When we take the Torah home, we never part from the King
Tishrei is filled to the brim — with fear, awe, joy and ecstasy. With Yamim Tovim, unique mitzvos, symbols, and celebrations. Yet inevitably, the festivities wind down, and we must part from this glorious month. Before we leave, though, we linger.
This day of lingering is the Yom Tov of Shemini Atzeres.
Many of us find the meaning of Shemini Atzeres obscure. During Elul, our thoughts are centered on cheshbon hanefesh and eimas hadin. Once Tishrei arrives, we’re consumed with the intense avodah of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And because Succos and its many mitzvos follow shortly thereafter, there’s little time to contemplate the import of its closing day, the Yom Tov of Shemini Atzeres.
The Midrash encapsulates the significance of Shemini Atzeres with a famous parable about a doting father who invited his children to a weeklong party: When it came time for them to leave, he said, “Please stay one more day. Kasheh alai preidaschem — your departure is so difficult for me.”
The question is obvious. What will one more day accomplish for this father? Won’t tomorrow’s leave-taking be at least as difficult? Perhaps the delay is only prolonging the agonizing ordeal of bidding farewell to his children?
Our discussion of the unique day of Shemini Atzeres must begin with its name. The word “atzeres” derives from the verb “l’atzor,” which means to stop, to tarry, to stay behind instead of moving forward. It also denotes a gathering, for when people assemble, they are restraining themselves from dispersing.
“Bayom hashemini, atzeres tihyeh lachem — On the eighth day [of Succos], you shall have an atzeres” (Bamidbar 29:35). Why is it necessary to press the pause button after seven days of Succos?
Koheles (11:2) states, “Give a portion to the seven as well as to the eight.” The Maharal gives insight into the special significance of these two numbers. Seven brings to mind the days of Creation and is associated with the natural world, as well as with the concept of completeness and wholeness. There are seven seas, seven continents, seven heavens, and seven colors of the rainbow. Many life cycle events last seven days: the universal seven-day week, the seven days of sheva brachos, and the seven days of mourning for a close relative. Also, many Yamim Tovim are associated with the number seven. Pesach and Succos each last for seven days, and Shavuos culminates seven weeks of Sefiras Ha’omer.
If seven represents a perfect, complete set, what can the number eight possibly add to the picture? Rav Hutner notes that sheva — seven, is similar to the word sovei’a, satiated, while shemoneh, eight, is related to shemen, oil. While seven denotes fullness, eight represents an additional, richer level.
Seven is associated with the natural world that Hashem created; eight goes beyond that to the supernatural. Seven represents a full unit of time, yet it also serves as a prelude to an eighth component, which heralds a new and greater stage, much as the eighth note of a musical octave repeats the first, yet on a new, higher scale.
Thus, on the eighth day of its existence, the newborn child begins a new week of life with a bris milah and, in the words of Rav Hirsch, is “reborn” for the sake of a higher calling; on the eighth day of the preparatory miluim days, the Mishkan is fully operational and the Shechinah descends to dwell among Klal Yisrael (see Vayikra 9); and, after seven weeks of preparation, at the very beginning of the eighth week, Klal Yisrael received the divine gift of Torah.
Following this pattern, Shemini Atzeres, “the Eighth Day of Gathering,” is the culmination of Chag HaSuccos, yet it also moves our love and joy to another level. How does this happen?
The answer lies in understanding the nature of the added day. Let us examine a Midrash similar to the earlier one, with a twist: “A king invited the citizens of his country to a seven-day feast. When the week was over, he said to his beloved friend, ‘We have done our duty on behalf of the citizens. Now you and I will be satisfied with just a little meat or fish or vegetables.’ ”
The Midrash continues: “All seven days of Succos, we bring many korbanos on behalf of the other nations. When the holiday is over, Hashem tells us, ‘Today, on the eighth day, just you and I will celebrate together, and we will be happy with only par echad v’ayil echad — one bull and one ram [the korbanos of Shemini Atzeres].’ ”
And when Klal Yisrael hear this proposal, they begin to praise HaKadosh Baruch Hu: “Zeh hayom asah Hashem, nagilah v’nismechah vo — This is the day Hashem has fashioned; we will rejoice and be merry with Him.”
Reaching the Peak
Tishrei is not only a packed month. It’s a journey. We crown the King on Rosh Hashanah, and we repent on Yom Kippur. The awe of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah gives way to the elation that comes with atonement and with the realization that, although we have sinned, our Creator still wants to dwell with us! Thus we enter the succah, the place of love, trust, and connection, and we stay there for seven days.
