Getting up to speed on Shemini Atzeret

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By Sasha Rogelberg and Selah Maya Zighelboim

Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment used in quantum mechanics that — without getting into the hairy details — consists of a cat in a box becoming radioactively poisoned and, upon one opening the box, finds the cat, paradoxically, both dead and alive.

The Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, sandwiched between Sukkot and Simchat Torah, has nothing to do with radioactive cats or quantum mechanics, but it’s an anomaly in its own right: Shemini Atzeret is both its own holiday and an extension of the holiday of Sukkot and the preface to Simchat Torah.

In Hebrew, “shemini” means eighth, and “atzeret” means assembly. The holiday is first mentioned in Leviticus 23:36 and, according to a midrash, is a way to linger in God’s presence following the intensity of the High Holidays.

“Our Creator is like a host, who invites us as visitors for a limited time,” explains an article in the newsletter of Beth Sholom Congregation in Frederick. “But when the time comes for us to leave — the end of Sukkot — He has enjoyed himself so much that He asks us to stay another day.”

Rabbi Levi Druk, of Chabad of Downtown in Baltimore, puts it a different way: “Think of a big wedding celebration with many guests in attendance all celebrating together. When all is said and done, the guests return home and the bride and groom remain alone and celebrate together.”

Celebrated on the 22nd of Tishrei in Israel or the 22nd and 23rd of Tishrei elsewhere, Shemini Atzeret, in short, is a celebration that acts as the transition from Sukkot to Simchat Torah.

Like most concepts in Judaism, however, the simple explanation is not necessarily the most satisfying one, and it certainly doesn’t account for why Shemini Atzeret remains a lesser-known Jewish holiday.

The holiday is a yom tov, a festival day, during which one refrains from using technology like on Shabbat. According to tradition, during Shemini Atzeret one can — but doesn’t have to — dine in the sukkah; however, it’s not necessary to say a blessing, shake the lulav and etrog, eat a specific food or complete certain ritual practices.

Shemini Atzeret is observed differently based on one’s geography and Judaic movement, making the holiday’s ritual practices even harder to pin down.

In Israel, as well as in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, Shemini Atzeret is a one-day celebration that coincides with Simchat Torah.

In the Orthodox and Conservative movements outside of Israel, Shemini Atzeret is a two-day affair.

To make matters more complicated, Simchat Torah is not a biblical holiday like Shemini Atzeret and Sukkot, meaning it was developed by rabbis and is not in the Torah. The two-day celebration of the holiday was likewise created rabbinically, largely for practical reasons.

Outside of Israel, several holidays, such as Passover, consist of two-day celebrations, instead of one in Israel, to create a larger margin of error for the lunar calendar.

To make sure those outside of Israel caught word of when exactly a holiday was and had time to celebrate, the holiday in question was extended to two days, not one, a much more laborious solution to a problem that could have been solved today through a simple Google search.

But regardless of how or where one is celebrating Shemini Atzeret, there are a few rituals that are the same across the board.

During Shemini Atzeret, Jewish people add the prayer for geshem (rain) to the Amidah, the daily prayer central to Jewish practice. This is not only added on Shemini Atzeret to mark the changing of the seasons but is said at the end of Sukkot in hopes that rain doesn’t fall while we’re dwelling in a sukkah and eating outside.

Shemini Atzeret is also another opportunity for Yizkor, the memorial service, and in that way, it blends joy and grief.

“We’ve been through Rosh Hashanah, we’ve been through Yom Kippur and we’ve been through several days of Sukkot,” says Rabbi Yaakov Kaplan, co-director of Chabad of South Baltimore. “Shemini Atzeret is about bringing all that home, bringing it into our storehouse, so to speak, our personal storehouse, in a spiritual sense, and bottling that energy in order to give us the excitement and enthusiasm and the inspiration from those holidays to last us all the way until the next year.”

If Jews can figure out how to find harmony in the seeming contradiction of celebration and mourning, then we are certainly capable of deciphering the meaning of a holiday that both stands on its own and is intertwined with others. Besides, it’s got to be easier to understand than quantum mechanics.

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