The Ball Shem Tov’s Occasional Guide To Jewish Life: Shemini Atzeret

Our resident expert (??) on Jewish life, ritual and smoked meat is our Communications Director Jim Ball (aka The Ball Shem Tov), who will occasionally answer questions and give advice to our readers. (Full disclosure: he does not have rabbinic smichah, but he has read a lot of books).

 

Confused about the Jewish holiday Shemini Atzeret? Join the club. Is it the end of Sukkot? Is it really Simchat Torah? Does it really matter? I’ve always loved the holiday because the first word in the name of the holiday, when pronounced, to me sounded cute: “shmini.” I have a friend who thinks Shemini Atzeret is an Italian dessert. But that doesn’t help us parse out just what the holiday is or means—and a little research doesn’t totally help, either. No wonder people are confused.

Dear Ball Shem Tov: Is Shemini Atzeret the end of Sukkot? Or is it Simchat Torah? Or what? 
Well, yes…and no. Shemini means eight in Hebrew. Atzeret? There are several translations for the word: “gathering” or “solemn gathering”, “assembly”, “holding back”, or “stop.” The holiday is often translated as “the eighth day of assembly.” One Chabad site even translates one of the few Biblical sources for the holiday (Leviticus 23:36) as “detention.” (Eight days of detention? Tell that to any high school student you know and see how they feel).
So maybe it’s the 8th day of Sukkot? Maybe, but maybe not. You CAN sit in your sukkah (the harvest festival where we are commanded to sit and eat in booths), but you CAN’T say the usual blessings, and you CAN’T wave The Four Species (that’s for another day).
And Jews are big on sevens. Seven days of creation. Seven days of the week. Seven Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Seven branches on the menorah. Seven wedding blessings. Seven days of Sukkot. There’s lots more important sevens. So suddenly, we have an eight here? Well, there are eight days of Passover, right? Hanukkah? Baby boys are circumcised on the 8th day. But, if that isn’t confusing enough, Shemini Atzeret is celebrated on the 22nd day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei—unless you live in the Diaspora, when it’s the 22nd AND 23rd day of Tishrei. My head is really spinning now.

Dear Ball Shem Tov: Where can we get some clarity on Shemin Atzeret? 
Consulting the Rabbinic authorities doesn’t always help. The Talmud describes six (oy, another number) ways Shemini Atzeret is different from Sukkot—and then further down describes it as the “end of the festival [of Sukkot].”  Rashi says it’s like a king who invites his sons to dine with him for a number of days, but when the days comes for them to leave, he asks them to stay for another day because it’s hard to part from them. Sort of like an “after party,” I guess.
So I turned to another authority: Reb Google. I Googled Shemini Atzeret and under the link to Amazon it said “Low prices on Shemini Atseres Free Shipping on Qualified Orders.” I clicked and it led to a book on Simchat Torah. Zazzle has Shmini Atzeret gifts, including a Simchat Torah tie, a card with a painting of Seurat-style trees on the front that you can send that says “Happy Shemini Atzeret!”, and a collection of t-shirts magnets and more that all say Happy Simchas Torah. I clicked on the WinCal link, and found a page with a (very) brief history and Shemini Atzeret Facts. In the middle of the page, between the fact about praying Yizkor and praying for rain, under the heading SHEMINI ATZERET TOP EVENTS AND THINGS TO DO, was a link to Walgreen’s with a coupon for Charmin tissue. So much for Reb Google.
So what’s a good person to do? Maybe just enjoy the wonder of life and joy the High Holidays are intended to evoke. And have a little Italian dessert.