HMS 5764-3; Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

October 14, 2003

Number 5764-3 Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

Shemini Atzeret is a festival that comes at the end of Sukkot but is completely independent from the holiday it follows. The definition of the term “Atzeret” is still a matter of debate among scholars. Why there was a need to follow the Sukkot Festival with another Festival is not clear. The difference between the two festivals is also not clear. Pesach also has an “Atzeret” festival. Shavuot in the Talmud is called “Atzeret” even though it comes 50 days after Pesach is over. Perhaps in the spring, when the dry season has started, it would be easy to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem twice in 50 days. Sukkot comes just before the rainy season begins and the roads become difficult. Perhaps this is why it’s “Atzeret” comes the day after Sukkot ends.
Yizkor, the memorial service, is the main ritual of Shemini Atzeret. Yizkor is done at the end of every festival. It is only natural that we would think of loved ones and miss them when holidays are celebrated over the course of the year. Rather than forget the times we celebrated in the past, we remember those who have died with the Yizkor Service. It would not be right to dampen the joy of the festival with Yizkor at the beginning of the celebration, so we do Yizkor at the end. Yizkor is the last day of Pesach, the last day of Shavuot and the second to last day of Shemini Atzeret. The second day of Shemini Atzeret is so joyful that Yizkor would not be appropriate, so Yizkor is moved to the first day (except in Israel where there is only one day of Shemini Atzeret and so Yizkor and the celebration are mixed.)
In ancient times, holidays were not set by a calendar years in advance, rather each month was declared when witnesses first saw the new moon in the sky. Once the court accepted their testimony, signal fires were lit and the entire country would know that the new month had begun and thus 15 days later Sukkot would start. Riders would immediately leave for Babylonia to let them know that the month was declared. Often the riders would take more than 2 weeks to get to their destinations. It thus became the custom to celebrate festivals outside of Israel two days, on the two possible days the month could have been declared. Although the calendar was long ago calculated for all to use, the custom still is for those Jewish communities outside of Israel to celebrate holidays for two days instead of one.
The second day of Shemini Atzeret now goes by the name of Simchat Torah. In the liturgy, we still call it Shemini Atzeret, but it takes on a new character because this is the day we end and begin again the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah. This is the reason for the great joy of this day, that we get another year to study and read Torah. At the evening service, the Torah is taken from the ark with great celebration. At Temple Sinai, it is crazy hat night and all are invited to wear a crazy hat. It is an honor to be able to sing one of the verses in honor of the Torah as it is taken from the ark. All the Torah scrolls in the ark are removed and paraded seven times around the synagogue with dancing and singing. The last parsha of Deuteronomy is begun and three honors are called. (We call Men Women and Children, other congregations may call Cohen, Levy and Yisrael) but the reading is left unfinished. In the morning service. Once again we honor people with verses to read as the ark is opened. Once again, all the scrolls of Torah are paraded around the synagogue seven times. Everyone gets an aliyah to the Torah in the morning (some places read many Torah scrolls, we call everyone up by age) It is a great honor to be the person called for the last reading from Deuteronomy. That honor is called Hatan Torah, the bridegroom of the Torah and there is a special hymn sun in his or her honor. The scroll is finished and put away, and then a new scroll is brought out and the next honor goes to the one who gets the first aliyah from the beginning of Genesis. That person is called, Hatan Berayshit, the Bridegroom of Genesis. The first chapter of Genesis is read and then the maftir is called. The Haftara is from the beginning of the book of Joshua, the book that comes after Deuteronomy. During the Haftara and during the musaf service, many silly things can happen. It becomes a parody of all the other holiday services. Tricks are pulled on those leading services and even on unsuspecting worshipers in the congregation. If you know what services are supposed to sound like, you will be amazed at what is done when all the rules are thrown away! Never, Ever miss a Simchat Torah Service, it is way too much fun. I hope to see you there.
Next week: Rosh Hodesh and Heshvan

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