Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
Immediately following the seven-day festival of Sukkot comes the two-day festival of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. (In the Land of Israel, the festival is “compacted” in a single day).
Shemini Atzeret means “the eighth [day] of retention”; the chassidic masters explain that the primary purpose of the festival is to retain and “conceive” the spiritual revelations and powers that we are granted during the festivals of the month of Tishrei, so that we could subsequently apply them to our lives throughout the year.
The “Four Kinds” are not taken on Shemini Atzeret. We still eat in the sukkah (according to the custom of most communities), but without making the special blessing on the sukkah. On the second day of Shemini Atzeret (i.e., the ninth day from the beginning of Sukkot) and in the Land of Israel, we go back to eating in the home.
The second day of Shemini Atzeret is called Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing of the Torah”). On this day we conclude, and begin anew, the annual Torah reading cycle. The event is marked with great rejoicing, especially during the “hakafot” procession, in which we march, sing and dance with the Torah scrolls around the reading table in the synagogue. “On Simchat Torah,” goes the chassidic saying, “we rejoice in the Torah, and the Torah rejoices in us; the Torah, too, wants to dance, so we become the Torah’s dancing feet.”
Other festival observances include the special prayer for rain included in the musaf prayer of Shemini Atzeret, and the custom that all are called up to the Torah on Simchat Torah.
Shavuot/Simchat Torah: Appreciating the Gift
The Maggid was once asked: Why do we need two Jewish holidays that celebrate the same event? Both Simchat Torah and Shavuot celebrate receiving the Torah. Why not combine them into one grand holiday?
The Maggid answered with the following parable:
Once there was a king and queen who were childless for many years. In desperation, they visited an old wise man. The wise man gave them a powerful blessing, but with one condition attached. If the child would be a girl, no man must see her until her wedding day, lest she die! When the queen gave birth to a baby girl, a secluded island was prepared for the princess to live, where she would be raised in the finest royal style, with only female educators.
After many years, the princess came of age. The king approached a nobleman whom he respected and suggested that he marry his daughter. “Certainly!” was the enthusiastic response, “When can I meet her?” The king then explained that his daughter could not be seen before her wedding day. Surprised by this answer, the nobleman declined the match. Perhaps the princess was unpleasant, or ugly, and scarred with some terrible defect.
Time after time, the king was confronted with the same frustrating reaction. “Let me see her first!” the suitors would demand. “If not, then how do I know what I’m getting myself into?” None trusted the king’s promise that she was beautiful and kind.
Finally, the last man the king approached told the king that he was greatly honored by the offer. If the princess had the character of her royal parents, then he would be delighted to marry her - even without seeing her before the wedding day.
A date was set and the whole world was invited to the celebration. Everyone came to dance and rejoice. A marvelous time was had by all... except the groom! He was overcome with anxiety. He had hidden his fears over not having met his future bride. But during the wedding, the tension still showed. Even after the wedding, the groom
remained apprehensive. He feared that, although she was beautiful, perhaps an inner ugly side would eventually surface.
The groom’s fears, however, were groundless. The princess was a true gem, a beautiful person inside and out. After several months, he came to appreciate more and more deeply his wife’s beauty, charm and wisdom. Each day, another wondrous facet was revealed.
In fact, after a few months, the prince felt disappointed - even cheated - that he had not been able to properly express his joy and happiness at his own wedding. Therefore he approached the king and admitted that although now he was delighted beyond measure, during the wedding he had been filled with turmoil and worry. He had been so worried, his stomach tied in knots that he had been unable even to eat at the wedding.
The king decided that the only solution was to throw a second party for the bride and groom. All the old guests would be invited back to the palace. But this time only one person - the newlywed prince - would dance, to display his ecstatic joy to his new wife and friends and family.
Complete Joy on Simchat Torah:
The Maggid of Dubno explained that when the Torah was offered to the world, the nations had many questions about its contents. The Jewish people, however, were committed to keeping it, even before understanding everything it contained. Na’aseh veNishma!
We celebrate this acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot. Yet their promise of total trust was incomplete. The mind can know and decide what the heart is not ready to accept. Only after living with Torah - only after completing a yearly cycle of reading the Torah and experiencing the Torah’s teachings as “Its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17) - only then is the Jewish people ready, on Simchat Torah, to express their great joy over God’s precious gift