February 28, 2024 |

Three For The Road

Shmini Atzeret - "The Eighth Day"

Shemini means "the eighth". "Atzeret" can mean either a festival (as in II Chronicles 7:9), a solemn gathering (as in Joel 1:14) or a lingering, from the Hebrew root "to stop" or "to pause." In the Jewish calendar, atzeret is associated with the number 8, or 7+1. We have now celebrated seven days of the holiday of Sukkot. Shemini Atzeret literally means the "the eighth day of lingering." Our ordinary cycle is seven days followed by Shabbat or seven years followed by a sabbatical. But atzeret adds a beat to our syncopation; it holds over for a final day, a last day of lingering in the holiday season.

There is one other holiday in our calendar called an "atzeret." Many people are unaware of this, but the ancient Rabbis called the 1-day holiday of Shavuot (in the late spring) atzeret. It , too, was a sort of eighth day, but connected to Passover instead. Following Passover, we count 49 days (7x7 days) and then celebrate Shavuot (7x7+1). Both 7 day holidays -- Sukkot and Passover -- each have their own eighth day; Sukkot has Shemini Atzeret and Passover has Shavuot, also called atzeret[1].

I find it interesting to note that both atzeret holidays involve our relationship to the Torah. On Shavuot, the Israelites first received the Torah. On Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah[2], we finish the Torah reading cycle. Shavuot is the beginning of the Jewish study, whereas Shemini Atzeret is a graduation[3]. On Shavuot, we receive the Torah. On Shemini Atzeret, we begin to review it. Before Shavuot, we must prepare to receive the Torah; this is the role of the 49-day omer period[4]. Before Shemini Atzeret, we must delight and rejoice in the study of Torah. On Shavuot, we declare our intentions to study and keep the Torah. On Shemini Atzeret, we renew our commitment, declaring that what we have studied and done is a delight to us. May our delight in the Torah last us from now until Shavuot.

Simchat Torah - "Partners in Torah"

On Simchat Torah, we read the final sidra (portion) of the Torah, called V'zot ha-B'racha ("and this is

the blessing'). It is the only Torah portion of the year not read on a Sabbath, but read on the festival day of Simchat Torah instead. In this Torah portion, Moshe blesses the tribes before his death.

Moshe addresses each tribe by name and then offers 1-5 verses of prophetic praise about them. There is one exception: the tribes of Zevulun and Yissachar are given a joint blessing in one verse.[5]

"And to Zevulun say: Rejoice, O Zevulun, in your traveling, and Yissachar, in your tents. They shall call out to the people and there they will offer righteous offerings, for from the bounty of the sea they draw and of the hidden treasures in the sand." (Deut. 18-19)

What is the meaning of this blessing and why are the two tribes linked? Well, we know that the two tribes shared a border in the land of Israel; Zevulun had the northern coastal area along the Mediterranean and Yissachar the contiguous inland piece. But the two tribes could not have been more different. Zevulun were travelers, and Yissachar were homebodies. According to the midrash, Zevulun were wealthy traders and importers. They reaped the benefit of the sea, whether by merchant vessel, fishing, or by finding hidden treasures off the shore.[6] But they were not content to simply be wealthy and comfortable; they were also philantrhopists who shared the wealth with their neigbors and brothers to the east, Yissachar. Yissachar, by contrast, did not just "stay home", but dwelt in the tents of study. The tribe of Yissachar were scholars of the Torah and they did not engage in business. The two tribes formed a partnership, where Zevulun would offer material assistance to Yissachar (giving of their specialty) while Yissachar would educate and study with Zevulun, giving of their specialty. Because of this special partnership - in which each of them contributed to each other - they were blessed together. In one way or another, Jewish communal life has always been predicated on this idea, that Torah scholars and those who work (non-profit) for the good of the community can only survive upon the largesse of others, but the material success of the business class is enriched and given meaning by its teachers and by the ways in which it goes to support Torah and the Jewish community.

Shabbat B'reisheet - "The Seventh Generation"

Special consideration is given to the number seven in the beginning of the Torah. Of course, the Torah begins with the six days of creation and the seventh day of Shabbat, that unique and special Jewish invention without which the world would be much more stressed out. But there are other sevens to consider as well. After Kayin's (Cain's) sin of killing Hevel (Abel), he is sentenced to wander for seven generations and, in fact, his lineage dies out in the seventh generation. Here, we see that the cycle of Shabbat can be both a blessing - to those who keep it - and a curse for those who don't[7]. After the debacle of Kayin and Hevel (and being banished from Eden) Adam and Chava (Eve) begin again with their son Sheit (Seth). His seventh generation is Chanoch (Enoch) about whom it says: "And Chanoch walked with God and then was no more, for for God took him." The seventh generation was special. He was especially righteous and walked with God and - rather than dying - was 'taken' by God, a sign that this generation of Shabbat endures forever. More than this, the Torah notes that Sheit's son Enosh (which is the Hebrew word for "humanity") was the first to call out in the name of God, YHWH. The seventh generation from Enosh is none other than Noach, the rigtheous man who saves the world from the flood. Finally, to connect this to our holiday, we invite seven spiritual guests into our sukka[8], one for each day of the holiday, called the seven shepherds. One of them is Moshe, who is also the seventh generation from Avraham[9]. May we take the opportunity this year to pay sepcial attention to the sevens in our lives: Shabbat and the study of the Torah given by Moshe's hand. Shabbat shalom!


[1] The question of why Sukkot's eighth day comes immediately after sukkot, while Passover's has to wait for 7 weeks is a fascinating question that we will deal with another time.

[2] In Israel, they are celebrated together. In Diaspora, where we always celebrate 2-day festivals, we separate them.

[3] It's not the end of the study, but the end of one stage ad the beginning of another.

[4] This is one way of explaining the reason why the eighth day is delayed, to give time to prepare. But on Shemini Atzeret, delaying would be a sign of fatigue or dislike, so the eight day is immediate.

[5] There are two other irregularities worth mentioning: 1) Shimon is curiously omitted from the blessings and 2) Yosef - who was one of Ya'akov's sons but not one of the twelve tribes - is given a blessing, in which both the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe share.

[6] Tradition says that this included pearls and a special mollusk that produced an expensive dye.

[7] Shabbat can be a peaceful and productive "rest" or a time of cancellation and destruction. Clearly, we prefer the former.

[8] Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moshe, Aaron, Joseph and David.

[9] Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Kehat, Amram, Moshe. Moshe can also be considered the seventh in the line of the oral tradition since Adam: Adam, Metushelach, Noach, Abraham, Jacob, Kehat, Moshe.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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