Shemini Atzeret is literally the eighth day of Sukkot. It is a separate—yet connected—holy day, devoted to the spiritual aspects of the festival of Sukkot. On Shemini Atzeret, we pray for rain. (It is officially the start of rainy season in Israel.) We also recite the Yizkor prayer (remembering our loved ones who are no longer with us).
On days that the Yizkor prayer is said in synagogue (Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, last day of Passover, and Shavuot) and on the yahrzeit, anniversary date of a loved one, we light a memorial candle. Since Jewish holidays begin at sundown, on the evening of the commencement of the holiday or yarzeit date, we light the candle. My mother used an electric yarzeit light, instead of the traditional glass candle. So, in memory of both my mother and father, I use the electric one, as well, while my husband, Mickey, lights the traditional Israeli candle, made of metal, in remembrance of his parents.
In Israel and in reform temples, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah get rolled into the same day. So, this holiday often gets lost in the shuffle between Sukkot and Simcst Torah.
Simchat Torah, a joyous celebration, marks the completion of the reading of the Torah and the re-start of reading for the following year. Congregants sing and dance holding the Torah scrolls, in what is called Hakafot. There are seven Hakafot (circuits).
I have many fond, diverse memories from the celebrations of Simchat Torah:
Childhood: As a child, an apple on top of a flag was the Simchat Torah celebration. We marched around the synagogue behind the Torah scrolls. I enjoyed being with friends and relatives, munching on caramel apples after our “parade.” I always chose to go to Uncle Meyer’s synagogue, an orthodox one, because it was filled with children, very joyous, and the munchies were delicious.
Adulthood: As an adult, one year, our congregation stood in a circle and helped the Rabbi open an entire Torah scroll. He read the last verse, then the first. It was thrilling to touch, see and hear all of the letters and verses. We, then, slowly and carefully rolled it back together, dressed the Torah and return it to the ark.
Cholent Lunch on Simchat Torah: Our synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, in Oak Park, Michigan serves cholent, (a stewed dish of potatoes, meat, and beans) on Simchat Torah morning after services and dancing with the Torah. The highlight was my son Oren’s Bar Mitzvah which took place on Simchat Torah morning as part of these festivities. The holiday became special; always to be celebrated.
Parenthood: Oren, as an adult, became a leader at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, the only free-standing synagogue remaining inside the city of Detroit. He helped take the synagogue from a crumbling institution to a vibrant, expanding community treasure. Simchat Torah here is dancing in the streets nearby. Torahs swirl amidst the city streets once filled with homeless, now bustling with people and shiny new stores and hotels. The young adults made this a relevant holiday, known and experienced within the city.
However you celebrate, enjoy! The excitement of Judaism awaits. Chag Sameach!
Simchat Torah ends the busy fall holiday season. Hope it’s been fun. Now, it’s back to normal life – do we remember what that is???
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