"Shemini Atzeret"

from Iqvei ha-Tzon


R. Akiva Glasner

Shemini Atzeret is the yahrzeit of my father, my master, my teacher, the mighty gaon, renowned through his commentary Dor Revi'i, Moshe Shmuel Glasner, of blessed memory, whose pure and noble soul ascended heavenward in the year 5685 suddenly on the night of the last day of the festival at the age of 69. He studied unceasingly and stood as an example to his people of exceptional self-sacrifice from an unbounded love for his people and his kindred; the fire of love for the torah and for his people was aflame and burning in his heart. May his memory be blessed for all generations.

At the end of the chapter of the sacrifices in poroshat Pinhas it says (Numbers 29:35): "On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly." Here also, as it did in referring to Rosh Hashanh, the Torah begins by giving the name of the festival, which is called "Atzeret." This is a parallel construction to the verse (Leviticus 24:42) "In the seventh month, on the first of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest" (shabbaton), which necessarily means that the name of the festival is "Shabbaton." But the Scripture reveals not a trace about the content or purpose of this festival which follows immediately upon the seven days of Sukkot. Also in poroshat Re'eih, the Scripture only mentions by way of a hint through the words "you shall be only joyful" (v'hayita akh samei'ah), which, the Talmud deduces, is meant to include the night of the last day of the festival (i.e., Shemini Atzeret).

A thick cloud covers the content and the purpose of this festival which is adjacent to the preceding festival, the seven days of Sukkot. What is the content of the festival? We have no hint or basis in the Torah. On one side the Torah calls it "ha-shemini" (the eighth) which proves that it has some relation and connection with the seven days of the preceding festival. For if not, how could the Torah have called it "ha-shemini"? Otherwise, it should have said "on the twenty-second day of the month, there shall be a solemn assembly (atzeret) for you." Since the Torah did not write in this way, it must be, as our Sages deduced, that eighth day is included and associated with the seven days of Sukkot. But from another side, it is a separate festival (regel bi-ph'nei atzmo) inasmuch as all the offerings of the seven days of Sukkot are introduced by the words "and on the ___ day" (u-va-yom) with a connecting "vav," which shows the unity of the seven days and their relationship to one another even though a different number of offerings were brought on each day. But on this festival of the eighth day it is written "on the eighth day" (ba-yom ha-shemini) without a connecting "vav," from which it was clearly apparent to our Sages that the eighth day is a separate festival (Sukkah 48a; Rosh Hashanah 4b).

But a further question arises about this festival whose reason and content are hidden and mysterious, namely: all the festivals, without exception, have some historical basis in relationship to the exodus from Egypt, the symbol of the special Divine Providence reserved for Israel, Chosen People and the Holy Nation. (This is so even for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, since man was created on Rosh Hashanah and the sin of the golden calf was forgiven and the second tablets were given on Yom Kippur. And they are all in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt as we say even in the kiddush of Rosh Hashanah which calls to mind the exalted and sublime concept of the Divine Providence reserved to Israel.) Moreover, the festival of the Eighth Day has no basic reason and its purpose is hidden and submerged in the Scripture. In the chapter of the festivals the reason for the festival of Sukkot is given as follows: "so that your generations shall know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I took them out of Egypt." But this cannot be a reason for the eighth day. The commandments of the sukkah and to take the lulab terminate at the end of the seventh day. Not only that, but the Torah limits the rejoicing associated with the eighth day, as it is written "and you shall be only happy" (v'hayita akh samei'ah). And the word "akh" is understood to be limiting, so that the obligation to be joyful on the eighth day is somehow diminished compared to the previous days. Rabbeinu ha-Qadosh therefore found it proper to point out in the Mishnah (Sukkah 48a) that the Hallel and the peace-offerings of rejoicing were offered all eight days of the festival to teach us that one is bound to recite the Hallel and to offer the peace-offerings of rejoicing on the last (eighth) day of the festival, just as on the other days of the festival. And this is amazing. Also the fact that the editor of the mishnah referred to the eighth day as the "last holy day of the festival" (yom tov aharon shel hag) contrary to how the Torah referred to it and to the conclusion of our Sages that it is a separate festival. The upshot of this discussion is that the whole matter of this strange festival appears before us as a sealed book and a riddle.

The only indication of the meaning of the festival is from the name applied to it by the Torah "Atzeret" which shows only that there is a prohibition against work requiring us to be confined to our homes and to cease all work in the field. The words of the Midrash, which Rashi brings in poroshat Pinhas, are well known. On this festival, when only a single bull, in contrast to the seventy bulls offered on the seven days of the Sukkot festival, the Holy One Blessed Be He says: "your departure is difficult for me bear." So He holds them back for one small intimate meal, as the nations leave the scene of this festival designated only for the Holy One Blessed Be He and his precious one, Israel. This is a beautiful and extraordinary Midrash, but it, too, does not come to clarify but to conceal. We require interpretations and explanations that probe the depths of the profound meanings of the Torah and the Midrashim of our Sages. The field is ploughed but not not planted and requires uncovering and explaining the hidden reason. And this is why we were created: to toil and reflect and delve into depths of the Torah that are covered and hidden from us. And "the secret things belong to the Lord our G-d, but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children." And even one as insignificant as I is entitled to express his opinion concerning this sublime matter.

