Shemini Atzeret: 8th day or distinctive celebration

Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17

I Kings 8:54-66

Numbers 29:35-30:1

At first glance, the main Torah reading for Shemini Atzeret, the festival of the eighth day, seems appropriate. We read a series of laws, culminating in the commandments of the three pilgrimage festivals (Deut. 14:22-16:17). With a minor change, we read the very same passage at the close of each of the other pilgrimage festivals, on the eighth day of Passover and the second day of Shavuot.

The minor change: If the second day of Shavuot or the eighth day of Passover falls on a weekday rather than a Shabbat, we skip the beginning of the passage, starting a little closer to the description of the pilgrimage.

On the other two occasions, we read this passage about the ideal observance of the festival on the very last day of the festival. And perhaps we would like to read this passage on the second day of Shemini Atzeret, on the very last day of festivities which began over a week ago. But we have something else planned for the Torah reading for the second day of Shemini Atzeret, our celebration of concluding the annual cycle of Torah reading, and beginning the cycle again: Simchat Torah.

So, with those few minor adjustments, the main Torah reading for Shemini Atzeret seems entirely predictable, within the pattern and appropriate. It seems appropriate for an additional reason. One day at the conclusion of each of the three festivals, we recite Yizkor, at which time we commit to giving in memory of our deceased teachers, relatives and friends.

By coincidence or not, on each day before we recite Yizkor, we read this Torah passage, ending with an injunction to give: "and he shall not appear before the presence of God empty handed. Each one according to the gift of his hand, according to the blessing which the Lord your God gave you" (Deut. 16:16-17). So this reading seems most appropriate.

Except for one little thing. The list of pilgrimage festivals in our passage leaves out Shemini Atzeret. The main Torah reading for Shemini Atzeret mentions Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, but not Shemini Atzeret. In our passage, Sukkot lasts seven days, no more: "You shall make the festival of Sukkot for yourselves seven days, when you gather from your threshing floor and your winepress… Seven days shall you celebrate" (Deut. 16:13, 15). Nothing about any eighth day.

You can find Shemini Atzeret in the Torah. When we have finished reading from the first Sefer Torah, we open a second Sefer Torah and read Numbers 29:35-30:1, all about the sacrifices brought on Shemini Atzeret. That would make a fine main reading for Shemini Atzeret. So would Leviticus 23:36, which also reports about a festival on the eighth day of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret. Instead, we read a passage in which the star does not make an appearance.

By the way, you might wonder why Shemini Atzeret does not appear in our passage. Rabbi Itzhak Abravenel thought of that question too. Our passage, he says, lists only the pilgrimage festivals. We have a commandment to appear at the Temple in time for the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.

So, like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret does not appear on this list. If we missed Sukkot, for good reason or ill, I am still researching whether we have an obligation to arrive for Shemini Atzeret.

Not appearing on the list of pilgrimage festivals, Shemini Atzeret may for that reason deserve its definition in the Talmud as a festival in its own right, different from Sukkot (Rosh Hashanah 4b). Likewise, although it falls on the day after Sukkot and its name identifies it as the eighth day of Sukkot, we give it its own name in our prayers. We recite on it the blessing for reaching a new festival, the Bible assigns it a different sacrifices, a different team of Kohanim worked in the Temple on it and the Levites sang a different song (Rosh Hashanah 4b).

So there we have it, Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot but not exactly part of Sukkot.