Sunday night starts the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, literally the Gathering of the Eighth, a connected, yet independent holiday, that immediately follows Sukkot.
During the seven days of Sukkot, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, 70 bulls were sacrificed representing the original 70 nations of the world. The priests offered sin offerings for the nations, invoking a desire for universal atonement, peace and harmony.
Because of Sukkot’s focus on all nations, God ordained Shemini Atzeret to demonstrate God’s special love for the Jewish people--comparable to a host asking his/her best friend to stay after everyone else has left, in order to share a private moment and relish the time spent together.
Shemini Atzeret also doubles as the holiday of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah), which marks the conclusion of the yearly cycle of the reading of the Torah. On the same day that the Torah is completed, it is begun again, to show that Torah is always new and fresh and that our mitzvah to study Torah is neverending.
On the night of Simchat Torah, all the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark. The bimah (platform or table on which Torah is read) is circled seven times by those holding the Torah scrolls with the congregation dancing joyously with them. Each encirclement, called hakafa, begins with a responsive prayer.
During the morning service, all the Torahs are again taken from the ark, and the hakafot, the joyous circling of the night before, are repeated. The final parasha (weekly portion) of the Torah, V’zot Ha’bracha (And this is the blessing...) is read. The final parasha is read over and over until everyone has been called to the Torah. In some congregations, several Torah readings take place simultaneously.
*This Treat was originally published on Monday, October 20, 2008.
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