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

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.”