In the Torah, each festival day (“Yom Tov”) is observed for a single day. However, outside the Land of Israel, the custom arose to extend each holiday to a two-day period. Among these holidays is Shemini Atzeret, celebrated on the 23rd of the month of Tishrei. Outside of Israel, on its second day, the annual reading of the Torah is completed, and its celebration was named Simchat Torah. In Israel, when this same practice was adopted and came to dominate the day, the name Simchat Torah largely eclipsed the original name of the day, Shemini Atzeret. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the horrible terrorist attacks of October 7 are frequently cited in conjunction with their occurrence on Simchat Torah rather than on Shemini Atzeret. However, a review of the biblical nature of Shemini Atzeret will show it has profound and poignant connections to the tragic events on that day, as well as to the weeks that both preceded and followed them.
The month of Tishrei, the seventh month of the biblical year, is awash in contrasts. On one hand, it’s the climax of the harvest season, and as such is the most natural time to celebrate the bounty that the crops provided. On the other hand, the holidays observed in Tishrei seem to exhibit a diverse array of themes, and do not fully embody the expected spirit of harvest celebration. How can we explain this tension?
The key to understanding this difficulty can be found in the most enigmatic of these holidays – the First of Tishrei, commonly known as “Rosh Hashana.” Today the holiday is well known as the Jewish New Year and is considered a Day of Judgment. But in its only two appearances in the Torah, none of that seems evident.
In Numbers 29:1, the Torah commands that the first day of the seventh month should be a yom teruah – “day of blasting.” Similarly, Leviticus 23:24 says that day will be a zikhron teruah – which could be translated as a “commemoration by blasting.” It would seem that from the text itself, there’s very little to increase our understanding of the meaning of the day. It certainly has something to do with horn blasting – but even the iconic symbol of Rosh Hashana, the shofar, isn’t mentioned.
A clearer perspective emerges when we examine a different passage describing the laws of horn blasts – Numbers 10. However, this is a different kind of horn blasting: trumpets, as performed in the Sanctuary. Much detail is provided as to when to perform the two distinct types of blasts:
Have two silver trumpets made … They shall serve you to summon the community and to set the divisions in motion. When both are blown in long blasts, the whole community shall assemble before you at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting … But when you sound short blasts, the divisions encamped on the east shall move forward … Thus, short blasts shall be blown for setting them in motion, while to convoke the congregation you shall blow long blasts, not short ones … When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the LORD your God and be delivered from your enemies. And on your joyous occasions – your fixed festivals and new moon days – you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your God … (Numbers 10:2-10)
The passage makes a distinction between the long blast – tekiah, and the short blast – teruah. During the journey in the wilderness, the teruah indicates movement of the camp (in various directions), whereas the tekiah is a sign for the people to stop and assemble. When the nation enters the land, the blasts will have similar symbolism. During volatile times of war, the teruah is blown. But on joyous occasions, when people gather to celebrate, it is time for the tekiah.
But one aspect of these laws is often overlooked. Included in the list of festive days are the “new moon days” – Rosh Chodesh. This means that every Rosh Chodesh a tekiah was blown. We would certainly expect that on Rosh Chodesh of Tishrei, the month marking the end of the harvest, the happiest month of the year, that there would be tekiah as well. Perhaps a tekiah gedolah. But no. Instead, on Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, we have a day of teruah.
What is the reason for this unexpected change? The farmer, all summer, was working hard in the fields. Now, at the outset of the month celebrating the harvest, he expects to enjoy the fruit of his labors. But like an alarm clock in the middle of the night, or like someone honking a horn at a red traffic light, the farmer is jolted out of his complacency.
Maimonides echoes this message when he says that the meaning of the shofar is “Wake up from your sleep!” (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4). Tishrei begins, surprisingly, with a call to movement, not for rest.
This pattern continues throughout the month. Ten days later, Yom Kippur arrives. Once again, the farmer is prevented from simply enjoying the harvest. In fact, this time he is not allowed to eat at all.