We have already explained previously in our earlier discussion of the festival of Sukkot that the obligation to dwell in the sukkah and the offering of the seventy bulls demonstrate the existence of the Creator who sits on the throne and superintends over all the inhabitants of the earth and over everything under the sun through His agents and intermediaries who fulfill His instructions. It was therefore appropriate - and this was the intention of the Torah - to provide, immediately after the festival of Sukkot, a symbol of the Divine Providence that is reserved exclusively for Israel by way of a direction that does not depend on the alignments of the heavens and the stars, but through the unintermediated supervision of the King of the kings of kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He Himself in His glory, as it is written (Exodus 12:12) "I am the Lord." "I am He, and no other, and no messenger."

The festival of the eighth day is reserved for an intimate, secret celebration between the Holy One Blessed Be He and Israel. The festival of Sukkot, by way of offering the seventy bulls, includes and encompasses all the nations symbolizing the Heavenly guidance of their affairs through intermediaries of the Most High King. And the festival of the eighth day is confined and reduced to a celebration reserved for the Holy One Blessed Be He and Israel without the participation of the nations. It is therefore correct that the Torah called this day "Atzeret," not in the sense of ceasing from work and being gathered in from the field to the home so as not to perform work, but in the deep sense of "Atzeret" in its special meaning, namely: the union of the Holy One Blessed Be He with Israel, the joining of Israel with the Holy One Blessed Be He Who says to His precious people: "your departure is difficult for me to bear." This day is a symbol of the special Providence designated by the Holy One Blessed Be He for Israel and not for outsiders or strangers or other nations. And therefore only one bull. A small repast that encompasses only a narrowly defined domain - adjacent and related to the festival of Sukkot with the offering of seventy bulls, which symbolizes His rule over all the nations - that between the Holy One Blessed Be He and Israel, His precious people. The festival of the eighth day is tied to the seven days of the preceding festival, and it has a deep connection to them, which is why it is called "the eighth day" of the festival of Sukkot as a symbol of the general Divine supervision and guidance of the entire world. But from another angle, it is a separate festival, a special festival, symbolizing the special Providence that is reserved for Israel alone and no other. For Israel is His treasured people, the holy and separate people whose Providential supervision is different from that of the other nations.

And according to all that has been said, the verse (Deuteronomy 16:15) "and you shall be only joyful" (v'hayita akh samei'ah), from which the Sages deduce that the obligation to rejoice extends also to the last night of the festival (i.e., the night of the eighth day), is well explained. The plain meaning of the text indicates a diminution of rejoicing because the words "akh" and "raq" always signify some exclusion, inasmuch as the plain meaning of "akh" signifies some kind of diminution and lessening, as is known to those who are familiar with the language. And this rejoicing of the eighth day, the day in which the Holy One Blessed Be He and Israel are united, the day that symbolizes the exclusion of the nation of Israel from the rest of the nations of the world in the manner of supervision and guidance, the day that symbolizes and embodies the idea of the separation of Israel from all the nations to be the chosen people and a holy nation that stands alone under the unintermediated governance of the Holy One Blessed Be He. This idea was the basis of the covenant at Sinai, and was expressed by Moses when he came to redeem Israel from Egypt (Exodus 19:6): "And you shall be for Me a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation."

Our Sages therefore said that the hatred of the nations for Israel descended from Sinai, for the making of this covenant at Sinai caused us trouble and was the source and root for the hatred of the Gentiles for Israel. It is understood then that our happiness is not complete on this day in which the Holy One Blessed Be He and Israel are united through the offering of a single bull for a small repast without participation of the nations who received their share in the great feast of seventy bulls in the first seven days of the festival. The Torah therefore said "and you shall be only joyful" (v'hayita akh samei'ah) on the eighth day, which means that on the eighth day your joy cannot be complete. Rather diminish your joy somewhat. And for this reason the Sages made a point of saying in the Mishnah of the Tractate of Sukkah, "Hallel is recited and the peace-offerings of rejoicing are brought all eight days which teaches us that one is bound to recite the Hallel and to offer the peace-offerings of rejoicing and to show honor on the last (eighth) day of the festival. They did not say that one is obligated to be as joyful on the last of the festival as on the other days of the festival, because in truth one is supposed to diminish the quantity of rejoicing on the last day of the festival. And this is demonstrated because a specific derivation was necessary to include the night of the last day within the obligation of rejoicing, for without this derivation we would have diminished the rejoicing at night, as opposed to the rejoicing of the first seven days, as well as during the day of the last day on the basis of the exclusionary "akh." But there is an obligation to show honor on the last day equally to that of the other days of the festival for the sake of the sublime essence of the last day, the day that was set aside for the unity and intimacy between the Holy One Blessed Be He and his dear people, Israel. It is then proper to honor the day and to increase its holiness through an elevated spiritual joy as it is written: "This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it" (zeh ha-yom assah ha-Sheim nagilah v'nism'ha bo). In the Midrash it is written:

