Sh'mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: History
Photo courtesy: Women of Reform Judaism
As Sukkot comes to an end, we encounter additional special days in the Jewish calendar: Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Sh’mini Atzeret, Hebrew for “eighth-day convocation,” is the name given to the day after the seven days of Sukkot. Leviticus 23:36 proclaims: “On the eighth day you shall observe a holy convocation.”
Sh’mini Atzeret was originally a time of reflection on the holy days of Sukkot, which had just ended. Jews who left the booths they had occupied throughout Sukkot engaged in a final day of prayer before returning to their daily routine. Over time, Sh’mini Atzeret also became a day on which Jews recited a special prayer for rain in the year to come – quite appropriate in view of Sukkot’s agricultural motif. This "eighth day" of Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, is a separate occasion in its own right. Although it shares some of the rituals of Sukkot, there are some differences as well. Along with the addition of the blessing for the rain, the lulav and etrog are no longer shaken in the sukkah, the blessing for dwelling in the sukkah is no longer said, and the Yizkor (remembrance) prayer is said in synagogue.
In Israel and in Reform congregations, which generally observe one day of holidays, rather than two, Sh’mini Atzeret is observed concurrently with Simchat Torah, the festival of “Rejoicing in the Torah,” which arrives directly after Sukkot.
Simchat Torah celebrates the end (and the beginning) of the annual Torah-reading cycle. Just as we reach the concluding section of Deuteronomy (the fifth book of the Torah), we start over once again with the beginning of Genesis (the first book of the Torah).
Only in the 11th century did the ninth day after the beginning of Sukkot take on both the name and the festive ritual of what we now recognize as Simchat Torah. An annual holiday of this nature implies a one-year cycle of Torah reading, but such was not always the case. In ancient Palestine, Jews followed a triennial, or three-year, cycle of Torah reading. The one-year cycle was a custom of the Babylonian Jewish community. It was not until the 8th century that the great majority of Jews adopted the annual system. Simchat Torah as an annual observance, then, emerged only after the divergence in customs over the Torah reading cycle was resolved.