A few days later is the holiday of Sukkot. During this festival, we clearly celebrate the harvest and are even commanded to rejoice. But this is not the normal celebration that landowners have always conducted. Instead, the Torah directs that celebration elsewhere:
After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold a festival for the Lord your God for seven days, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy. (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)
The farmer will not just celebrate the harvest with his immediate family but include all those who wouldn’t usually share in the joy. The farmer is also obligated to make the pilgrimage to the Temple and celebrate there, instead of in his comfortable locality.
But even when he is not at the Temple, he can’t simply rejoice at home. Rather, he must leave his house and live in the temporary sukkah. Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed 3:43), notes that just as we are commanded to eat matza and maror on Passover:
One must leave the houses (on the holiday of Sukkot) and dwell in Sukkot, as is done by the wretched inhabitants of deserts and wastelands, in order that the fact be commemorated that such was our state in ancient times.
So even during Sukkot, the “Time of our Celebration,” according to Maimonides we must suffer the discomfort of being outside our homes, to fully appreciate the blessings we have received from God.
Is there a time then when the farmer can finally rest, eat, and celebrate? Yes – on the eighth day of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret. As Maimonides notes in the same chapter:
One’s going over from Sukkot to a second festival, I mean Shemini Atzeret, can be accounted for by the consideration that in this way one can complete such rejoicings as are impossible in Sukkot, but only possible in spacious dwellings and buildings.
This aspect of Shemini Atzeret is reflected in the word atzeret. Scholars debate the precise meaning of the word. The two main senses are either “assembly, gathering” (as in Isaiah 1:13), or “stopping (work)” (as in Hagiga 9a). It is noteworthy that both of those meanings mirror the intentions of the tekiah blasts we noted earlier – stopping and gathering. While Tishrei began with movement associated with teruah, three weeks later we have finally arrived at the joy associated with tekiah.
But of course, this year Shemini Atzeret was not a day of joy, but one of immense tragedy. So many of us in Israel woke up from the alarms of the sirens and had to move quickly to shelter. How did a day of “joyous occasion” become the day of the “aggressor who attacks you”? Why did the longed-for tekiah turn out to be a teruah?
Recently, Israeli society has been in a serious state of flux. Five elections were held over four years, because the elected parties could not work together and form a stable coalition. And when the current government was sworn in last year, the divisions only deepened. Demonstrations swept the country, both protesting and supporting the national leadership. Then, in the first weeks of Tishrei – a time usually marked by observing and celebrating the month’s holidays – it got even worse. Beyond political disputes, religious observance itself became the focus of debate. The disagreements over the upcoming Simchat Torah threatened to deteriorate into violence. Where would all of this end? Would we ever stop moving away from each other?
The answer to that question was far worse than anyone had imagined. Our enemies saw the widening gaps in Israeli society and determined that time was right to attack. They assumed that the centrifugal force pulling us apart was unstoppable, and our defeat was inevitable.
However, the result was the opposite of their expectations. Those divisions in society practically vanished overnight. Those who had protested against one another were now serving proudly together in the army, gathered in the aptly named shetah kinus – “assembly area.” Religious and secular put aside their differences and cooperated for the common good. Hopefully, these acts of unity and solidarity will continue to provide the resilience necessary to defeat the aggressors.
Judaism is a religion that embraces debate and diversity. But those divisions need to be in the appropriate time and place. As the third chapter of Kohelet notes, “there is a season for everything.” There is a time for movement and distancing, and there is a time for gathering and embracing. There is a time for war and hopefully, a time for peace.
The month of Tishrei teaches us that when we most expect complacency and serenity, we should instead engage in self-examination and transformation. But Shemini Atzeret has the opposite message – there is also a time to stop, gather together and unite as one. Sadly, that message did not receive enough attention before the holiday this year. Hopefully, it will endure long after we’ve overcome this current crisis.