pilgrimage for Sukkoth to tarry (atzeret, from the root “to hold back”) with Him one additional day, and concluded that Shemini Atzeret is an independent festival.  In Jewish tradition, the only characteristic ritual for Shemini Atzeret is a special prayer for rain.

As with many holidays, the rabbis ordained a second day for the celebration of Shemini Atzeret outside the land of Israel. Beginning around the 10th century CE, this second day of Shemini Atzeret began to take on the character of a festival of Torah, because on the Sabbath following Shemini Atzeret the annual cycle of reading the Torah was begun again by going back to the beginning of the book of Genesis.  The festival became known as Simchat Torah, “rejoicing in the Torah.” Today, the joyous character of Simchat Torah has overwhelmed the virtually ritualless Shemini Atzeret.

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