Sh’mini Atzeret

On the 22nd day of Tishri, the day after the seventh day of Sukkot, faithful Jews celebrate the holiday of Sh’mini Atzeret, a two-day holiday. In Israel, Sh’mini Atzeret is also the holiday of Simchat Torah. Outside of Israel, where extra days of holidays are held, only the second day of Sh’mini Atzeret is Simchat Torah.

The two holidays are often thought to be a part of the observance of Sukkot. Sh’mini Atzeret is a holiday in its own right, commanded in the book of Leviticus. On Sh’mini Atzeret, the lulav and etrog are not taken up. The dwelling in the sukkah is limited and the day proceeds without the reciting of a blessing.

Sh’mini Atzeret literally means “the assembly of the eighth.” Rabbinic tradition explains the holiday by pointing to the fact that the Lord is like a host, who invites visitors into His home for a limited time. But when the visit is over and it is time to leave, He has enjoyed the stay so much that He asks the guests to stay another day.

Simchat Torah simply means “rejoicing in the Torah.” This holiday marks the completion of the cycle of weekly Torah readings. During the course of the year, portions of the Torah are publically read each Sabbath in the synagogue. On Simchat Torah, the last portion of the book of Deuteronomy is read and immediately followed by the first chapter of Genesis. This reminds the listener that the Torah is a circle, never-ending in its message to God’s people. It also emphasizes the cyclical nature of the relationship between the Jewish people and the reading of the Torah.

Dates for Sh'mini Atzeret

Hebrew Dates: 22 Tishrei
5777
22 Tishrei
5778
22 Tishrei
5779
22 Tishrei
5780
Gregorian Dates:
(begins sundown, evening before)
October 24
2016
October 12
2017
October 1
2018
October 21
2019

 

History
Sh’mini Atzeret has a biblical command for it basis of celebration. Leviticus 23:36 proclaims, “On the eighth day you shall observe a holy convocation.” Jews in biblical times observed Simchat Torah for seven days. On the eighth day following, the Sh’mini Atzeret was celebrated.

Sh’mini Atzeret was seen as a time of reflection on the holy reverence of the reading of the Torah. After leaving their stay in the booths they had occupied during Sukkot, the faithful set aside a final day for prayer and fasting before returning to their daily routines. Today, it is a time of special prayer for rain and blessing in the year to come. 

Customs and Rituals
The customs and rituals associated with Simchat Torah emphasize the message that the Torah is the most cherished possession of the Jewish nation. It represents, of course, their history and heritage. But more importantly, it focuses on the words of the Lord as given to His people. The words and the traditions point to building a living faith through study, commitment and action.

During the services in the synagogue, the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark and carried by the people around the synagogue seven times. Those not involved in actually carrying the scrolls often carry brightly colored flags and sing praiseful Hebrew songs. Dancing, singing and festive flag-waving symbolize the joy involved in studying the Torah and the commitment to life-long learning.

The Torah is at the center of all of the festivities of Sh’mini Atzeret, When the last section of the Torah is read reciting the death and legacy of Moses, the first words of the Torah follow, recounting the story of the beginning, the creation of the world by the Lord.

Many synagogues have each member of the congregation come forward to recite a blessing before and after the Torah is read. Others may call the younger children of the congregation for a special blessing from the rabbi. Some may use this occasion to confirm and consecrate older students. 

Funerals and Mourning during Sh'mini Atzeret
Jewish teaching provides specific guidelines for how the deceased should be properly mourned by the family through defined Periods of Mourning in Judaism.

The Jewish burial usually takes place within a couple of days after the death. It is usually a time of stress and busyness for the family, as many decisions and details surrounding the funeral must be considered. A telephone call relaying personal condolences would be welcomed.

Public viewing of the body is against Jewish law and tradition. There is no equivalent to the wake or funeral visitation. Today Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery building or graveside. Attending a funeral is a demonstration of care and concern for the surviving family and respect for the deceased. Invitations to a funeral are rarely offered, but friends are always encouraged to attend. In Judaism accompanying the family to the gravesite is one of the highest forms of kindness.

After the burial, the first period of mourning begins. Shiva (meaning “seven”) consists of seven days of mourning during which family members remain in their home. During shiva the family would stay home from work, refrain from public appearances, and not conduct any business transactions. Friends and family members would reach out to the bereaved by visiting the home to offer comfort and support.

The solemn nature of Sh’mini Atzeret would not disrupt the mourning traditions of shiva. The festive parts of the holiday would not reflect a time of proper mourning. However, during the holiday, it would be permissible for the family to attend congregational services, but they should not participate in any leadership role. 

Because of the sensitive nature of the time of loss, a Rabbi should be consulted for proper procedures for mourning during the holiday, particularly in complicated situations. The rabbi will take into account the circumstances, traditions and Scripture and offer guidance.

Remembering Loved Ones during Sh'mini Atzeret
Since Sh’mini Atzeret serves as both a festive and a solemn day commemorating the reading of the Torah, there is a prescribed time to honor and reflect upon life and loved ones. The Yizkor (also Yiskor) is a special memorial service held four times a year. Yizkor is the Hebrew word for “remembrance.” This dedicated part of the service is considered one of the most recognized times to remember the deceased.

Because Jewish festivals contain moments of remembrance and family, these ceremonies are a perfect time to honor and commemorate deceased family members. Lasting tributes such as contributions to charities, hospitals or hospices, synagogues or other organizations provide meaningful memorials for departed loved ones.

The tradition of inscribing one’s name in the book of life is a common occurrence in the Jewish faith. Families may light a yizkor candle, plant a tree in Israel, or dedicate a name plaque. Other meaningful and appropriate ways to memorialize a loved one include the creation of a Plaque and Memory page online through the National Jewish Memorial Wall (NJMW.org). The inclusion on a memorial or yahrzeit wall is a meaningful way to show honor and respect for the deceased.