A Mitzvah for Shmini Atzeret

Image: A laptop covered with post-it notes. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

The fall holiday cycle is almost done. Today is Shmini Atzeret, and then Jewish life will settle down for the quiet month of Cheshvan. Only one holiday, Sigd, twinkles at the far end of the month — otherwise it is quiet. It’s the longest such break in the Jewish Year, and it comes at a good time, because anyone involved in putting on all those celebrations is worn out.

Your clergy and staff at synagogue are exhausted from the past two years of Covid, Israel, political upheaval, rising antisemitism, and whatever has been going on locally in your community. This is a great time to write them a note about the sermon you liked, or the beautiful music, or something that went right. They have worked very hard and any expression of appreciation will be a blessing. Notes, emails, silly homemade postcards– it’s all wonderful.

The big thing is, if you’re happy about something to do with synagogue life, this is a great time to let your clergy know. They often wonder who notices things, and who cares. They hear about what went wrong but they rarely hear “thank you.”

To the person who says, “Well, it’s their job!” I have one thing to say: no, it isn’t “just a job.” It’s a labor of love, and particularly for staff, it is often a very poorly paid job. For clergy, it is months of work informed by years of training, and it is often done in tandem with volunteers who are full of good ideas and enthusiasm that have to be coordinated into a manageable whole. It’s WORK.

I am not a pulpit rabbi. I substituted for a colleague who was injured, so I had none of the preparations to do, just showed up to officiate for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even at part-duties, it was a big job, and I appreciated their thanks very much. In fact, those notes gave me a boost I needed after a stressful summer of other work — something of which they had no inkling. They refreshed my rabbinate more than they will ever know.

The expression of gratitude is a mitzvah: it restores the soul of both the speaker and the recipient. We are at the official end of the High Holy Day cycle. If there was anything you liked about your High Holy Days, whether it was the services, or the way the signups worked, or the call that was returned after you left a message, or someone’s cooking — this is a great time to say, “Thank you.”

What in the World is Shemini Atzeret?

Image: Stanford University Hillel students enjoying a meal in their sukkah, October 2009. (Stanford University Hillel, via JTA.org)

Shemini Atzeret means “Eighth Day of Assembly.”

It is mentioned in the Torah in Leviticus 23:39, “and on the eighth day [of Sukkot] there shall be a solemn rest.” This is a little complicated, because Sukkot has seven days. So what is the eighth day?

Think of Sukkot as a great party (because it is a great party, after all.) Ancient Jews called it “HaChag,” THE Holiday, because it was the most joyful holiday of the entire year. Now, think about the last great party you attended. Did you leave early, or find yourself staying long after the official ending?

Shemini Atzeret is one more day of rejoicing before the rains start and fall comes and things get cold and dark. In the Diaspora, for reasons I’ve discussed before, it goes on for two days, the second of which is Simchat Torah.

For a great take on the holiday read Rabbi David Evan Markus’ article on the JTA website, On Shemini Atzeret, Just Hang Out.

This year (5778, or 2017, if you insist) Shemini Atzeret starts on the evening of Wednesday, Oct 11.

I hope you’ve had a great Sukkot! Enjoy one more day of fun!

What’s Simchat Torah?

Simchat Torah (seem-CHAT toe-RAH) or (SEEM-chas TOE-rah) is a joyful day on the Jewish calender.  It concludes the fall series of Jewish holidays. Some things to know about Simchat Torah:

Simhat Torah Flag
Children can’t dance with the Torah in their arms, so they carry flags to celebrate (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

MEANS – “Rejoicing of the Torah.” Many Jews literally dance with the Torah scrolls on this day.

WHEN – This holiday falls after Sukkot. For Diaspora Jews, it is the second day of Shemini Atzeret. For Israeli Jews and Reform Jews, it is the day after Shemini Atzeret. (Either way, it’s the 23rd of Tishrei, which in 2013, begins at sundown on Sept 26.)

WHAT DO WE DO? – We finish reading the end of the Torah Scroll, then quickly begin reading it again! In many congregations, this activity is accompanied by dancing, parades, and banners.

WHY? – We love Torah, and we want make sure we never stop reading it. Therefore we make a very big deal about beginning again. Also, since the Torah has to be rolled back to the beginning, and that’s a big deal anyway, why not make a party of it? This is an opportunity to express our love for Torah.

Details differ among Jewish communities, and your congregation may have special customs of its own. For instance, when I was a rabbinic intern at Congregation Etz Chaim in Merced, CA, we used to unroll the whole Torah scroll and take a “tour” of it before rolling it up again.

Does your congregation have a special Simchat Torah custom? Share it with us in the comments!

What’s Shemini Atzeret?

English: Jerusalem, Western Wall - Jewish holi...
Jerusalem, Western Wall during Sukkot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shemini Atzeret means “Eighth Day of Assembly.”

It is mentioned in the Torah in Leviticus 23:39, “and on the eighth day [of Sukkot] there shall be a solemn rest.” This is a little complicated, because Sukkot has seven days. So what is the eighth day?

Think of Sukkot as a great party (because it is a great party, after all.) Ancient Jews called it “HaChag,” THE Holiday, because it was the most joyful holiday of the entire year. Now, think about the last great party you attended. Did you leave early, or find yourself staying long after the official ending?

Shemini Atzeret is one more day of rejoicing before the rains start and fall comes and things get cold and dark. In the Diaspora, for reasons I’ve discussed before, it goes on for two days, the second of which is Simchat Torah.

This year (5774, or 2013, if you insist) Shemini Atzeret starts on the evening of Wednesday, Sept 25, continuing until sundown on Sept 26.

I hope you’ve had a great Sukkot!