Atzeret Attunement

hero image
09 Sep 2016

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

The approaching holiday has several names in addition to Shavuot. The Hebrew name, whether of a yom tov or a person or even an object, conveys its essence. In this shiur, we will be focusing on two of the alternate names of Shavuot, Chag HaBikkurim – the holiday of the first fruit offering, and Atzeret – a name our sages use regularly in relation to this chag and whose meaning will be clarified later in our discussion.

Let us note two interesting details about this day. First, while all our festivals have the prohibition of working on that day, they generally also have specific mitzvot to be performed in conjunction with the holiday, whether it’s taking the four species or eating matzah, for example. Shavuot, however, has no positive commandment directly associated with the day; we are just prohibited from working, and we were to appear at the Temple with the special offering of the day, the bikkurim, and a new offering, referring to the new loaves of bread. Further, there was only one mitzvah Hashem commanded Bnei Yisrael in preparation for the holiday, to establish boundaries around the mountain so that the nation would be circumspect and not ascend beyond the permitted point. How are we to interpret these details so they have relevance for our lives now, over thousands of years since the nation first stood at Sinai?

Rabbi Noach Chafetz presents an interesting analogy in Chalon Hateyvah. While we are to bring a new offering to the Temple on this day, this was the day on which Hashem presented us with the gift of the Torah. Since we are to bring this new offering each Shavuot, we are to extrapolate that His gift to us should also be new to us on this day each year, as it was the first time at Sinai. We are to re-experience the intensity of that love between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ourselves that we felt when we first accepted this special gift from Hashem.

This was the day when individuals were to joyously bring their first fruits to the Mikdash. But, according to Midrash Tanchuma, Moshe foresaw that the Beit HaMikdash would be destroyed and we would not be able to bring our bikkurim. Moshe promptly offered the daily sacrifice, the korban tamid, which was the inauguration of the concept of prayer three times daily. The prayers would become our substitute offering to God in place of the bikkurim during the years of our exile. Rabbi Avraham Schorr in HaLekach VeHalibuv uses this Midrash to explain that the special service and mitzvah of Shavuot is to offer our heartfelt prayers to Hashem, and our prayer should be offered daily. Further, just as the daily animal offering was tamim, whole and pure, so too should our prayers be offered wholeheartedly and purely, and so should we also renew our acceptance of the Torah with joy each day, as we did both at Sinai.

Rabbi Schorr continues, Shavuot is both King David’s birthday and his Yahrzeit, and, as King David writes in his Psalms, he considers himself a complete prayer, ani tefillah. It is therefore appropriate that we devote time to forging a closer relationship with Hashem through prayer on this day, as did King David, and as we can do at other opportune times, such as every Shabbat and during the Yom Kippur Neilah prayer. Further, Shavuot is also a most auspicious time to recite Tehillim, King David’s beautiful opus and paean to his Maker, writes Rav Mordechai Druck, as this recitation is considered both prayer and Torah study.

One prayer that is said daily before the Shema, Ahavah Rabbah, is customarily said by some with extraordinary conviction and focus on Shavuot. Rabbi Schwab explains how this prayer is an expression of our reciprocation of Hashem’s great love for us as we ask Hashem to enlighten our eyes with His Torah and attach our hearts to His commandments not by rote but out of conviction and love.

Let us now move on to another name for this holiday, Atzeret. While Chag HaBikkurim signified a renewal of love between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and Bnei Yisrael, Atzeret implies restraint. How is this related to the holiday? In the simplest explanation, since the focus is that we are restrained from work rather than moved toward performing a mitzvah, the name of Atzeret meaning restraint is appropriate, writes Kedushat Halevi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Yet there are deep insights we can gain from contemplating what atzeret – stop, be restrained – really means.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that we accepted the Torah a second time, on Purim, through love rather than through a sense of coercion. What was it about the Purim narrative that brought Bnei Yisrael to this acceptance, asks Rabbi Roberts in Timeless Seasons? Rabbi Roberts then writes that through examining Haman’s psyche, Bnei Yisrael realized what evil following one’s emotions unrestrainedly can lead to. Although Haman received the honor and adulation of everyone except for Mordechai, that one holdout rankled him so much that he was willing to annihilate an entire people for that supposed slight. They understood that the only way to rein in the power of the yetzer hara was through Torah, or the yetzer horo would destroy everything just as Haman’s yetzer hara almost destroyed our entire nation.

