Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah In the Community
The holiday of Sukkot concludes with an additional festival. The Torah declares that at the end of the seven days holiday of Sukkot there should be an eighth "day of assembly" (Shemini Atzeret, see Numbers 29:35). Why should there be another, additional holiday immediately following the seven days of Sukkot which have just been celebrated? According to a rabbinic folktale, Shemini Atzeret is a final and additional day of spiritual celebration of the close relationship between God and the people of Israel (see Rashi’s commentary to Leviticus 23:36).
Unlike on Sukkot, the lulav and etrog are no longer picked up and waved on Shemini Atzeret, and some people no longer eat meals in the Sukkah. In addition, no hoshanot poems are recited and there are no more hakkafot (processions around the synagogue), and the day itself is called a different holiday in prayer services. However, like Sukkot, a special prayer for rain is recited, and a short petition for rain is added to the daily prayers and recited daily until the festival of Passover in the spring, when the rainy season in the land of Israel concludes.
Although Shemini Atzeret is a one-day holiday in the Torah, among traditional Diaspora Jews, Shemini Atzeret is a two-day festival. However, during early medieval times, the second day of Shemini Atzeret began to develop a unique character and pattern of celebration. In a tradition that dates back to Babylonian times, the entire Torah is read in a yearly cycle of readings. In early medieval times, the second day of Shemini Atzeret became the day on which the final Torah portion of the year would be read and the very first Torah portion begun, all over again. Therefore, this day became an occasion for rejoicing and an opportunity for demonstrating the Jewish community’s love of the Torah. The day itself took on an additional name, Simchat Torah, the day of “rejoicing in the Torah.” In Israel and among Diaspora communities that only celebrate one day of holidays, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated as a combined festival.