Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah: Jews pray for rain, rejoice in the Torah

Rabbi holds up a Torah scroll, rocks in background

A rabbi holds a Torah scroll. Photo by Josh Evnin, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 11 and SUNSET THURSDAY, OCTOBER 12: 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.

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, and 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. As many adherents as possible are given the chance to recite a blessing over the Torah—even children.

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.


Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah: Jews dwell in huts, restart Torah

You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths.

Leviticus 23:42

Burlap in background, draped in vines of sunflowers with pumpkins, haystacks in front and Sukka sign to the right

Photo by Oliver Hammond, courtesy of Flickr

TO INTRODUCE our coverage of Sukkot, ReadTheSpirit magazine welcomes back author and Jewish scholar Joe Lewis as well as our regular Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton. In addition to this column, you’ll enjoy these other stories:




No festival in the Jewish calendar requires more gear than this seven-eight-nine-day shackfest. We need an etrog (which looks like a lumpy lemon); the romantic lore praising the fragrance and beauty of this fruit, and the religious obligation to enjoy this festival, raise the price of an etrog to heavenly heights. We also need palm, myrtle and willow branches. Gathering these four types of plants is the easy part. Daily synagogue services include processions with our plants.

At home, parents suddenly become d-i-yers, and ramshackle huts roofed with greenery sprout in the back yard or on the patio. It’s a “sukkah” (shelter) designed as a substitute for our regular house, a place to take meals and relax on the holiday; in warmer climes the family can camp overnight. Detailed rules govern the shacks, huts or “tabernacles,” but there’s still freedom for creativity in size, shape and materials.

Temporary dwellings remind us of our 40-year trek through the wilderness, protected and sustained by our compassionate God. In ancient times, harvest workers slept outside by their work, as we read in the Book of Ruth (3:6-15). Our huts remind us that our own existence is fragile; that the protections we build for ourselves can be swept away in a storm; and that too many people in our society lack a home of their own. Gazing at stars through chinks in the roof promotes awe and humility, for we are but momentary specks in a universe of untold extent in time and space.


The first part of the holiday is “Sukkot,” shelters, and lasts for seven days. On the eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, “the concluding eighth day” (Num 29:35), we no longer need our four types of plants or our temporary shelter.

The ninth day is the final day of our festival season. It’s called Simchat Torah, a party to celebrate the Five Books of Moses, our manual for effective living. We finish the annual cycle of readings and begin anew, reading the final portion of Deuteronomy and then the first chapters of Genesis, accompanied by all the “disorder, laughing, sporting, and … confusion” that disturbed the famous diarist Samuel Pepys when he visited a London synagogue on October 14 1663. Dancing in the synagogue sometimes spills on to the streets, as we share our joy with the community in which we live.



Dark spice cake with pomegranate seeds on top, on white plate and platter, one piece cut out of cake

Pomegranates are a common ingredient in Sukkot recipes. Photo by Jamieanne, courtesy of Flickr

As Joe Lewis has described, most Jewish families try to take part in the construction of a sukkah—a temporary booth, or structure—in honor of Sukkot, spending as much time as possible inside the dwelling during the festival. The commandment to “dwell” in the sukkah can mean simply eating meals inside of it or fully residing. (Wikipedia has details.)

Each day of Sukkot, a waving ceremony is performed with the four species, or the lulav and etrog. An etrog—a citrus fruit native to Israel—is placed in one hand, while the other hand contains a bound bundle (lulav) of one palm branch, two willow branches and three myrtle branches. A blessing is recited and the species are waved in all directions, to symbolize that G_d is everywhere. The four species are also transported to the synagogue, where they are held, waved and beaten against the floor, during religious services. The four species are also held while forming processions around the bimah (pedestal where the Torah is read), in synagogue.


Immediately following Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, on which Jews leave their sukkah and dine inside the home. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret is combined with Simchat Torah; in the diaspora, Simchat Torah falls on the day immediately following Shemini Atzeret. (Learn more from Judaism 101.)


On Simchat Torah, literally, “Rejoicing in the Torah,” the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings is complete. On Simchat Torah, the final Torah portion is read and, in a cyclical manner, the first chapter of Genesis is then immediately read. The completion of the cycle is met with great celebration, singing, dancing and the carrying of Torah scrolls.


For many Jews, Sukkot arrives just in time. After the solemn experience of Yom Kippur, the happy gathering of family and friends is a welcome event. Read more about the unity of Sukkot and more from the Jerusalem Post.

A $50,000 penthouse sukkah? Rates are high for a luxury Sukkot at the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel, but the price tag for the 12 private sukkahs comes with everything needed for a four-star holiday: three cooked meals per day for four people for eight days; a personally designed sukkah and plenty of room for entertaining guests. (Read more in the JTA.) For those wishing to spend a little less, the Inbal constructs two enormous sukkahs that can hold up to 600 guests at mealtime.


Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah: Jews continue Sukkot joy, restart Torah cycle

Torah scroll close up in dim lighting

Jews parade Torah scrolls through the synagogue on Simchat Torah. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 25 and SUNSET THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 26: The joyful days of eating (and for some nature-loving families actually sleeping) in the sukkah are ending. But, some extend eating in the sukkah just one more day—and today Jews celebrate Shemini Atzeret and then the closely connected Simchat Torah. For Jews in Israel, these two holidays combine into one day; for Jews of the Diaspora, Shemini Atzeret is followed by Simchat Torah by one day.

Distinct from Sukkot, when rain may be unpleasant inside the loosely thatched sukkah, Jews begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret. The rainy season in Israel begins soon, and for agricultural purposes, the Musaf Amidah prayer is recited, for rain, on Shemini Atzeret.

Great happiness continues on Simchat Torah as synagogues around the world hold processions; joyful dancing and singing ensue. Torah scrolls are carried through the aisles, and even children join in by carrying toy or paper versions of the scrolls, making their way around the building in a series of seven circuits (hakafot). The primary celebration of Simchat Torah begins in the evening. When the ark is opened, congregation members get up to sing and dance. In many regions, the singing and dancing is taken to the streets and lasts many hours. (Wikipedia has details.)

FOR MORE ON THESE HOLIDAYS: Enjoy this introduction by Debra Darvick, author of This Jewish Life.

WANT RECIPES? Check out Bobbie Lewis’s yummy cookie recipe and reflection on hospitality at this time of year.