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Judaism: Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah Roundup

A holistic look at the holidays of Tishrei, and the place of Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah at the end of the month.
Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 12:30 PM


Dedicated to the memory of my mother Dr Hana Pinner (Hana Malka bat Yehoshua u-Miriam Machlah) z”l, who passed away in her sleep on Motza’ei Shmini Atzeret 5767 (15th October 2006).

The Torah specifies the Mussaf (the Additional Sacrifice) for each of the seven days of Sukkot followed by the Mussaf for Shmini Atzeret, which have been adopted as the Torah-reading for the appropriate days of the Festival (Numbers 29:12-38). The sacrifice consists of thirteen young bulls on the first day, twelve young bulls on the second day, eleven young bulls on the third day, and so on lessening by one bull each day until seven young bulls on the seventh day.

Accompanying these on each day are two rams, fourteen male lambs in their first year, and one male goat as a sin-offering; also three-tenths of an ephah (about 7 ½ litres/2 US gallons) of fine flour mixed with oil with each of the young bulls, two-tenths of an ephah (about 5 litres/1.3 US gallons) of fine flour mixed with oil with each of the two rams, and one-tenth of an ephah (about 2 ½ litres/two-thirds of a US gallon) of fine flour mixed with oil with each of the fourteen lambs.

The Mussaf for Shmini Atzeret changes the pattern. It consists of one bull, one ram, seven lambs in their first year, and one male goat as a sin-offering.

The Talmud (Sukkah 55b) and the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:23 and Tanhuma, Pinchas 16) note that during the seven days of Sukkot we sacrifice a total of seventy young bulls, corresponding to the seventy nations of the world; the Torah enjoins us to sacrifice these bulls to atone for the sins of all mankind. On Shmini Atzeret, however, we sacrifice one bull, corresponding to G-d’s one nation, Israel.

This, say the Talmud and the Midrash, may be likened to a king who hosted a great week-long banquet and invited all the people in his kingdom to feast for all seven days. When the week-long celebration was finished, he then invited his dearest friend to remain for an intimate celebration – just the king and his one beloved friend, to feast on the leftovers – a litra [a Talmudic measure, based on the Roman libra, about 330 grams/12 ounces] of meat, a litra of fish, or vegetables.

The Haftarah for the first day of Sukkot is one of Zechariah’s more frightening prophecies of messianic events (Zechariah 14). The prophet depicts all nations of the world conjoining in a huge war-coalition against Israel, attacking Jerusalem, pillaging the houses and violating the women. He continues by prophesying that “Judah, too will fight against Jerusalem” (Zechariah 14:14), meaning that Jews living in Israel will collaborate with the enemy nations against Jerusalem (Ibn Ezra, Radak).

This scenario – the entire world waging war against Israel, and some Jews collaborating with them against Israel – must have seemed utterly impossible…until a generation or two ago. Today, Zechariah’s messianic scenario looks only too realistic.

Just to make it even more likely, Rashi and Metzudat David understand that the enemy will force those Jewish collaborators to betray their nation – the “he-didn’t-want-to-do-it-he-was-under-intolerable-pressure-from-the-USA” excuse which has become standard in recent decades.

The prophet then describes the aftermath of that war: “It will be that every one who remains from all the nations who come against Jerusalem – they will go up year by year to bow to the King, HaShem, the Lord of Legions, and to celebrate the Festival of Sukkot” (verse 16).

That is to say, Sukkot – though it is primarily our Festival – has significance and relevance and a message for all seventy nations of the world. Sukkot has a universal dimension.

But the day following Sukkot, the festival of Shmini Atzeret, by contrast, is an exclusively Jewish celebration.

We have mentioned previously (/Articles/Article.aspx/12273#.UkF5y38fjpc) that Shmini Atzeret took on the additional aspect of Simchat Torah during the late Second Temple period. Infusing Shmini Atzeret with the additional celebration the Torah (completing it and then immediately starting it over again) reinforces the idea that Shmini Atzeret is an exclusively Jewish celebration.

“If someone tells you that there is wisdom among the nations, then believe it…but [if he tells you that] there is Torah among the nations do not believe it” (Eichah Rabbah 2:13). Simchat Torah – the Celebration of the Torah – cannot be a universal celebration. Like Shmini Atzeret, it can be appropriate only for G-d’s nation of Torah.

Shmini Atzeret is the conclusion of two Jewish cycles. It is the conclusion of the cycle of the Pilgrimage Festivals – the annual cycle which begins with Pesach, continues with Shavuot, continues with Sukkot, and concludes with Shmini Atzeret.

It is also the conclusion of the Festivals of Tishrei. And appropriately, the first Festival in Tishrei, Rosh Hashana, also has a universal dimension: it is the day when the entire world – not just Israel – is judged. But after the universal Day of Judgement, after G-d judges the whole of humanity and decrees war and peace, foul fortunes and fair for the entire world, comes Yom Kippur – the day which He has designated specifically for Israel’s atonement.

And concluding the Festivals of Tishrei is Shmini Atzeret.

Therefore it was appropriate for Chazal to infuse a third aspect of conclusion into Shmini Atzeret. By giving it the additional identity of Simchat Torah, Shmini Atzeret also concludes the Torah-reading cycle.

But the Torah-reading of Simchat Torah is designed to teach us one of the central principles of Judaism. As soon as we read the final word of the Torah, we immediately begin again at the beginning. The end of the cycle is not really the end: it is but the introduction to the next cycle. This comes to teach us that no end is really an end: every end is really a new beginning.

Just as the end of the Torah-reading cycle is the beginning of the new Torah-reading cycle, so too the end of Tishrei – the month of judgement – is the beginning of a new year with its new opportunities.

Jewish philosophy teaches this over and over again. The death of Moshe, with which the Torah concludes, was the beginning of our new period of national history as a sovereign nation in the Land of Israel. The destruction of the Holy Temple was the end of Jewish sovereignty in Israel; yet the Midrash tells us that on the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, Mashiach was born. That most terrible of disasters was the beginning of the process of redemption.

The standard phrase for the beginning of the messianic age is “keitz ha-yamin” (“the end of days”) – explicitly recognising that the end of this world will be the beginning of the new era.

On Shabbat of Chol ha-Moed Sukkot, we read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). King Solomon wrote there that “the day of death is better than the day of birth” (7:1), which seems strangely nihilistic. But actually it is not. The day a baby is born no one knows what life he or she will live – troubled or serene, a life of sins or a life of mitzvot.

But on the day of death we can look back and see how the person lived, how he or she influenced the world, his neighbours, all those who knew him. For an evil person, the day of death is indeed better than the day of birth: “at the death of the evil there is rejoicing” (Proverbs 11:10), because “the death of the wicked is pleasant for them and pleasant for the world”.

And for the righteous person, the day of death, painful and sad though it is for those who remain in this world, is the beginning of the wonderful new life in the World to Come.

The combination of Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah teaches us this sombre, yet comforting, idea.