I know something about most Jewish holidays. I can tell you that Hanukkah is about miracles, Passover is about slavery and freedom, and Shavuot is about cheesecake. (I have no idea why, but when it comes to matters of cheesecake, it is not mine to question.)
The one holiday that has baffled me for years is Shemini Atzeret. I can’t remember the first time I became aware of it, and to be honest, I didn’t care much about it until last year when my older daughter started attending Jewish day school. I understood why we needed two days off for Rosh Hashanah and why we needed to get out of school early on the day before Yom Kippur. I was even willing to accept the two days off at the beginning and the end of Sukkot and Passover. But Shemini Atzeret? What exactly is this holiday, and why does it merit yet another day off school, another day in which I have to scramble for childcare in hopes of getting a little work done while feeling guilty for not spending the day with my girls?
I started asking around, and I got a variety of fairly uninspiring responses, most of them about Shemini Atzeret being the eighth day of the seven-day holiday of Sukkot.
I didn’t buy it. Judaism is all about narratives and meaning and symbolism. I just couldn’t believe that we would have a holiday that was nothing more than an extra day.
A little online research gave me some more information about the holiday, all of which was helpful but not entirely clear. Shemini Atzeret is clearly connected to Sukkot (shemini means “eighth” in Hebrew), but according to the Talmud, it is also its own independent holiday. In the diaspora, a second day is added to all Jewish holidays except Yom Kippur, so Shemini Atzeret coincides with the eighth day of Sukkot everywhere except Israel. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah fall on the same day. In the diaspora, Simchat Torah is celebrated on the day after Shemini Atzeret.
I also learned there are a few ways in which Shemini Atzeret is different from Sukkot, several of which are related to the ancient Temple service and no longer relevant. The other ones have to do with subtle differences in the liturgy, such as saying the Shehechiyanu, reciting the prayer for rain for the first time in the season, and saying the Yizkor prayers. Other than that, there are no specific rituals or objects mentioned other than avoiding work.
And that’s where it gets interesting. Most Jewish holidays have a fairly clear reason for their existence (commemoration of a historical event, redemption, etc.) and a fairly clear set of activities we’re supposed to engage in to honor the holiday (eat matzah, light the menorah, etc.). Shemini Atzeret doesn’t have any of these. What it does have is a word—atzeret—which many people define as “assembly,” although as Rabbi Paul Steinberg notes, “The inherent problem is that no one really knows exactly what atzeret means.” It is possible it comes from the Hebrew atzar, which has been variously translated as to stop, to pause, to hold back, or to keep in.
The midrash basically says that Shemini Atzeret is like God’s after-party with the Jewish people. We’ve just been through the World Series of Jewish holidays, and we were seriously busy. We were eating too much, not eating at all, praying our little tushies off, building our sukkot, and then welcoming everyone in town to come dine with us. There are so many messages, so many ideas, so many lessons and learnings that happen through all of this—about gratitude and blessings and the errors of our ways and the joys of redemption and the transitory nature of life and the importance of welcoming neighbors, all the while celebrating the crazy, chaotic, unpredictable beauty of this world we live in.
Needless to say, it’s a lot.
Shemini Atzeret is the vacation to recover from the holiday. (If you’ve ever gone on a trip with kids, you know exactly what I’m talking about.) But in this case, we’re not doing laundry and shopping for groceries. We’re just taking it all in. The story is that after we just spent seven days rejoicing in the beauty of nature during Sukkot (after all, what’s more welcoming than building a little house with no door on it?), now God wants one more day with us, the Jewish people, to just be together. To just chill and take it all in, to stop, pause, hold back, and keep in.
According to my friend Rabbi Ariel Burger, this is a day of just being, an opportunity to process everything that has happened, to integrate what we have struggled with and learned. I don’t know about you, but that makes my little social work heart soar.
It turns out it is just an extra day after all—just the kind of extra day that most of us need.
I’m not sure how, or even if, we’ll honor Shemini Atzeret this year in my house. It’s true that my girls don’t have school, but I’d already planned to take them to visit their great-grandmothers in New York. But I can tell you this: Shemini Atzeret has gone from two words that meant nothing to me to a day that will forever remind me that sometimes I do need to stop doing and just be for awhile. Maybe our family will enjoy one last meal in the sukkah under the changing leaves of fall. That, I can definitely do. (And in case you were wondering, you can still eat in your sukkah, but please don’t shake your lulav and etrog, and don’t say the Sukkot blessings. Shemini Atzeret might get jealous.)