Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah

September-October Illustration: Masha Manapov

What are Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah?

Simhat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah) celebrates the end and beginning of a new annual cycle of weekly Torah readings. It’s a relatively new addition to the Jewish calendar, dating back to the time of the Gaonim (circa 600 CE).

Simhat Torah began as sort of addendum to Shemini Atzeret, the holiday at the end of Sukkot (The Festival of Booths). Shemini Atzeret means “assembly of the eighth day." Shemini Atzeret is mentioned only briefly in the Torah – Leviticus (23: 39) says only that the eighth day from the start of Sukkot is a day of assembly, when sacrifices were made in the Temple and creative work was prohibited.

Outside of Israel, Shemini Atzeret is celebrated for two days, and this is where Simhat Torah comes in. The Sages of the Talmud ordered that the annual cycle of reading the Torah end and begin on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. This second day of Shemini Atzeret thus became “Simhat Torah.”

When are Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah?

Outside of Israel, Shemini Atzeret is celebrated for two days, from the 22nd to the 23rd of Tishri. Simhat Torah is celebrated on the 23rd day of Tishri, as the second day of Shemini Atzeret. In Israel, we keep only one day of Shemini Atzeret, and so both holidays are rolled into one, celebrated on the 22nd of Tishri. As with all Jewish holidays, each of Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah begin and end at sundown.

In Israel:

Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah 2015 – October 4 to October 5

Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah 2016 – October 23 to October 24

Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah 2017 – October 11 to October 12

Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah 2018 – September 30 to October 1

Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah 2019 – October 20 to October 21

In the Diaspora:

Shemini Atzeret & Simhat Torah 2015 – October 4 to 6 & 5 to 6

Shemini Atzeret & Simhat Torah 2016 – October 23 to 25 & 24 to 25

Shemini Atzeret & Simhat Torah 2017 – October 11 to 13 & 12 to 13

Shemini Atzeret & Simhat Torah 2018 – September 30 to October 2 & October 1 to 2

Shemini Atzeret & Simhat Torah 2019 – October 20 to 22 & 21 to 22

How do we observe Shemini Atzeret and Simat Torah? 

While Shemini Atzeret — when we first begin mentioning rain in our daily prayers — is associated with rain, Simhat Torah is all about the Torah. Processions are held, where the Torah scrolls are taken out and paraded around the synagogue, accompanied by dancing, singing, waving of flags and general jubilation. As many people as possible are given an aliyah (reciting a blessing over the Torah reading). A growing number of Orthodox synagogues are leaning toward including women in the festivities, traditionally a male-dominated activity.

In Israel, Simhat Torah is extended to a second night of singing and dancing with the Torah, called Hakafot Shniyot (“second circles”). This second round coincides with the night Simhat Torah is celebrated outside of Israel, but because the holiday is officially over, the atmosphere is more like a musical event than a synagogue service. In addition, Simhat Torah itself is increasingly becoming a major occasion for matchmaking in Israel. The atmosphere of celebration, the dancing, and the sense of wrapping up the holiday season all contribute to making Simhat Torah into a social event.

What do we eat on Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah? 

While Shemini Atzeret has no specific foods associated with it, other than the Kiddush over wine typical of all the pilgrimage holidays, on Simhat Torah, many people serve food symbolic of Torah scrolls. Such foods include stuffed cabbage rolls, blintzes, or Torah-shaped cookies or cakes.

Simhat Torah Reading