Commentary for Shemini Atzeret

20 Oct

Shemini Atzeret is a strange holiday. In fact, whether or not it can even be called a “holiday” seems debatable. The Torah makes quite clear that melachah (creative work forbidden on Shabbat and holidays) is forbidden on this day (Lev. 23:36, Num. 29:35), but nowhere does the text refer to Shemini Atzeret as a “festival” like it does for Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot. While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also not called festivals, they are both referred to as Sabbaths, and as “sacred occasions” each time they are mentioned. Shemini Atzeret is only called a “sacred occasion” once (Lev. 23:36), and is always referred to as an “atzeret,” which is usually translated as a “gathering.”

Further complicating matters is the fact that Shemini Atzeret has no commandments unique to it. In fact, the only commandments it has are to do no melachah, and to offer a sacrifice to God. The normal method of hermeneutics used by the Rabbis to glean new information by the comparison of a similar term fails to help here, because the only other day referred to in the Torah as an “atzeret” is the seventh day of Passover, which also has no special mitzvot regarding its observance that do not apply to all of the other days of Passover.

If we follow this example, we come to the conclusion that perhaps Shemini Atzeret is merely the final day of Sukkot. This would make Sukkot mirror Passover, starting with one day on which melachah is prohibited, having intermediate days on which it is permitted, and then concluding with a final day on which melachah is prohibited. Whereas most of the other holidays are introduced as “in the Y month on the X day,” Shemini Atzeret is always simply referred to as occurring “on the eighth day,” and not even once in the entire Bible is it mentioned without being directly after a mention of Sukkot. In the Kiddush for Shemini Atzeret, as well as in the special Ya’aleh v’Yavo prayer inserted into the Amidah and the Grace After Meals, Shemini Atzeret, like Sukkot, is referred to as “the time of our happiness,” but this theory also runs into a problem because Shemini Atzeret is specifically listed as its own holiday, with its own insertion into the holiday Kiddush and Ya’aleh v’Yavo.

With further investigation, the theory that Shemini Atzeret is part of Sukkot seems to fall apart. The Gemarah (Sukkot 47- 48a) lists several ways that Shemini Atzeret differs from Sukkot. In addition to having its own Kiddush, we also say the Shehechiyanu prayer after Kiddush on Shemini Atzeret, which we do to acknowledge the beginning of new holiday. The sacrifices for Shemini Atzeret do not follow the pattern established by those for Sukkot, either in terms of the descending number per day or the manner in which the priests were assigned to their tasks, and the use of water as a libation, a practice only performed on Sukkot, is not done on Shemini Atzeret. The Levites sang a special psalm on Shemini Atzeret (Psalm 12) that they did not sing during Sukkot, and the major mitzvot of Sukkot, such as waving the lulav and etrog bundle and eating in the sukkah don’t apply (although those in the Diaspora do eat in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret in order to extend Sukkot an extra day). What, then, is the point of a holiday with no mitzvot to make it unique?

Many commentators take note of the fact that Shemini Atzeret is described as an “atzeret for you (Num. 29:35)” rather than a “festival for the Lord” or some similar designation used for other holidays. In addition to “gathering,” atzeret, coming from the root meaning “to restrain.”   While other holy times have unique, beautiful mitzvot, there is also some stress that comes attached to those mitzvot. Do I have all of my meals cooked before Shabbat? Will I have enough time to clean my house and re-kasher my kitchen for Passover? Will I have enough time to build my sukkah and buy my lulav and etrog? Shemini Atzeret is a holiday for us, where we are restrained from the normal holiday stresses, and free to enjoy our connection to God and to our fellow Jews.

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