Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: What Is This Week's Jewish Holiday?
Each of the annual rëgalim, the pilgrimage festivals which -- when there is a Temple -- require Jews to go to Jerusalem, has an associated epithet which occurs in the prayers associated with that holiday.
Passover is zëman gë’ullathénu (“the time of our redemption”), and Shavu‘oth is zëman mattan Torathénu (“the time of the giving of our Torah”). Sukkoth is characterized as zëman simchathénu (“the time of our rejoicing”). Uniquely, it shares this epithet with Shëmini ‘Atzereth, which follows immediately after (Sukkoth lasts seven days; the eighth day -- shëmini -- is so called because it follows immediately after the last day of Sukkoth).
Yet, the Torah is insistent that Shëmini ‘Atzereth is a holiday in its own right, entirely separate from Sukkoth. So why does it share the same epithet?
The fundamental celebration of Sukkoth lies in what may be called the spirituality of the physical realm. Coming as it does in the autumn, it is the Jewish Thanksgiving. The harvest is in, thank G-d. And it truly is thanks to G-d that wild floods did not destroy the crops, nor a drought, nor some plant plague or plague of locusts, over all of which we have little control. The harvest is in, less because we are such good farmers than because of the grace of G-d.
Sukkoth is intended to acknowledge this basic fact, which we do by leaving our permanent homes during the most changeable season of the year and placing ourselves completely at G-d’s mercy. The sëchach or thatch that roofs the sukkah is called in the Zohar tzilla dimheimnutha, “the shade of faith,” because it is intended to instill that sort of faith and trust in Ha-Shem.
Shëmini ‘Atzereth is on a different level entirely. Its entire focus is dëvveiquth, an elusive term whose literal translation is something like “adhesion, attachment,” and refers to the attempt to seek oneness with G-d.
As numerous classical Jewish sources tell us, this can only be accomplished though bittul ha‘etzem, the nullification of the self. Rabbi Yëhuda Leib Löwy, the 16th century rabbi of Prague known as the Maharal miPrag and one of the most original thinkers of the late period of Jewish history, explains in his work Nér Mitzva that seven represents the order of the natural world (which operates on the seven-day week, among other things). Eight therefore represents a stage lëma‘la min hateva‘, higher than nature, even higher than the sabbath, the seventh day, which is in many ways the central observance of Judaism in that it attests to Divine creation of the world.
So this, then, is the second simcha, following so closely on the first: the simcha of union with Ha-Shem, expressed in another name for this holiday, Simchath Torah, “the rejoicing of the Torah.” For we can only be aware of Ha-Shem’s existence through the covenant that He made with us at Sinai, in the form of the Torah, in honor of which we complete and begin again the annual cycle of readings of the written Torah, which is that covenant.