Now we can perhaps understand why Hashem commanded Bnei Yisrael to set boundaries around Mount Sinai. As Rabbi Reiss writes in Meirosh Tzurim, it is a lesson for ourselves that we need to put boundaries in place to help us control our own actions and thoughts and speech, for, just as we would not ride in a car we know has faulty brakes, so we should not go about our lives without proper brakes on our behavior. One is dangerous only to our bodies, while the other is dangerous to our souls as well. Therefore, before we can accept the Torah, we have to make sure our driving engines, our emotions and middos are in proper working order, and we must set our brakes properly.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev continues his discussion of Atzeret by reminding us that setting boundaries was the only command Bnei Yisrael received in connection with Matan Torah. Since setting boundaries and restraint was the only vessel we had through which could actualize our love of Hashem and His Torah at this time, we continue to use Atzeret as a name for the festival so as to retain the inspiration we felt at the initial experience. If we do not actualize the emotion in some way and concretize it, we will lose it, and the inspiration will remain only momentary and dissipate.

Building on this idea, Rabbi Uri Weissblum teaches that our tool for retaining the enthusiasm for Torah and mitzvot is investing in proper preparation for the mitzvah, focusing on the proper intention for its performance. Our counting of Sefirah, the days leading up to Shavuot, writes Rabbi Nebenzahl, should not be merely marking the calendar, for Shavuot will arrive whether we count the days or not. Rather, we count as a means of preparation and spiritual planning before this holy day of our symbolic wedding to Hakadosh Boruch Hu.

And just as we prepare before doing a mitzvah (some have the custom of saying hineni muchan u’mezuman – I am now ready to perform the mitzvah of …), so must we prepare ourselves mentally before sinning, for if we go through the process, we will put boundaries in place to deter us from proceeding with our erroneous actions, writes Rabbi Pincus. Our preparation for re-experiencing our excitement at Hashem’s special gift to us begins at least on Rosh Chodesh Sivan and proceeds excitedly through shloshet yemei hagbalah, the three days of restriction prior to receiving the Torah, and culminates on Shavuot. Our preparation is crucial, for the extent of our spirituality for the whole year will be determined on this day.

The Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom, connects this Atzeret with the other Atzeret holiday, the eighth day of “Succoth”. While Shavuot is the day of Matan Torah, when the Torah was given to us, Shemini Atzeret is Simchat Torah, the day of rejoicing with the Torah. Both are after a count of fifty full days, either from the first day of Pesach to Shavuot, or from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Simchat Torah. Neither day has a specific mitzvah associated with it, as each is a symbol of the special love Hashem bears for His people, “Stay back (restrain yourself) a while, for your departure is painful to me,” is the emotion Rashi imagines in Hashem.

When Moshe brought down the two Tablets of the Law representing the entire Torah, our sages portray them as the black fire of the letters against white fire of the background, similar to the black ink on the white parchment of the Torah scroll. The Netivot Shalom quoting the Noam Elimelech  writes that while the black letters are holy, for through them the individual mitzvot are written, the white fire, the blank parchment, is even holier, for while no specific mitzvah is mentioned, all the mitzvot are included in the white spaces. This, writes the Netivot Shalom, is the reason we have no specific mitzvah associated with Atzeret, for this is the white fire of Torah and of our observance. This is a day representing the Holy of Holies.

Rabbi Chaim HaKohen brings in some beautiful homiletic, kabbalistic ideas to shed light on another connection between Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. Basing his idea on the verse, “ki ner mitzvah v’Torah ohr – for a mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light,” he explains that every mitzvah requires a physical medium for its performance, just as a candle is composed of a physical wick and oil or wax, for both a candle and a mitzvah are part of the physical world. For example, Tefillin, korbanot, shofar, all require something tangible. Torah, on the other hand, is pure energy, nonphysical, just as light is pure energy. Yet the two come together in this world just as the pure energy of the soul from heaven joins with the physical body. On all the other festivals of the year we are involved with the physical aspects of the world, the world of seven, but twice a year we can plug into the direct source of our energy without physical “wiring”. On these two days of Atzeret we enter a dimension above the physical, we enter the realm of the eight and of the fifty. On these days we don’t need the physical mitzvot, for we plug our souls directly into their deep spiritual desires to connect with their Source.

These days are about being intimately alone with HaKadosh Baruch Hu on a completely spiritual level. But, writes Rabbi Zvi Rothberg in Moda Labinah, we are physical beings living in a physical world. Therefore we asked Moshe to utter the remainder of the Utterances when our souls left us to cleave to Hashem at the first two Utterances. Hashem understood this in advance, and ordained setting boundaries. What would constitute the boundaries? The Meshech Chachma notes that Bnei Yisrael themselves, for they are holy, God’s presence resides within them and travels with them wherever they go.

When one gives a gift altruistically, one wants nothing in return except that it be accepted in the same spirit of love with which it was given and that it be used. Hashem gave us the Torah on Shavuot, and, writes Rabbi Pincus, Hashem wants us to appreciate this gift, to use it in all aspects of our lives, and to pray that Hashem help us incorporate its laws and its values in those areas of our lives which we find challenging.

During these days before Shavuot, let us feel the excitement as we prepare to receive Hashem’s gift anew, and let us work on strengthening our connection with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Let us ask Hashem to help us transform our lives to reflect the light of His Torah from within ourselves to the rest of the world.

Download PDF