SHEMINI ATZERET … and RAIN
SUNDOWN WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 29: The joyous feelings of Sukkot carry over tonight into the ancient holiday of Shemini Atzeret, which literally means “8th Day of Assembly.” Sometimes you’ll hear this described as the 8th day of Sukkot, but that’s not accurate. (Check out Judaism 101 for details.)
The holiday can be confusing to non-Jews because observance of this special occasion varies around the world. Jews living in Israel and Reform Jews mark a single day, combining Shemini Atzeret and the traditions of Simchat Torah into a single observance. For many Jews living in the Diaspora, Simchat Torah has become a second holiday immediately following Shemini Atzeret. (Wikipedia has further explanation.)
So, what is Shemini Atzeret all about? (Delve deeper at Chabad.org.) Traditionally, Jews pray for rain, since most are no longer in their sukkahs. The atmosphere of happiness is accompanied by piety, too, in light of the request for rain.
SIMCHAT TORAH … SACRED READINGS COME FULL CIRCLE
Simchat Torah (whether observed on a separate day or combined with Shemini Atzeret) is about rejoicing, because today the yearly cycle of Torah readings is complete. From Genesis to Deuteronomy, Jews have read the entire Torah through the year—and just as a reminder that the Torah never ends, Jews begin again by also reading the first chapter of Genesis today. (My Jewish Learning has more.)
Synagogues are alive with singing, dancing and processions of joy, and even children get into the action by carrying small Torah toys around the synagogue. (Adults carry the heavy Torah scrolls.) At the Western Wall, the singing and dancing of Simchat Torah lasts through the night!