It’s an annual conundrum: What is Shmini Atzeret, exactly? This last holiday of the Tishre cycle is an eternal enigma. It’s no problem to explain Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, but Shmini Atzeret defies easy categories. There’s no commemoration of an historical event; there’s no specific agricultural connection. That exhausts our normal approaches to Jewish holidays. The big celebration of completing the Torah cycle was a Rabbinic innovation and is actually post-Talmud. So, what’s the big deal which triggered this most joyous occasion?
Obviously, this question has bothered our Sages throughout the ages. The most famous approach is quoted by Rashi, ‘This (ATZERET) is a language of affection, like children departing from their father. God says, “Your departure is difficult for Me. Delay it one more day” (Rashi, Bamidbar 29:36). Cool! In other words, the Torah extends the celebration of Sukkot, which by its harvest nature has a universal message, by one day to emphasize that the Creator of all humanity maintains a unique relationship with us, the Chosen People.
I would like to offer a different approach, at least this year. Shmini Atzeret doesn’t depart from the Sukkot script, rather it continues and expands the message of Sukkot. As I discussed in my Sukkot article last week, Sukkot is described in Psalms 116 and 117, both are part of our Hallel prayer. Chapter 116 emphasizes the love God has for Israel. The first part (verses 1-11) describes how God has saved us from disasters, both physical and spiritual. The second half (12-19) teaches us how to display our appreciation for God’s salvation, namely thanksgiving offerings and Hallel, praise. Then the short chapter 117 describes how all the nations of the world will join in this praise of God, as the prophet Zecharia proclaimed that all nations will celebrate Sukkot.
Hallel ends with chapter 118, except for the short post script and Bracha. This poem differs linguistically from the rest of Hallel (chapters 113-117) in two ways. First of all, the HALELU-KAH doesn’t appear. It seems that we replace HALLEL, ‘praise’, with HODU, ‘thanks’. Then, the other characteristic word of Hallel, HOSHI’A is supplanted by the slightly mysterious term HATZLICHA. I believe strongly that Hallel follows the order of our festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, and Shmimi Atzeret), and this final section is dedicated to Shmini Atzeret. It, therefore, follows that understanding these two terms will bring us to a better understanding of the significance and message of Shmini Atzeret.
Clearly, the key word for the Hallel service is HALLEL. This is generally translated as ‘praise’. That’s true, however there’s more to it. Isn’t there always? This term implies a strong emotional or psychological reaction to an event. HALLEL is much closer to ‘Wow!’ than to ‘That’s nice’. Now, this critical word doesn’t appear in chapter 118. It seems to be replaced by HODU, which means gratitude or recognition.
What’s the difference between HALLEL/praise and HODU/thanks? The former is visceral; the latter is cognitive. In other words, the previous poems of Hallel which are connected to the three Pilgrimage Feasts are about almost reflexive plaudits for God and the experience of the festival. HODA’A, instead, mirrors a more retrospective, reflective response to the celebrations, as the annual cycle of holidays comes to its denouement.
One more point about the HODA’A. We begin the chapter with a public outpouring of HODA’A. A Cohen or a chazan elicits the HODA’A from separate crowds of worshippers or pilgrims apparently wending their way to Yerushalayim. We continue this responsive style in our shuls. However, half way through the chapter we hear an individual declare: I thank You (ODICHA, Alter ‘acclaim’)), for You answered me (verse 21). Our poem depicts a communal outpouring of gratitude to God, but simultaneously recognizes the deeply personal feelings of every individual Jew. Every one of us must feel the appreciation for God’s largesse in our own unique style.
Our chapter has acknowledged the great efforts of God to perpetuate the Jewish nation, but before the final verse of recapitulation, we have a remarkable declaration which our liturgy has made feel like four statements: Please, Lord, pray save us! Please, Lord, pray, make us prosper! (verse 25). We now basically know what HOSHA NA, ‘pray save us’, means. It refers to all the Divine favors listed throughout this chapter, saving us from foe, famine and fear. But what is HATZLICHA NA, ‘make us prosper’?
The Malbim simply states, ‘to make all our efforts succeed’. The Radak suggests that it means to come under the covering shade, TZEL, of God. In a Chasidic gloss, the Ma’or Einayim insists that this refers to the Messianic Era. Perhaps. I think that HATZLACHA means that others recognize our special relationship with God. YESHUA means that we survived an attack on our religion; HATZLACHA means we have succeeded in avoiding future aggression against our people, because our relationship with God is finally acknowledged. When that reality becomes universal and permanent, that may very well be MESHICHIUT.
When I was becoming observant, as a teenager, there was something melancholy about Shmini Atzeret for me. The intense period of holidays was over, and I had to concentrate on school. As a senior citizen, the annual cycles seem to spin faster and faster; Pesach seems a lot closer, even in a leap year, than when I was young. Nowadays, instead I feel a sense of accomplishment on Shmini Atzeret. I succeeded in coming closer to my Maker. I just hope the world is closer to recognizing the sovereignty of the universal Creator. That would be HATZLACHA.