“‘For seven days present food offerings to the LORD, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present a food offering to the LORD. It is the closing special assembly; do no regular work.‘”—Leviticus 23:36
Today marks the observance of Shemini Atzeret, which brings an end to the season of holy days and prepares the Jewish people for Simchat Torah, a celebration of God’s Word and the completion of the annual reading of the Torah, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Because this is a non-working holiday, today’s devotion was prepared in advance for you. Discover more about the Jewish view of the Bible from Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s DVD Bible study on the Torah.
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!
For more on Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s teaching about the Bible as the bedrock of our faiths, visit ifcj.org/store for his four-part DVD Bible Study, The Jewish Roots of God’s Word — perfect for a small groups, Sunday school, or individual study.