Jewish: Twin milestones Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah

Dancing with torah scrolls in the streets of Jerusalem on the night of Simchat Torah. Photo by Betzalel Gersten, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.SUNDOWN on SUNDAY OCTOBER 7 & MONDAY OCTOBER 8: Jewish families close out the busy season of the high holidays and Sukkot with a pair of observances that are little known outside of their community. In contrast, even the White House issues high holiday greetings each year and then millions of Americans can see their Jewish neighbors set up their leafy, makeshift sukkah huts for the harvest festival. In contrast, these twin holidays Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are marked in homes and synagogues. Occasionally they spill into the streets, however, as our photo (at right) shows in the streets of Jerusalem. Often, the lively processions with torah scrolls circle the aisles and hallways of synagogues and photos show up in newspapers and news magazines.

This year, friends of ReadTheSpirit at the American Jewish Committee asked us to showcase the helpful resources at the My Jewish Learning website. As a sample of the website’s offerings, here is part of the Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah overview:

Shemini Atzeret is mentioned in the Bible, but its exact function is unclear. In Second Temple times, it appears to have been a day devoted to the ritual cleansing of the altar in the Temple. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, this function of the day became obsolete. Although it marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel and therefore includes the year’s first prayer for rain, its lack of clear definition may have provided the impetus to celebrate it in conjunction with Simchat Torah, a celebration of the conclusion of one and the beginning of another annual cycle of readings from the Torah. This latter holiday probably originated during the medieval period.

Unlike many other holidays, the observance of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are centered in the synagogue and community. On Shemini Atzeret, some still eat in the sukkah (the traditional hut associated with the festival of Sukkot), but in contrast to Sukkot no blessings are associated with that activity.

Simchat Torah is characterized by joyful dancing with the Torah. The final portion of the Book of Deuteronomy is read in the synagogue followed by the beginning of the Book of Genesis. In this manner, the annual cycle of Torah readings continues unbroken.

If you are Jewish—or are especially fascinated by religious festivals—you can try your hand at a Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah 10-question trivia quiz. There also is a more detailed history of these holidays. Looking for ideas to use in your home? My Jewish Learning has you covered there, too. The website’s overall Jewish Holidays gateway page also has links to some recipes that look mighty delicious.

Want a free printable guide to the holidays? The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit makes available free PDF files of colorful, idea-packed holiday guidebooks at where you will find these twin holidays included in the Sukkot booklet.

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