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  • Shemini Atzeret

    תּוֹרָה שִׂמְחַת

    Simchat Torah

    Tishri 22, the day after the seventh day of Sukkot, is the holiday, Shemini Atzeret. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret is also the holiday of Simchat Torah. Outside of Israel, where extra days of holidays are held, only the second day of Shemini Atzeret is Simchat Torah: Shemini Atzeret is Tishri 22 and 23, while Simchat Torah is Tishri 23.

    These two holidays are commonly thought of as part of Sukkot, but that is technically incorrect; Shemini Atzeret is a holiday in its own right and does not involve some of the special observances of Sukkot. We do not take up the lulav and etrog on these days.

    Shemini Atzeret literally means “the assembly of the eighth (day).” Rabbinic literature explains the holiday this way: our Creator is like a host, who invites us as visitors for a limited time, but when the time comes for us to leave, He has enjoyed himself so much that He asks us to stay another day. Another related explanation: Sukkot is a holiday intended for all of mankind, but when Sukkot is over, the Creator invites the Jewish people to stay for an extra day, for a more intimate celebration.

    Simchat Torah means “Rejoicing in the Torah.” This holiday marks the completion of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings. Each week in synagogues around the world, we publicly read a few chapters from the Torah, starting with Genesis Ch. 1 and working our way around to Deuteronomy 34. On Simchat Torah, we read the last Torah portion, then proceed immediately to the first chapter of Genesis, reminding us that the Torah is a circle, and never ends.

    This completion of the readings is a time of great celebration. There are processions around the synagogue carrying Torah scrolls and plenty of high-spirited singing and dancing in the synagogue with the Torahs.

    As many people as possible are given the honor of an Aliyah (reciting a blessing over the Torah reading); in fact, even children are called for an Aliyah on Simchat Torah. In addition, as many people as possible are given the honor of carrying a Torah scroll in these processions.

    In all Reform and some Conservative synagogues even children are allowed to carry the scrolls and those who can’t because they are too heavy are given very small Torah scrolls and all joyously follow the procession around the synagogue.

    This happy holiday is followed throughout the world in every Jewish community.

    Each time we American Jews carry a scroll or celebrate this wonderful holiday, we should remind ourselves of the freedoms we have that that others, unfortunately do not have. It may be a time of joyous celebration for us, but it is a blistering reminder that we have not come far enough and must work hard at freeing all those who thirst for religious freedom.

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