This Shabbat is the last in a series coinciding with the holidays of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. As we reach this weekend, some of us begin to breathe a sigh of relief that our lives may be a little less hectic in the weeks ahead.
Whether it was the preparing of special meals or the building of the sukka, the High Holy Day committee work or the coordinating of all your children once you entered the synagogue building, the seeking out friends to say “I’m sorry” or the struggle to forgive ourselves and others — this time of year can be exhausting all around. And yet here we are, having dwelled in the sukka for seven days, facing Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Why, we might ask, does this chag (holiday) of Sukkot continue for an eighth day? Isn’t seven the magical number in Judaism? There are, for example, seven days of Pesach, seven days of creation and in the week, seven years in the shmita cycle. This is not a Diaspora issue. This eighth day is actually biblical – commanded in Leviticus and Numbers (we add a ninth day in the Diaspora).
There are many possible answers to this question. One rabbinic source simply refers to this day as “the last day of the festival,” but the Talmud actually says that Shemini Atzeret is a festival in its own right. There are many differences from Sukkot. For example, we no longer take up the lulav and the etrog; we stop reciting a blessing when entering the sukka; and we begin the all-important prayer for rain.
My favorite explanation is from Rashi. He remarks that this extra day was added because the Israelites, who had made pilgrimage to the Temple for Sukkot, were about to leave after seven days, and G-d, having difficulty with the separation, requested that they stay for just one more day.
Today we know that G-d is not far away from us and that we need not travel to the synagogue to find him, but even so, if you give yourself the opportunity to celebrate that one more day of this festival season (or maybe two at your shul), to join together with our larger community and celebrate all that G-d has given us — you will find a renewed strength with which to begin the new year. Chag Sameach.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)