When the King asks for another celebratory day with us, it isn’t just another day like the others that preceded it. Hashem entreats us, as it were, to extend our Yom Tov for a grand finale — an exclusive, intensely joyful meeting with Him. It’s the closure of our weeklong visit, because it signifies that our bond with Him will continue. We can then leave, knowing that we are always bound to each other.
(Perhaps it is this extraordinary dveikus that can inspire an aspiring penitent to utilize Shemini Atzeres as a finale of a different sort. The Zohar writes: “If, after Yom Kippur, his teshuvah was still inadequate, the matter is left pending until Shemini Atzeres, which is the final opportunity to change an unfavorable verdict.”)
In the parable, it’s highly significant that the king asks for a mere small piece of meat. He indicates that this extra private time with his beloved friend needs no special menu, no embellishment. His focus is on the relationship, not on the accessories. This can be compared to a couple who have moved past the courtship stage and whose greatest delight is in each other.
To explain, let’s take a look at the mitzvah of simchas chassan v’kallah. We might wonder at the necessity for this command. Do the bride and groom, on their wedding day, really require the goodwill and cheer of others? Is this not their happiest moment? The answer is that, as joyful as a wedding is, the future is still framed with question marks for the chassan and kallah: Will our marriage endure? Will we be happy together? Thus the wedding guests play a crucial role for this new couple. Their participation, excitement and brachos give them confidence and help ignite their simchah.
Let’s contrast this with the couple’s first anniversary celebration. If the marriage turned out well, they no longer need any of the wedding frills. Not the well-wishers, nor the band, nor the flowers.
All they need is each other.
Chazal explain that the words (Devarim 16:15), “v’hayisa ach sameiach” refer to Shemini Atzeres, for the gematria of the word “ach” is 21. The verse is telling us that the mitzvah of simchas Yom Tov extends past Succos to 21 Tishrei — the day of Shemini Atzeres.
The Vilna Gaon, however, wonders how the word “ach” denotes inclusion of another day, when its translation is “only,” a word that limits rather than broadens. His answer is that indeed there’s an element of exclusion on Shemini Atzeres. On this day we are “only joyful.” While all the other festival days during Tishrei call for specific mitzvah obligations to elicit our simchah, not only doesn’t Shemini Atzeres require a multitude of korbanos, it also has no concrete mitzvah. No lulav, no esrog, no hoshanas, no physical medium with which to connect with Hashem. We don’t even need a succah anymore in order to “be in the succah” with Hashem. Only joy. On Shemini Atzeres, we revel in the relationship itself. Nagilah v’nismechah vo.
And what is the nature of this reveling? What is the source and focus of our joy? Simchas Torah! This is the day that we complete the Torah readings, restart from Bereishis, hold the sefer Torah close and dance with joy. We now understand why Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah occur simultaneously. The bond that we have with our King is the Torah itself, for “Kudsha Berich Hu v’Oraisa v’Yisrael chad hu — Hashem, the Torah, and Klal Yisrael, are one.”
In an additional insight, Rav Hirsch posits that Shemini Atzeres not only culminates Tishrei, but also serves as the capstone of the entire cycle of the Shalosh Regalim, which began with Pesach, continued to Shavuos, and then ended with Succos.
It’s a day when we pause “to gather to ourselves all the thoughts and messages and resolutions to which the festivals of the whole year have brought us, and to impress them so deeply in our hearts that they become part of ourselves and cannot become lost in the ordinary run of our yearly life that we are now entering.”
It’s easy to be caught up in the hustle of Yom Tov and then equally easy for the memories to slip away when we return to ordinary life and are immersed in our daily routine. Shemini Atzeres is an opportunity to pause and gather our thoughts. When we contemplate the lessons and impressions that we’ve accumulated since last Pesach, they have lasting power, and we come into the winter on a greater, more spiritual plane.
Perhaps this is the reason for the title “Chassan Torah” for the special oleh l’Torah on this day of Shemini Ateres and Simchas Torah. At a wedding, the guests enjoy the ambiance, partake of the delicacies, and dance the night away. But it’s the chassan who carries the joy forever. After all, he’s the one who takes the kallah home!
On Shemini Atzeres, each one of us is the child who is taking leave of our father the King. Each one of us can be the chassan as well. And when we take the Torah home with us, we never really part from the King at all — for the gift of Torah continues past Yom Tov, into the winter and around the year.
Sources include: Rav Chaim Friedlander, the Slonimer Rebbe, Rav Aryeh Leib Shapiro
Mrs. Shani Mendlowitz is menaheles of Bais Yaakov Seminary of Montreal, and a popular lecturer for women.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 813)
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