What is Shemini Atzeret? I can’t imagine how many Jews have asked that question and are still left wondering! Here’s a bit of an explanation/interpretation.
Shemini Atzeret is a festival that follows immediately on the heels of Sukkot, one of the 3 major festivals of Jewish tradition. Because Shemini Atzeret starts just as Sukkot is ending, many people conflate the two holidays, not understanding that they are, in fact, distinct.
When The Temple stood in Jerusalem, Shemini Atzeret included a sacrificial offering and special meal. It was understood that this sacrifice and meal were meant to be a symbol of the special relationship between God and the Jewish people. Building from that idea, Shemini Atzeret came to be a day dedicated to reflecting on the relationship between God and Israel. Medieval commentators, like Rashi, explained that, Shemini Atzeret was God’s way of asking the Jewish people to linger a little longer in the connectedness that comes with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
While many Jewish holidays were transformed or expanded after the destruction of The Temple, Shemini Atzeret (with the exception of the addition of Simchat Torah) hasn’t taken on any additional ritual observances. In fact, the only ritual observance on Shemini Atzeret today is to recite a prayer for rain. What we’re left with then, is a day set aside to simply dwell in our relationship with God.
The way I understand it, Shemini Atzeret is a day meant for focusing on being rather than doing. It’s a day for reflecting on self, other, community, nature, and God. For that reason, I’m coming to view it as the perfect holiday for our world today. I think our collective human consciousness would be completely transformed if all of us took a collective Atzeret, a collective day to focus on being and to focus on self, other, community, nature, and God. Think we can make it happen?