Commentary for Shemini Atzeret

2 Oct

Shemini Atzeret appears to be a holiday that isn’t about much at all. It has absolutely no unique mitzvot of its own, and is always referred to in the Torah as “the eighth day” after the seven-day holiday of Sukkot. How do we celebrate a holiday when we have almost no clues as to what it is about and what makes it different from other holidays?

Shemini Atzeret is the last holiday before the start of the rainy season in Israel, so one ritual that has become attached to Shemini Atzeret is the special prayer for rain added into the Musaf Amidah. We do not actually pray for rain itself on Shemini Atzeret, but rather we pray that the rain that does come this year will be productive and not destructive. We do not actually start praying for rain for another two weeks. One of the explanations given for this is because this allowed time for all of the pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for Sukkot and

Shemini Atzeret to make it back home in time before the rain starts.

Judaism is a religion that teaches us to look out for our neighbors. We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves and not to stand by while our fellows are in danger.   In many places in the Torah, including the Torah reading for Shemini Atzeret, we are told to look out for those who cannot look out for themselves: the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the destitute. Judaism teaches us the importance of community, and that is what Shemini Atzeret is about.

We are told that Shemini Atzeret is to be “a gathering for you (Num. 29:35).” The word “atzeret” actually means “gathering,” and it comes from the route meaning “to restrain.” In this case, we are restraining ourselves from leaving after the end of Sukkot and taking another day to spend with our community. Shemini Atzeret does not overtly draw attention to any specific mitzvot or ideas because doing so would take the focus off of the fact that Shemini Atzeret is a day of rest for us to spend with our community.

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