How the End of Sukkot Morphed Into Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah

From a ceremony winding down Sukkot to a celebration of the weather to dancing with the Torah scrolls - this holiday keeps reinventing itself.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Dancing joyously with the Torah on Simchat Torah, Mea She'arim, Jerusalem, Sept. 27, 2013.
Dancing joyously with the Torah on Simchat Torah, Mea She'arim, Jerusalem, Sept. 27, 2013.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The day after Sukkot is a distinct Jewish holiday called Shemini Atzeret.

Given that its name simply means "Solemn assembly of the eighth" (day of Sukkot), and that Sukkot is seven days long, we may postulate that in the dim reaches of history, it was considered the 8th day of the holiday but over time, became a separate event entirely.

Confused? Wait for it: Shemini Atzeret is both identical to the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah and distinct from it - depending where one lives.

Let’s untangle this mess.

The bible barely mentions Shemini Atzeret and when it does, it's always in the context of Sukkot, which it follows.

Shemini Atzeret seems to have been a relatively late addition to the Jewish calendar. It may have been entirely unknown in First Temple times, going by the fact that the few mentions of it in the bible are in sections considered to be later additions, which were most likely written during the Babylonian Captivity (587-539 BCE).

The first mention of Shemini Atzeret is by Nehemiah: "Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he [Ezra] read in the book of the law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly." (Nehemiah 8:18).

The Bible provides scant information on how Shemini Atzeret was marked or what it meant. Sacrifices were made in the Temple, servile work was prohibited as on Shabbat, and an assembly was held – but that’s it.

Rabbinic literature is a little more enlightening on the nature of the holiday during the Second Temple period: "On the eighth day the people were sent off [by the king] and they blessed the king and went to their tents happy and with goodly hearts for all the goodness that God did for David and his people Israel". (Tosefta Sukkah 4:17).

That would seem to indicate that at least originally, the holiday was simply a closing ceremony for Sukkot, with everyone meeting in the Temple and saying their goodbyes. Not so, say the rabbis: “It is a holiday unto itself” (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 47a).

They elaborate that the traditions and commands of Sukkot and this "eighth day" are different. Specifically, while you are commanded to sit in your sukkah during the seven days of Sukkot, on Shemini Atzeret you aren’t. Plus, the sacrifices for Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are listed separately.

The Rainmaker

If this holiday seems to have been short on content when the Temple was still around, the situation became even more dire after Titus destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 AD.

No longer could sacrifices be offered up to God. No longer was there a king to send the Jewish people home after pilgrimage.

This was a period in which Judaism was forced to reinvent itself. From a religion centered on the one Temple led by Zadokite priests, Judaism became a religion centered in synagogues wherever they might be. Worship was led by Pharisee rabbis, and it was up to them to pour new content into Shemini Atzeret, lest the holiday disappear completely.

The new form of Judaism that took shape over the centuries that followed - centuries covered in the Mishnah and the Talmud - saw a shift in emphasis. Instead of worshiping through sacrifice in the Temple, Jews began praying in synagogues. Instead of venerating the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews had a new portable temple - the Torah itself.

This metamorphosis would, over time, give new meaning to the holiday.

The Jewish daily prayer that took form during this time, the Amidah or Shemone Esrei, included a benediction for rain: "He causeth the wind to blow and the rain to descend." In Israel at least, which has a rainy season (winter) and a dry season (all other times), this was inapplicable during spring and summer. So each year, starting on Passover, by which time the rainy season has usually subsided, “dew” was substituted for rain.

The rabbis decided that Shemini Atzeret – taking place at the start of the fall, when precipitation may begin again - would be a good time to switch back to rain. Thus the holiday became associated with the start of the rainy season, and much of the additional praying done for the holiday centered on the theme of weather.

Babylon and Palestine: Enter Simhat Torah

As we have said, the Torah itself became a central focus of the Jewish religion after the destruction of the Temple, and it became the custom to read a different portion of the Bible each week.

During Talmudic times, two competing systems took form. The Palestinian system involved shorter weekly portions read in a three-year cycle. The Babylonian system was based on longer portions completed in an annual cycle.

The Babylonian system eventually won and is the system used today. This cycle, the rabbis of Babylonia decreed, ended and began on the second day of Shemini Atzeret.

Where did this second day came from, since up to now the holiday we were discussing was a one-day affair?

Well, due to the intricacies of the Jewish calendar, all Jewish holidays (except for Yom Kippur) were given an extra day outside of Israel - so that if you got the count wrong, you would still be celebrating on the right day too.

Thus, when eventually the Babylonian annual cycle was adopted in the Holy Land, probably in the 13th century, the cycle began and ended a day before the rest of the world, on the first and only day of Shemini Atzeret. This difference between Israel and the Diaspora exists to this day.

Middle-Age branding genius

During the Gaonic period following the redaction of the Talmud (500 CE), Jews underwent a process of adapting to this change in the status of Shemini Atzeret, and the holiday began to receive all kinds of names, including “The Day of the Book” and “The Ending Day.” Eventually someone came up with the catchy title “Simhat Torah,” meaning to celebrate Torah, or take joy in it.

This name first appears in the 7th century CE, but only became commonly accepted in the 10th.

Simhat Torah didn't just spontaneously come into being. It gradually evolved from Shemini Atzeret.

It was in the Diaspora, where Shemini Atezret stretched two days, that the two holidays started to become distinct. Shemini Atzeret became more and more about the rain and Simhat Torah became more and more about the Torah. Different traditions began to appear in different congregations; some vanished, others took hold and are a part of Simhat Torah to this day.

Example of traditions that started appearing in the Middle Ages and are now universally observed by Jews the world over are the special honor given to the person who reads (or recites the benediction before someone else reads for him) the first and last parts of the Torah.

In many congregations, these people are expected to give a hefty donation to the synagogue and hold a celebration at their home after the prayer service. In all communities the Torah scrolls are taken out and paraded around the synagogue accompanied by dancing, singing, waving of flags and just general jubilation. It is a very joyous event.

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