You thought you were done with the High Holy Days? Not so fast! As we leave the beautiful holiday of Sukkot, we march right into the Festival of Sh’mini Atzeret. Sh’mini Atzeret is mentioned in the Torah in this small snippet of verse: “On the eighth day you shall hold an atzeret/solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations,” (Numbers 29:35). There isn’t a lot of explanation about what this solemn gathering consisted of for our ancestors but the sages have filled in the gaps for us. One interesting thing about the festival of Sh’mini Atzeret is that all of the other Festivals are ascribed explicit meaning. Each holiday has its own elevator speech:
- Pesach is about our liberation from Egypt and slavery;
- Shavuot is about bringing the first fruits to the temple and receiving Torah;
- Sukkot is about remembering our ancestors wandering and recognizing the ephemeral nature of existence;
- Sh’mini Atzeret is… the Torah just doesn’t tell us.
Rabbinic wisdom ascribes the idea of Siyum HaChatima, the completion of the seal for the year to the Festival. On Yom Kippur, we greet one another with the words “g’mar chatimah tovah” - “may you be sealed for good”.
Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone taught that on Yom HaKippurim, we connect with God and the holy day through the prayers, introspection, and doing teshuvah. On Sh’mini Atzeret all of this is done through joy and dancing. In both of these cases, but through very different approaches, we are meant to lose ourselves and our connection to our egos and recognize our oneness with God.
If we follow the structure of the liturgical calendar, we can find deep wisdom. We spend the whole day in synagogue, cut off from the elements, looking at ourselves with an eye toward discerning judgment that is based in the mind. We then move right into Sukkot, are sent outdoors to an opposite experience where we enjoy a holiday which emphasizes the senses and the tangible reconnecting us to our physical selves. During the solemn gathering of Sh’mini Atzeret, we are told we can complete impression of the seal we pressed into molten wax, we can give that molten wax the time to congeal and take its true form, a form in which we must bring that which we’ve learned in our minds to the physical realm.
Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro