David Wolpe
David Wolpe

A Strange Holiday

It is a commonplace to say that something is what it is. Well, Shemini Atzeret is what it isn’t.

On the one hand, it is the eighth day of Sukkot, hence the name “Shemini” which means eighth. On the other hand, as saying “Shehechiyanu” on Shemini Atzeret indicates, it is a separate holiday. On yet another hand, there are different interpretations of what Atzeret means, from “stop” to “gather” to “store up,” as with grain. It is marked by Yizkor, the memorial prayer, and Geshem, the prayer for rain, but neither defines the holiday.

So what is it? It is the close of the extended holiday season, a chance to usher in the winter rains, an additional day to linger in God’s presence. In other words, it is many things, but without the single defining feature that so marks other holidays in the Jewish calendar. Seven days of the week, seven days of creation – the eighth is extra, over and above the requirement. Shemini Atzeret expresses our unwillingness to leave the holiday sense of God’s presence; a gentle, lingering close to the celebrations and a portal to the new year.

About the Author
Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek Magazine and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post, David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.