Today is Sh’mini Atzeret or “Eighth [day of] Assembly” (in the seven-day festival of Sukkot). It is the final, great celebration day of the feast and it is a Shabbat and we have a commanded Eighth day of Assembly.
For seven days you are to bring an offering by fire to ADONAI. The eighth day will be a holy convocation to you, and you are to bring an offering by fire to ADONAI. It is a solemn assembly—you should do no laborious work. (Lev 23.36, TLV)
Now it’s a bit strange to have an eighth day in a seven day festival and Sh’mini Atzeret is in many ways considered a separate feast than Sukkot. But it is not unique! Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread together make an eight-day festival. And did you know that the eight days of Chanukah arise from it being a belated celebration of Sukkot that first year? The Maccabees reclaimed Jerusalem and the Temple too late to celebrate Sukkot that year, but they desired to celebrate before HaShem.
In the Land of Israel, Sh’mini Atzeret also coincides with a second important day — Simchat Torah. However, in the diaspora, Simchat Torah in most Jewish communities is celebrated the day following Sh’mini Atzeret. On Simchat Torah, we celebrate the end of the annual Torah reading cycle and the beginning of the next. Simchat Torah translates as “Rejoicing with/of the Torah” and many consider this to be one of the most fun services in the yearly cycle. All of the Torah scrolls owned by a synagogue – we presently only have the one – are taken out of the Ark and are carried around the synagogue for a total of seven circuits (hakafot), accompanied by much singing and dancing and rejoicing.
In most synagogues, Simchat Torah will continue with services the following morning. Remember the Hebrew day begins in the evening and then continues into what is the next “day” in Western thought. At B’rit, at least for this year, the rest of the Simchat Torah celebrations will continue immediately following the hakafot.
As is traditional, we open the scroll and read a portion of the final parashah in the Torah reading cycle, V’zot HaB’rachah. Then we will watch and celebrate as the Torah scroll is rolled back to the beginning and a portion of B’reisheet is read. This is in keeping with the Jewish tradition of never finishing something without also having a new beginning. It also reminds us that we have never “finished” reading HaShem’s word. We continue to seek the L-rd and read His word everyday day of our lives. It is an ongoing activity for all of us!! So we say “Let Us Rejoice in the Torah”!