Elchanan Poupko

Shmini Atzeret: excuses for happiness

Dancing on Simchas Torah, by Zalman Kleinman


Shmini Atzeret, a widely observed holiday, with little known about it. While the “second days” of Sukkot are very much a part of our Tishrei experience, their purpose remains a mystery. We are told with regard to the holiday of Sukkot ” [For] a seven day period, you shall bring a fire offering to the Lord. On the eighth day, it shall be a holy occasion for you, and you shall bring a fire offering to the Lord. It is a [day of] detention (Atzeret, similar to the word for stop- atzar). You shall not perform any work of labor.” (Leviticus 23:37) Still, no commandment, no reason ever given, and historical significance—just a holiday to celebrate. So what is it all about.

Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, who lived in Troyes, France (1040-1105) and was the greatest commentator of Jewish history, shares the famous Talmudic and Midrashic interpretation of this:

“It is a [day of] detention: [i.e., God says to Israel,] “I have detained you [to remain] with Me.” This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to feast with him for a certain number of days, and when the time came for them to leave, he said: “My sons! Please, stay with me just one more day, [for] it is difficult for me to part with you!” [Similarly, after the seven days of Succoth, God “detains” Israel for one extra holy day.]”[1]

This beautiful explanation helps us understand why there are no unique commandments pertaining to Shmini Atzeret; it is a day of spending quality time with God. Yet, the bond between the holiday of Sukkot the Shmini Atzeret is vague. Why the need to connect this quality time to the holiday of Sukkot? What is the connection between the two?

Moses Maimonides(1135-1205) in his signature work Guide for the Perplexed (3:43), shares a fascinating explanation of the matter.:

“We join to the Feast of Tabernacles the Feast of the Eighth Day, in order to complete our rejoicings, which cannot be perfect in booths, but in comfortable and well-built houses.

Consistent with the Midrashic and Talmudic explanation, Maimonides sees the holiday of Shmini Atzeret as a direct continuation of the Holiday of Sukkot. The last day is meant to capture something we may have not fully experienced in the first seven days of Sukkot—full joy. This brings with it a major revelation about the holiday of Sukkot. Yes, there is an obligation to be happy on every holiday of the year, yet there is a unique connection between the holiday of Sukkot and joy.  So strong is the connection between the holiday of Sukkot and joy that we can do without the Sukkah, but we cannot do without the joy. On the eighth day of Sukkot we take the time to celebrate—without a Sukkah—as a continuation of Sukkot!

Sukkot is the ultimate time of joy. Not bound by the Mitzvah of Sukkah, it is a time of elevation and happiness; “and you will only be happy” (Deuteronomy 16) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary to the Torah points out that while the obligation to rejoice applies elsewhere, it is only mentioned in the context of Sukkot. Nothing represents joy as much as Sukkot does.

Why is happiness so important?

No question that doing right and being happy do not have to coincide, yet if you find them to be mutually exclusive then there is a problem or as 20th Century author, Tracy Kidder put it, “You do the right thing even if it makes you feel bad. The purpose of life is not to be happy but to be worthy of happiness.” Celebrating Sukkot reminds us of the need for happiness to be possible. We rejoice with God to remember at this time of the year what we should strive for. When we are happy, we are at peace and content. Being happy in the presence of God, as we culminate the process of forgiveness and the High Holidays—Yamim Noraim—we remind ourselves of what our relationship is all about. “Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as servants, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as servants who serve their master not for the sake of reward” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:3). We can only be truly connected to God in bonds of love and trust if we can be happy, and we can only be happy if we feel that love and trust. As we reorient ourselves and conclude a full cycle of the three festivals, we do so with true happiness.

Rabbi Elija of Vilna, known as the Gaon—the genius—of Vilna was known to say that the most difficult commandment in the Torah is the commandment to rejoice on the holiday, for it applies at all time of the holiday. The levels of joy we hope to reach during the holiday are unparalleled.

Research by well-known psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shows the strong connection between being fully engaged and happy. Furthermore, research published by Harvard University shows the connection between doing good and being happy. The ability to be happy with what we are doing is paramount to what we are doing.

On Sukkot more than any time we remember the closure of atonement and forgiveness granted to us by God. Ideally in a Sukkah, but also without, we must be able to feel happy and content with the blessings of being God’s people, and God’s content with us—following the forgiveness of Yom Kippur. As we sit to celebrate Shmini Atzeret, we remind ourselves that this content does not depend on a particular commandment, place, or situation. On Sukkot God is kind enough to “look for excuses” for us to rejoice with Him, culminating in the Holiday of Shmini Atzeret, a holiday during which God looks for no excuses, and commands us to rejoice with Him alone. May we maximize this gift, revitalizing ourselves with the gift of enduring connection with Hashem, happiness, meaning, and rejoicing far beyond the ultimate time of joy.

Chag Same’ach!

[1] See similarly Midrash Tanchuma on Bamidbar (Parashat Pinchas, 16): “On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly.” … the Holy One, blessed be He, said to [the Nation of Israel], “For seven days of the festival you have offered sacrifices to Me for the nations of the world. Now, however, you are to offer [sacrifices] for yourselves, as (according to Numb. 29:35-36), ‘On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly…. Then you shall offer a whole burnt offering, a fire offering, a sweet smell to the Lord: one bull, one ram.’” [The situation] is comparable to a king who made a seven-day banquet and invited all the people of the province for the seven days of the feast. When the seven days of the feast had passed, he said to his friend, “We have already fulfilled our obligation to all the people of the province. Let us, you and me, make do with whatever you find, a pound42Gk.: litra. of meat, fish, or greens.” Similarly did the Holy One, blessed be He, say to Israel, “All the sacrifices which you offered during the seven days of the feast you sacrificed for the nations of the world. However (according to Numb. 29:35), ‘On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly.’ We shall make do, you and I, with whatever you find (as in Numb. 29:36), ‘One bull, one ram.’”

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
Related Topics
Related Posts