By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
October 18, 2003
According to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel,
Shemini Atzeret is the last festival of the year. The Torah discusses the
festivals in five places, each time highlighting a different dimension. The
first two are:
1. Shemot 23:14-19 and
2. Shemot 34:18, 22-26, which briefly mention only the Pilgrimage Festivals.
The first passage speaks of the Festival of Matzot .
. . at the appointed time of the month of the springtime (standing grain) . .
. and the Reaping Festival [Shavuot] of the first fruits of your produce that
you planted in the field, and the Harvest Festival (V’CHAG HA-ASIF) at the end
of the year (B’TZET HA’SHANAH), when you gather your produce from the field
Haamek Davar notes that every agricultural society rightly celebrates these
yearly milestones. The Torah’s purpose here is to command us to devote these
celebrations to Hashem. During the sabbatical (Shemittah) year however, when
no work in the fields is permitted, it might be assumed that the agricultural
festivals would be unwarranted. So, the Torah’s restatement of the Pilgrimage
And the Festival of Shavuot shall you make for yourself, with the first fruits
of the wheat harvest, and the Harvest Festival (V’CHAG HA-ASIF), shall be at
the changing of the year (TEKUFAT HA’SHANAH) (Shemot 34:22)
─ which is mentioned after the sin of the Golden Calf, obligates the
observance of the Festivals even during the Shemittah year,
“so that the people will come during the Festival to the Sanctuary, in order
to inculcate them with Divine service and faith.”
The significance of the Pilgrimage Festivals therefore transcends the
To return to the Festival texts:
3. Vayikra 23:1-44, analyzes all the Festivals, including Rosh Hashanah and
Yom Kippur, placing special emphasis on the obligation to refrain from
4. Bamidbar 28:1-31; 29:1-39, describes the special sacrifices for all
occasions, including the basic daily offering and the additional offering of
Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh, and all the festivals.
5. Devarim 16:1-17, returns to the subject of the three Pilgrimage Festivals,
concentrating on the duties of one who makes the pilgrimage to the Temple in
Jerusalem (the Chagigah and other special sacrifices).
In all five passages, Shemini Atzeret is mentioned explicitly only twice. In
Vayikra (23:36) we read:
For seven days you shall offer a fire - offering to Hashem; the eighth day is
a sacred holiday for you and you shall offer a fire - offering to Hashem. It
is a time of retreat (assembly) when you may do no service work.
And in Bamidbar (29:35-38) we learn of the additional sacrifices of Shemini
Atzeret. In addition, the Talmud (Sukkah 48a) says that the verse in Devarim
and you will be only happy
alludes to the obligation to rejoice on Shemini Atzeret.
What is the significance of Shemini Atzeret, which the Talmud (Yoma 2b-3a, and
elsewhere) calls “a festival unto itself”? And, why does it seem to be
completely missing from the two passages about the Pilgrimage Festivals in
A possible answer might be suggested in a midrash that we have mentioned in
past discussions of this holiday. Pesikta Rabbati (addition, ch. 4) says that
originally every month during the spring and summer, when Israel’s climate is
agreeable, was meant to contain a festival. This began with Pesach during
Nisan, Pesach Sheni during Iyar and Shavuot during Sivan, and should have
continued through Tammuz, Av and Elul. However, the sin of the Golden Calf
nullified the festivals of those months. Subsequently, when Hashem pardoned
the people, He “repaid ”them by giving them three festivals in Tishrei: Rosh
Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The destruction of the people had been
pardoned, but some change in the calendar had to be manifest.
When it came to Tishrei itself, however,
Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, “For others it repays, yet it does not take
its own! Give it its own day!”
This day was Shemini Atzeret, the 22nd of Tishrei.
This midrash proposes a pre-Golden Calf scenario which begs further analysis.
Had the sin of the Golden Calf never occurred, “Rosh Hashanah” might have been
in Tammuz (probably on the 17th, when Moshe brought down the Tablets). Instead
of Av being marked by the grief-filled ninth day, it would have included the
day of complete purification, Yom Kippur. Elul would have been marked by
Sukkot, at a more temperate time of year for dwelling in sukkot.
If Shemini Atzeret did not have to “trail behind” Sukkot, it would be more
prominent. Perhaps seeing what Shemini Atzeret might have been had it remained
Tishrei’s sole festival might give us insight into what it celebrates, even
Although our calendar is primarily lunar, the seasons, which are solar,
determine when the three Pilgrimage Festivals fall. It is, therefore,
necessary to take the four “turning points” (tekufot) of the earth’s orbit
around the sun into account when deciding if a year is to have 12 or 13
months. Based on and the Harvest Festival (V’CHAG HA-ASIF), shall be at the
changing of the year (TEKUFAT HA’SHANAH), the Talmud
(Sanhedrin 13a) says we do not add a month unless the tekufah of Tishrei
(autumnal equinox) would otherwise lack the majority of the month. This means
that all of the festival must fall within tekufat Tishrei, when Harvest (HA-ASIF)
is still possible. During the Intermediate Days of Sukkot (chol hamo’ed),
agricultural work is permitted, but only to prevent a loss.
If, however, there had been no Golden Calf, then
the Harvest Festival (V’CHAG HA-ASIF) at the end of the year (B’TZET HA’SHANAH)
of the first Shemot passage would have been Shemini Atzeret. All harvest ─ not
only to prevent a loss ─ would have been permissible up to that festival.
“Sukkot of Elul” would then have focused on Hashem’s protection in the
wilderness, properly separated from Shemini Atzeret, which alone would have
been CHAG HA-ASIF.
As originally envisioned, Shemini Atzeret, “a festival unto itself,” is when
an agricultural people rightly thanks Hashem for the year’s produce. It
remains the ideal festival for taking stock of both material and spiritual
accomplishments, in order to prepare for the winter ahead.
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
Do we consider Shemini Atzeret a holiday? In the Tefillot we refer to the
day as Chag Ha’Atzeret - a feast of Solemn Assembly. This is the opinion
of the Shulchan Aruch (588-1). Surprisingly, the Rama disagrees and points
out that our custom is to omit the term “ Chag “ in reference to the
eighth day of Sukkot. In fact, we find no mention of “Chag” anywhere in
the Torah in reference to Shemini Atzeret. In contrast, Sukkot is referred
to as “Chag” numerous times in Devarim 16. This appellation is also found
in Bamidbar 29:12. There, Sukkot is described in terms of “celebrate a
Chag for Hashem for seven days” whereas for Shemini Atzeret it says
(29:35) “ the eighth day of solemn assembly…”
The custom we follow today is that of the Mishna Berurah, who authorizes
us to mention “Chag” in reference to Shemini Atzeret. Yet the question
remains how can some nullify any description of Chag when discussing this
There is a clear distinction between Chag (Sukkot) and “Atzeret.” Chag
describes a religious pilgrimage, a time of rejoicing, a time when Jews
gather from all over the world to celebrate in the shadows of Jerusalem.
Here we find joint participation, group feasting and masses parading in
the Simchat Beit HaShoeiva. In contrast Atzeret is a solemn day, a day of
introspection, of inner searching on the personal level. On this day we
deal with deep dilemmas and moral questions. Perhaps in this sense Shemini
Atzeret is more than a Chag. On this day we stop and take a solemn moment
to remember our past, rededicate ourselves to the future, and refresh our
spiritual batteries. What better time then, than now, to remember the joy
and celebration in the Yerushalayim of yesteryear, while committing
ourselves to returning to, and to rebuilding the Yerushalayim of today.
Rabbi Chanoch Yeres
Yemin Moshe, Jerusalem
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320