Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 and Numbers 29:35-30:1, Special Torah Readings for Shemini Atzeret, Saturday, October 10, 2020

This Shabbat is also Shemini Atzeret, which immediately follows the seven days of Sukkot. In Israel and in the Reform sacred calendar, Shemini Atzeret coincides with Simchat Torah, but in Orthodox and Conservative congregations Shemini Atzeret is its own holiday, with Simchat Torah falling on the next day. 

Shemini Atzeret is probably the least known of all Jewish Holy Days. Shemini Atzeret translates to the Eighth Day of Assembly. It is a holiday in its own right, mentioned in the Torah. When the Temple stood, Shemini Atzeret was the day of the Water Drawing Ceremony (Tekes Beit Ha Sho’evah), a special Temple service calling for adequate rain in the coming winter, a necessity of survival for a people living in a semi-arid land. Our sages wrote of this ceremony, “one who has not witnessed the Water Drawing Ceremony has never truly experienced joy.” 

In rabbinic times, Shemini Atzeret became one of the memorial days, with a special Yizkor (memorial) service to remember loved ones we have lost. In our time, Shemini Atzeret is often lost between Sukkot and Simchat Torah, but it is worth remembering.  

Rashi, the great medieval Torah commentator, shares a midrash of a King who has invited his children home to feast with him for seven days. When the seventh day and the time for their departure arrives, he begs them to stay with him another day. Those of us who have grown children and know how much we long for more time together can relate to this parable. 

So it is, Rashi says, with God and the Jewish people. Let us linger together for one more day amidst the intimacy of the High Holy Days before winter comes. Combining the ancient joy in the Water Drawing ceremony with its reminder of our reliance on nature, the memorial service of rabbinic origin with its connection to love, Shemini Atzeret combines happiness, memory, sadness vulnerability, intimacy and connection, all important themes of the High Holy Days. 

Let us carry them with us into the New Year. Shannah tovah.