By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
September 28, 2002
This eighth day of Sukkot is actually a separate festival (Chagigah
17a), called “Atzeret”:
. . . On the eighth day shall there be a day of holy appointment
for you, and you shall offer a fire-offering to Hashem; it is “ATZERET”; you
shall do no creative work of labor (Vayikra 23:36).
On the eighth day shall there be “ATZERET” for you; you shall do no creative
work of labor (Bamidbar 29:35).
But, what is the meaning of ATZERET? How does it characterize this festival?
Clearly, any analysis of ATZERET requires an examination of its three-letter
shoresh (root) AYIN-TZADI-RESH, r-m-g. In modern Hebrew, it usually means “to
stop” or “to confine.”
However, the Tanach has a more varied use of this word. Sometimes it means “to
stop, prevent, detain”:
And Sarai said to Avram, “Behold, now, Hashem has prevented me (ATZARANI)
from bearing . . .” (Bereishit 16:2);
And then the wrath of Hashem will be kindled against you, so
that He will stop (V’ATZAR) the heavens, and there will be no rain . . . (Devarim
And Manoach said to the angel of Hashem, “Let us please detain (NA’TZ’RAH) you,
and we will prepare before you a kid” (Shoftim 13:15).
Elsewhere, it means “to confine”:
And the word of Hashem came to Yirmiyahu a second time, while he
was yet imprisoned (ATZUR) in the court of the prison . . . (Yirmiyahu 33:1).
ATZARAH means “a gathering”:
Blow the shofar in Tzion, sanctify a fast, call a gathering (ATZARAH) (Yoel
In modern Hebrew, ATZARAH means “a rally.”
Which brings us back to ATZERET. In addition to the two verses cited (as well as
Nechemiah 8:18 and Divrei HaYamim II 7:9), all of which refer to Shemini Atzeret,
in Devarim 16:8 the seventh day of Pesach is also called ATZERET!
Our commentaries focus on these different meanings of ATZERET. Rashi understands
it as “a day of detention”; on the verse from Vayikra above he says:
I have detained you with Me, like a king who invited his
children for a feast of several days. When their time to leave arrived, he said:
“My children, remain with me one more day; your departure is difficult for me.”
In a similar vein, Saadiah Gaon (882-942) translates ATZERET as
“prolonging.” After the seven days of Sukkot, with all its mitzvot dwelling in
the sukkah, taking the four species, the rejoicing of the water-drawing and the
pilgrimage to the Temple the joy of being together is so great that it is
harsh to call it to an abrupt end. Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th
Century) adds that the pain of this imminent separation is particularly sharp,
because after Sukkot there will be no festival for six months (or seven, in a
leap year) until Pesach, because Hashem, in His mercy, did not institute any
festivals during the rainy winter of Eretz Yisrael.
Another connotation of ATZERET as “a day of extension” is found in Chagigah 9a,
in reference to the commandment to offer the chagigah sacrifice of every
festival. Even though Shemini Atzeret is considered an independent festival, it
is an ATZERET, “an extension,” so one who did not yet offer his chagigah may do
so on this day.
Ibn-Ezra and Rashbam say that AYIN-TZADI-RESH primarily means “to prevent, stop,
restrict,” and refers to the prohibition of work. This is true of all other
festivals (which might explain why the seventh day of Pesach is so called);
nevertheless, Shemini Atzeret lacking, as it does, any other distinguishing
mitzvot (like the shofar of Rosh Hashanah, the fasting of Yom Kippur, and so on)
can be described only as “a day of restriction from work.” Rashi, mentions
this translation in his commentary to the verse from Bamidbar above.
Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) argues that every ATZERET
is designated as a day of assembly:
remaining for a certain time in holy places, to serve G-d may He be blessed
in those places, whether with Torah study, prayer or sacrifice.
This includes the seventh day of Pesach, which was first sanctified when the
Children of Israel assembled to sing their praises to Hashem for splitting the
Sea of Reeds.
Targum Yonatan understands ATZERET as “a day of in-gathering,” when we put an
end to our period of living in sukkot and we enter our homes. Midrash Tanchuma
Yashan (13) adds:
On the last day we pray for rain, thus we take our leave from
the sukkah, so as to pray for rain wholeheartedly.
Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (195a) even finds a connection between ATZERET and
“confinement.” Hashem says:
If you confine yourselves [from the work in the field to
celebrate the festival], I will open the treasuries of the winds and rain.
Pesikta Rabbati (addition, ch. 4) says that originally every month during the
spring and summer was meant to contain a festival Pesach during Nisan, Pesach
Sheni during Iyar, Shavuot during Sivan until the sin of the golden calf
nullified the festivals of Tammuz, Av and Elul. When Hashem pardoned the people,
He “repaid” them by giving them three festivals in Tishrei: Rosh Hashanah, Yom
Kippur and Sukkot. However,
Said the Holy One, blessed be He, “For the others it [Tishrei]
repays, yet it does not take its own. Give it its own day!”
Here, ATZERET means “retention.” Shemini Atzeret is the festival
Tishrei was always meant to have.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged;
it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content
according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.”
The word for this day is ATZERET. Before the long, demanding winter draws us
back into everyday life, let us embrace all of the meanings of ATZERET. Let us
take one extra day to stop, assemble, and seclude ourselves with Hashem, so His
love and holiness can sustain us in the year ahead.