A Little-Known Holiday With a Big Message

Jul 22, 2022

בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי עֲצֶרֶת תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם כָּל־מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ׃

On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations.

ba-YOM ha-sh'-mee-NEE a-TZE-ret tih-YEH la-KHEM kol m'-LE-khet a-vo-DAH LO ta-a-SU

Numbers 29:35

Last week was our anniversary and our kids threw us a surprise party. They invited all of our friends and brought in spectacular catering. It was amazing and the party went on until the early hours of the morning with the guests trickling away. 

The next morning, we woke up late and sat down for a relaxed breakfast. The food was simple and we all stayed in our pajamas. As wonderful as the party was, the memory that will last the longest will certainly be the morning after. 

The Book of Numbers gives an overview of the holidays and the special offerings brought on each one (Numbers 2829). Each holiday has a distinct character except for one; Shemini Atzeret (Eighth Day of Assembly). Not much is said about the holiday other than it marks the end of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). It is a separate holiday with not one unique practice to distinguish it. Coming after Sukkot, it is anticlimactic and can be easily overlooked. What is the meaning of this day?

Sukkot is described in the Torah as a “sacred occasion”, or perhaps more accurately as a “holy happening.” The atmosphere is festive as people leave their homes to dwell in booths. The Temple is in full swing for seven days with joyous celebrations and a multitude of sacrifices are offered. Nations come from around the world for the festivities. 

But then it ends. Almost. Another holiday is added to the end. The eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, is a “solemn gathering.” After the overwhelming offerings of Sukkot totaling 70 bulls, Shemini Atzeret is characterized by a single bull offering. Why?

Shemini Atzeret is the family breakfast the morning after the big party. It is the quiet gathering after all the guests have gone home. After all the celebrations, Shemini Atzeret is a long farewell for the family members who are not quite ready to part.

According to the Sages (Sukkah 55b), the festival of Sukkot has a universal message. This is demonstrated by the fact that over the course of seven days, seventy special sacrifices were brought in the Temple, corresponding to the seventy primordial nations of the world. At the completion of the Sukkot holiday, God adds an extra day, as if to say to His people “I don’t want you to leave yet. Let us celebrate one more day together so I can enjoy your exclusive, intimate company.” 

After almost a month of celebrating the High Holidays and Sukkot, God doesn’t want the special time to end. He asks His chosen nation to celebrate with Him alone for one more day after everyone else has gone home. Shemini Atzeret is, therefore, a sign of the special relationship between God and Israel. 

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