Commentary for Shemini Atzeret

21 Nov

Shemini Atzeret is probably the strangest of the Jewish holidays- and that is assuming that you take the position that it is even its own holiday at all as opposed to just the final day of Sukkot. Even its name is strange. While the “Shemini” part clearly translates to “eighth,” (as in the either “the eighth day of Sukkot” or “the eighth day, starting from the first day of Sukkot), the “Atzeret” part is trickier. “Atzeret” can mean either “gathering” or “cessation.”

Despite the word never being used to describe it in the Torah, the Gemarah occasionally refers to Shavuot as a day of “Atzeret” as well. While this seems baffling at first, a closer examination reveals that these two holidays do share some quirky characteristics.   These are the only two holidays whose dates are not explicitly set forth in the Torah. While the Torah tells us that other holidays start “in the X month on the Y day,” these two holidays’ dates are deduced from the dates of other holidays. Shavuot is the day after the forty-ninth day after the first day of Passover, while Shemini Atzeret is the eighth day, starting from the first day of Sukkot. Thus, both of these holidays can be seen as a cessation of counting. Shavuot marks the end of the counting of the Omer, the seven-week period from the second day of Passover until Shavuot, during which it is a mitzvah to count each day. On Shemini Atzeret we cease counting not only the seven days of Sukkot necessary to deduce that today is the eight day- Shemini Atzeret, but also the seventy bulls sacrificed over the course of Sukkot (representing the other nations of the world, of which there are traditionally seventy). Shemini Atzeret completely breaks from the pattern of the sacrifices of Sukkot, which starts with thirteen on the first day and decreases by one on every successive day. By contrast, Shemini Atzeret has only one.

The bulls sacrificed on Sukkot are well known to many Jews nowadays not for their own mitzvah but for their inclusion in a debate recorded in the Gemarah (Shabbat 21b) about the proper way to light Chanukah candles. The school of Shamai says that we should light eight the first day, seven the second day and so on in accordance with the Sukkot sacrifices, which could not be performed at their proper time that year because the forces of Antiochus and their followers had rendered the Holy Temple impure. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, says that we should light one candle the first night, two the second night, and so on, due to the general principle of ma’alin bekodesh [v’ein moridin]- “we go up in matters of holiness [and do not go down].” While this principle is fairly easy to apply to Shavuot (we finish counting the Omer, then celebrate receiving the Torah, going from one mitzvah to all of them), we seem to run into a b it of a snag trying to apply it to Shemini Atzeret, where we go from the many sacrifices of Sukkot to just one for Shemini Atzeret.

The answer to this problem lies in the “gathering” facets of these two holidays. On Shavuot, all of the Jews, past, present, and future, were gathered around Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The rabbis make much ado about the fact that every single person there accepted the Torah “as one voice (Ex. 24:3).” The reason that rabbis are so impressed with this is simply that they didn’t have to do so, but every last one of them still chose to do so.

Judaism applauds going above and beyond the call of duty, and that is what Shemini Atzeret is about. Unlike Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, there is no obligation for every Jew to appear at the Holy Temple on Shemini Atzeret, and yet the Israelites would do so anyway. While the seventy bulls sacrificed on Sukkot represented the other nations of the world, the one sacrificed on Shemini Atzeret represented the Jewish People, who have chosen to go above and beyond the minimum requirements of the Noachide laws in order to be closer to God. In this way, on Shemini Atzeret, we are ma’alin bekodesh.

Combining these concepts, we can finally understand the name of Shemini Atzeret. The number seven in Judaism represents a sense of completeness. On Shavuot we have just finished the mitzvah of counting the Omer (seven weeks of seven days each) and now, as we begin an eighth week, we move on to something even bigger and better in accepting all of mitzvot in the Torah. On Shemini Atzeret we have finished the seven days of Sukkot with their seventy (7×10) obligatory sacrifices, and now, on the eighth day, we voluntarily gather together to oversee the performance of one more sacrifice to show our desire to go above and beyond the call of duty in service to God. On Shemini Atzeret we gather together to turn an end into a new beginning.

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