What is Shemini Atzeret and When Do We Celebrate It?
Shemini Atzeret means ‘eighth [day of] assembly’ and occurs on the 22nd day of Tishrei, which also coincides with the 8th (and final) day of the Sukkot festival. However, it is a full holyday (on which work is not permitted) in its own right as God commanded its observance in the Torah even separately from the observance of Sukkot, as it is written in the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar): ‘On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupation.’
Shemini Atzeret is an unusual holiday in that it has no distinctive observances of its own, apart from the re-introduction of Tefillat Geshem (the Prayer for Rain) into the 2nd blessing of the Amidah. Tefillat Geshem is re-introduced during the Mussaf (Additional) Service of Shemini Atzeret and is then said until Pesach. However, this happens only in Israel and outside Israel (e.g. in Australia) the Tefillat Geshem prayer is re-introduced starting with the Mussaf Service on Simchat Torah. In Israel, full holydays (except for Rosh haShanah) are observed for only one day, but outside Israel they are observed for two days (with the exception of Yom Kippur, which only ever lasts one day).
Outside Israel, the 2nd day of Shemini Atzeret is known by the special name of Simchat Torah (‘Rejoicing of the Law’), but inside Israel Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are observed on the same day. Because they are celebrated on the same day, in Israel Shemini Atzeret tends to be neglected in favour of the much more exuberant celebration of Simchat Torah.
We do still sit in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret since it is also the final day of Sukkot, but we do not say a blessing for doing so since the fact that it is the separately commanded holyday of Shemini Atzeret takes precedence. Similarly, we do not shake the lulav (4 Species) on Shemini Atzeret.
How Do We Observe Shemini Atzeret?
The Tefillat Geshem (Prayer for Rain) was composed by Rabbi Eleazar HaKallir. He is also the author of the Hoshanot that are recited throughout Sukkot.
We recite the Tefillat Geshem (prayer for rain) from Shemini Atzeret until Pesach, because of the weather conditions and agricultural needs in the land of Israel. Although rain may not be necessary for Jews in other parts of the world at this time of year, reciting the Tefillat Geshem strengthens our bond with Israel.
The prayer in Hebrew includes the words “mashiv ha ruach u-morid hageshem”, which praise God as the one “who brings forth the winds and brings down the rain”.
In Israel we say Tefillat Geshem already in Musaf (the Additional Service) on Shemini Atzeret, but outside Israel we wait until the Musaf (Additional) Service of Simchat Torah to reintroduce it to our prayers.
On Shemini Atzeret the leader of the synagogue service wears the white kittel (robe) that is worn during the High Holy days and at times of mourning.
Hakafot and Synagogue Services
As on the previous seven days of Sukkot, on Shemini Atzeret hakafot (circuits) are made around the bimah of the synagogue. During the hakafot, the Hoshanah prayers are recited.
A special prayer called Kol HaNe’arim (“All the Young Ones”) is recited on both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Children are encouraged to take part in the hakafot.
During the reading of the Torah, a section is recited on behalf of the children. During the reading of this section, the children stand under a tallit, which is held over them like a canopy.
As on other major festivals, on Shemini Atzeret Hallel and Yizkor are recited.
Shemini Atzeret – Links to Other Sites
Ahavat Israel: Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah
Aish HaTorah: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
Chabad: Shemini Atzeret (a parable)
Jewish Agency: Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah
Jewish Standard: Figuring Out What Shemini Atzeret Is. Finally.
Jewish Virtual Library: Shemini Atzeret & Simkhat Torah
Judaism 101: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
My Jewish Learning: What is Shemini Atzeret?
Orthodox Union: Shemini Atzeret – Parting is such Sweet Sorrow