When it says 'let us rejoice and be glad in it" (bo), I do not know whether "bo" refers to the day or to the Eternal, but when it says (Isaiah 25:"let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation" (nagilah v'nism'ha bi-shu'ato) you must say that "bo" refers to the Holy One Blessed Be He.

Thus, on the eighth day we rejoice in the union between the Holy One Blessed Be He and Israel as His treasured people who are like a king's legion, which is not subject to any minister or officer of state, but to the king alone. And this, with the aid of the Eternal, is very correct.

According to this correct explanation the principal rejoicing of the eighth day is not physical rejoicing through ample eating and drinking. Although we say concerning the other festival days, based on the Talmudic derivation of the verse "and you shall rejoice in your festivals" (v'samahta b'hagekha), that there is no rejoicing save with meat and wine, this is true of a generic holiday and, in particular for those festivals on which the obligation to rejoice involves an increase of enjoyment and pleasure. But on the eighth day, concerning which it says and "you shall be only joyful" (v'hayita akh same'ah), a day that is set aside exclusively for the elevated spiritual joy and exaltation of the soul through coming close to the Eternal Who, in His mercy and great kindness, superintends us with a special providence, there is no occasion for an increase of eating, drinking and bodily pleasure. Rather we are to rejoice in the Holy One Blessed Be He and in His salvation. And that is why this day was designated to be Simhat Torah, for the principal content and the secret of the eighth day is to be "only joyful" (akh same'ah), i.e., joyful with a minimum of eating and drinking but an increase of honor for the day, as the Mishnah states "to show honor to the last day of the festival" - by honoring the Eternal who gave the Torah and by offering praise and thanks that He chose us from all the nations as a holy people and nation to be treasured under his special providence. It is also possible that the Torah called the eighth day "Atzeret" to hint that we should not eat and drink and partake of physical pleasures excessively, but rather increase the honor to heaven and the honor and love of the His holy Torah, which is our life and on which we meditate day and night.

There is a further explanation that we can offer to this lofty idea inasmuch as we can say that the difference between physical joy and spiritual joy is that every physical joy is limited and must come to an end, so that every joy that stems from physical pleasure and enjoyment is mixed with the unpleasant feeling that it must quickly reach its limit and terminal point. For the end of mirth is grief, as it passes away so quickly. After his appetite is sated and the object of his heart's desire is fulfilled, his soul will be repelled by what he had previously wanted. The soul detests all these worldly desires and pleasures. But this is not so for spiritual joy that comes to a person through being engaged in the study of Torah and ideas and the service of the Eternal which is infinite and unbounded. For in the acquisition of Torah there is no end to the desire of one's heart for Torah and his longing for an abundance of knowledge and wisdom constantly increases. The outcome of spiritual joy is therefore not grief, and it has no unpleasant feeling associated with it, but, on the contrary, the joy increases according as the amount of knowledge increases and ascends upon the ladder of perfection. This is the meaning of "only joyful" (akh samei'ah), joyful with no feeling of regret that the joy must cease. Such joy is possible only through the exalted joy of the spirit and the soul. This is the idea that is expressed in the joy of the eighth day, and in this spiritual joy the procession of the joyous days of Sukkot come to an end - on the day of Shemini Atzeret.

And to conclude this essay which I have dedicated to the elevation and memory of my father, my master and my teacher, the Gaon of blessed memory, I will mention one other exalted idea related to the eighth day, namely: the words of the Targum Yonatan on poroshat Pinhas (Numbers 29:35): "On the eighth day, you shall be gathered in joyously from your sukkot into your homes." The meaning is that the content and reason for the festival of the eighth day is to be gathered in from the sukkah into the home. The sukkah symbolizes the desert and the exile - "that I made the Children of Israel dwell in booths when I took them out of Egypt" - and the home is the symbol of a permanent domicile established within the boundaries of the land of Israel, the holy land. That is why the festival that recalls to Israel the travels in the wilderness, the exile without protection or cover given over to murder, destruction, attack, and humiliation is closed with the eighth day, the day of ingathering into the home - the symbol of the redemption and the ingathering to our land and our permanent home speedily in our days. In my book, Dor Dorim, I have, based on the words of the Targum Yonatan, discussed at length what is relevant to halakhah in the sugya of "sukkah bi-shemini," and I will not repeat myself here. Seek it in its place and your thirst will be quenched.