Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: Celebrating rain and the Torah cycle

Rain drops building up on solid surface

On Shemini Atzeret, Jews begin to pray for rain—a practice that will continue until Passover. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET SUNDAY, OCTOBER 4 (and SUNSET MONDAY, OCTOBER 5): As the High Holidays draw to a close, Jewish families around the world mark Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, a time of “rejoicing in the Torah” and asking for G_d’s blessings. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah combine to make one holiday; outside of Israel, the holidays fall over the course of two days. Though Shemini Atzeret technically falls within Sukkot, none of the blessings associated with Sukkot are carried over onto this—separate—holiday. (Learn more from My Jewish Learning and Judaism 101.) Observant Jews don’t work on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

Prayers for rain commence on Shemini Atzeret. On Simchat Torah, the annual cycle of the weekly Torah readings is complete. In synagogues and temples, portions of the Torah are read each week of the year. As the end is reached on Simchat Torah—Jews demonstrate the continuing cycle of life with the Torah by immediately re-rolling the scrolls and reading the first passage of Genesis.

To celebrate the Torah, lively processions around the synagogue take place with participants carrying Torah scrolls and singing and dancing. (Wikipedia has details.) As many adherents as possible are given the chance to recite a blessing over the Torah—even children.

Did you know? At the Western Wall in Israel, the night of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah is filled with dancing and live music. The festivities often last late into the night.

Though people today may not be as dependent on yearly rainfall for their sustenance, Shemini Atzeret serves as a reminder that human actions still effect the weather and environment—perhaps more now than ever. As one Jewish writer points out, it is on Shemini Atzeret that people must acknowledge both the obligation to take action—by respecting natural resources and cycles—and the faith necessary to realize that some systems are beyond human control. It is, she reports, “both a recognition and a release of power.”

Yom Kippur: Jews ask forgiveness on Day of Atonement; final High Holidays

Red-draped tall wooden box with Jewish symbols

During the Ne’ilah services of Yom Kippur, the Torah ark is left open. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22: The High Holidays reach their spiritual peak on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Often described as the most significant date on the Jewish calendar, Jewish men and women traditionally prepare for Yom Kippur by asking forgiveness of anyone they have wronged in the past year. Then, Yom Kippur usually is spent in synagogue as each person reflects on the past year and prays to reconcile with both G_d and their community.

Fasting from food and drink is undertaken for 25 hours, while the color white is customarily worn to services. The Yom Kippur liturgy continues until nightfall, when services end with a long blast of the shofar.

YOM KIPPUR: KOL NIDRE TO THE ARK

The lengthy services of Yom Kippur use a special prayer book, the machzor, and the opening evening service is known as Kol Nidre, or “all vows.” During this service, the faithful ask G_d to annul personal vows they made during the next year—a great relief in past eras when Jews were forced to convert to other religions. The community asks forgiveness of collective sins, and the final service of Yom Kippur—Ne’ilah—is performed with the ark open. (Learn more from Judaism 101.) During this final service, it is often referenced as a “closing of the gates.”

Did you know? Traditionally, Yom Kippur is considered the date Moses received the second set of Ten Commandments. At this time, the Israelites were granted atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf.

In Israel today, Yom Kippur is a legal holiday. Public transportation, shops and businesses are closed, and there are no radio or television broadcasts. (Wikipedia has details.) Eating in public is strictly avoided on Yom Kippur. In recent years, however, young Israelis have taken to riding bicycles and in-line skating on the eve of Yom Kippur.

NEWS: 50 YEARS AGO …

In 1965, Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax made the decision not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series, as it fell on Yom Kippur. The decision made international headlines, creating buzz around the world as the conflicts between American culture and Jewish belief were discussed. Today, JTA reflects on how Koufax’s decision still resonates—and how it impacted Jews for the generations following.