“‘On the eighth day hold a closing special assembly and do no regular work.’” — Numbers 29:35
Today marks the observance of Shemini Atzeret, which along with Simchat Torah tomorrow, is a celebration of the completion of the annual Torah readings and the immediate beginning of the new year of Torah readings. Because this is a non-working holiday, today’s devotion was prepared in advance for you.
If I had to pick a biblical holiday that was the least understood, it would be Shemini Atzeret. Even though the holiday is mentioned in Leviticus 23 and then in Numbers 29, it isn’t given the same fanfare as the other biblical holidays like Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, or Passover. Part of the reason is because even the name of the holiday is attached to Sukkot.
In fact, Shemini Atzeret means “the eighth day on which we stop.” It’s the day after the seven days of Sukkot, the eighth day, and it can be viewed as a continuation of Sukkot. However, it is a holiday of its own, and we need to understand what it is all about.
Another aspect of this obscure holiday is that it also marks the time when we finish the yearly cycle of reading the Five Books of Moses. Every Sabbath throughout the year, the Torah is read in synagogues around the globe. Over the course of the year, the Torah is completed, and immediately we begin reading from Genesis 1 again. But why now? Why do we mark this celebration on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret? Surely Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that falls on the first day of Creation according to Jewish tradition, would be a more appropriate time to begin Genesis which recounts the story of Creation.
When we understand what Shemini Atzeret is about, we will also understand why the Torah reading cycle is part of this holy day.
Shemini Atzeret marks the end of one of the most intense, inspirational, and celebratory seasons on the Jewish calendar. The journey began with Rosh Hashanah, Judgment Day, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and then we marked Sukkot with seven festive days. Now, it’s time to return to “regular life.”
Shemini Atzeret is a day of transition – from the excitement and anticipation of the high holidays to the routine of daily life. It’s also the day that connects the high holidays to the rest of the year. It’s the day on which God seemingly says, “Don’t leave it all behind – take the inspiration of these days back into your lives.”
Now we can understand why we celebrate the Torah on this day. God’s Word is the vehicle through which we bring holiness into our everyday lives. When we study the Bible consistently, day in and day out, our regular lives become infused with purpose, meaning, and righteousness.
What better way to begin anew with a fresh start reading God’s Word from Genesis through Deuteronomy. Join us as we following the Jewish tradition of reading the Torah with our daily devotions.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President