"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"Spending Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah in a traditional community deepened my appreciation of these two holidays. How they collapse into one in Israel is still not clear to me. "


Let me respectfully point out that from a historical perspective, your question is phrased backwards! Originally, Simchat Torah was not a separate day. Outside Israel, where for certain reasons the Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah festival came to be two days, the strong contrast between the two themes of the holiday led to them being treated as separate, unrelated entities. Nevertheless, both aspects are part of one whole, and the proof is that in all the festival prayers both days are referred to as Shemini Atzeret.

First of all, let's understand the origins of the two day celebration. This Diaspora practice began during Second Temple days. Jewish months are based on the lunar cycle, which is approximately 29½ days. Since a month must consist of full day units, it has to be either 29 or 30 days. On today's fixed calendar, introduced during the dispersion from Israel more than 1500 years ago, the months mostly alternate between these two lengths.

In Temple times, however, Rosh Chodesh [New Moon Day] was not determined (solely) astronomically, it required the sanctification of the Supreme Court. If two witnesses who saw the new moon showed up on the 30th day and their testimony was accepted, the Supreme Court could proclaim the new month as sanctified. This would establish the old month as having been only 29 days. Otherwise, the 30th day was considered part of the old month and the new month would begin on day 31.

Either way, only by daytime of the 30th, and even then only in Jerusalem, could the population be certain on which of two days a festival slated for the 15th of the new month would occur, such as Passover in Nissan or Sukkot in Tishrei. Other communities could not know until they received word from Jerusalem.

Originally, this communication was accomplished by a series of fires lit on mountain tops (Tsfat was the last station on the northern route). When the Sadducee sect sabotaged the system by setting false fires, a new system of messengers was instituted: delegates of the Sanhedrin would be sent to all the Jewish communities near and far. Those places that were too far away for word to arrive on time as to exactly which day had been Rosh Chodesh would keep the festival on both possible days, to be sure.

Centuries later, at the same time a fixed calendar was inaugurated, the Sages decreed that those communities should continue to keep two days, in memory of the Holy Temple and, also, to not break a long-maintained tradition of extra observance. Without entering into the halachic intricacies, let's say simply that today's most widely accepted line of demarcation is the borders of the state of Israel.

Thus, from the perspective of Jewish law, the separate Simchat Torah holiday is simply an extra day of Shemini Atzeret, born from the inability to receive communication from Jerusalem quickly enough.

One distinction some make between the two days is that on Shemini Atzeret people eat in the sukkah (without saying the special blessing) because of the "doubt" whether it is the seventh and last day of Sukkot or if it is already the Eighth, while on Simchat Torah, the "ninth" (or perhaps actually the Eighth), they do not.

Eating in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret is not, however, a universal practice. Most Chassidim* and Sephardim do not, although some do make kiddush there.** How can you "insult" a full-fledged holiday, they say, by eating in the sukkah as if it were still the seventh day of Sukkot, a day of Chol HaMoed, only a "half" holiday. After all, Shemini Atzeret has the status of being a holiday in its own right, separate from Sukkot, even though its name means "The Gathering of the Eighth [Day]."*** One reason it falls immediately after Sukkot because it is the culmination as well as the personal assimilation of the effects of the month-long cycle of holidays: Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot with Hoshannah Rabbah.

More strikingly, even the central element of the Simchat Torah celebration, the custom of hakafot-dancing to mark the annual completion of the public reading of the Five Books, does not set it off completely from Shemini Atzeret. Nearly all Chassidim and Sephardim in Diaspora do the dancing with the Torah on the night of Shemini Atzeret also, in addition to night and day on Simchat Torah, so that distinction falls away too.

To shed more light on your question and to bring in the inner dimensional perspective, let's turn to the dilemma of a Diaspora Jew in the Holy Land on Shemini Atzeret/ Simchat Torah, and the reverse, an Israeli gone abroad for that festival. Do they observe one day or two days?

The ruling of most major halachic authorities is that Diaspora residents keep two days in Israel while Israelis abroad celebrate one day. The most important factor is the person's primary residence. This determines his practice, which he maintains wherever he goes.

According to the mystics and some major halachic authorities, however, an individual's observance of the festival is determined by his current location. Their position is that in the holy land, G-d's chosen place, the entire sanctity of the festival is containable in the first day. Therefore everyone in Israel, no matter where they usually reside, should keep one day only.

In contrast, they state, the Diaspora is not sufficiently pure to contain the sanctity within the parameters of one day; it has to be "spread" over two. So everyone there should keep two days, even if they are from Israel, since the second day there really does have the spiritual essence of a festival.

Although, as said, the position of "current location," as opposed to "primary residence," does not enjoy general halachic acceptance, it helps us to better understand the dynamic. After all, once the calendar became fixed it may seem astonishing that two-day observance is still maintained by anyone anywhere! Now we can see a reason. In Israel everything is completed in one day; "the Gathering" and the "Joy of the Torah" are both part of what is happening. In Diaspora, everything takes place in the context of the holiness of the festival requiring two days. On the one hand the days are called differently and celebrated differently. On the other hand, Simchat Torah infiltrates Shemini Atzeret with hakafot, and we mention Shemini Atzeret on Simchat Torah when we say in Amidah and kiddush, "Yom Shemini Atzeret haHag haZeh."

Did you know that the Chassidic practice of hakafot on Shemini Atzeret in the Diaspora is based on a beautiful custom that originated in Tsfat?

The Simchat Torah celebration is a powerful statement of Jewish unity, for in dancing we are all equally capable, even if in Torah study there exist enormous gradations of levels (as discussed in depth in AQ 25 in two different articles). Yet, we find that the Jews of Israel and the Jews outside Israel are dancing at different times, the former on the "eighth" day, the latter on the "ninth." This prevents the unity from becoming total. For that reason, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria [the holy Ari, leader of the Kabbalists in 16th century Tsfat] suggested that the Jews of the holy land make an additional set of hakafot after the conclusion of Shemini Atzeret, at night, to unite with the Jews outside of Israel, because Simchat Torah and its dancing does not start there until the Second Night of the holiday. And so, our own Tsfat is the source of the present-day custom all over Israel of "Second Hakafot," complete with bands, inter-city participation, etc.

And that's not all. A few centuries after the Ari, the Chassidim in Europe picked up on his innovation and reversed it, inaugurating hakafot on Shemini Atzeret night in Diaspora, in order to be in harmony with the Jews in Israel. Put it all together and you have Jews everywhere dancing an extra set of hakafot, all for the sake of Jewish unity. It's a great idea, isn't it?


Yrachmiel Tilles

* With the exception of Chabad-Lubavitch.

** This statement is a gross over-simplification. Customs vary greatly, especially among the different Sephardic communities. Also, many have different practices for the night and day meals.

*** During the seven days of Sukkot numerous sacrifices were offered in the Temple for the seventy nations of the world (The Gemarah states: "If the nations of the world understood what the Jews were doing in the Holy Temple for them, they would have sent armies to protect it!"). On Shemini Atzeret only a small sacrifice was offered, on behalf of the Jewish people. It is a private occasion, so to speak, just between G-d and us.

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