Why is the concluding and restarting of the Torah reading cycle celebrated on Shemini Atzeres?
By: Aron Ziegler
Reading through the Torah in our weekly parsha cycle is a very old custom. The Rambam codifies: “The prevailing custom throughout the Jewish nation is to complete a cycle of reading through the Torah over the course of each year. Beginning on the Shabbos after Sukkos…and (ultimately) concluding on the following Sukkos.” Shemini Atzeres is the day that has become set for the celebration of our siyum (completion) of the parsha cycle. But Shavuos, Rosh Hashanah, and, perhaps even Yom Kippur, a day of renewal and a fresh start, would seem to be more natural choices, so why did our Sages choose Shemini Atzeres?
Shemini Atzeres (which in areas outside of Israel is spread over two days) has some unique qualities:
(1) It is explicitly linked to Sukkos, as the verse reads, “On the Eighth day …”, this is referring to the day after the seven days of Sukkos. Also our Sages describe the nature of the day as if a king (ie. Hashem) has had his children visiting with him for a number of days. When the time for their departure comes the king says, “My children, I ask of you, stay with me one more day, your separating is difficult for me”; (2) Sukkos is explicitly for a duration of only seven days and our Sages reiterate that Shemini Atzeres is its own independent festival and, therefore, we should say a bracha of shehechiyahu on it, as it is a new separate chag. We also see that it has a different mussaf sacrifice than the days of Sukkos. Whereas on Sukkos many bulls were offered each day, on Shemini Atzeres only one bull was brought; and (3) The Rabbis have structured the public communal reading of the Torah to conclude and begin again on Shemini Atzeres (on which we celebrate Simchas Torah).
The gemara teaches us that, in the future, Hashem will take a Torah, place it in his lap, and announce that those who occupied themselves with Torah should come and take their reward. The nations will ask to be granted a chance to show that they are, in fact, worthy candidates to partake of the reward for Torah. Hashem tells them, “I have an easy mitzvah and it is called sukkah; go and perform this mitzvah…”
Straight away we can ask: why would Hashem test the nations with this mitzvah of sukkah? Surely if the nations are contending that they are worthy Torah recipients, they should be tested with the overarching principle and objective that encompasses the whole Torah and not the ‘easy mitzvah’ of sukkah that just involves using some plant offcuts to make a flimsy shelter? How would sukkah be a test indicative of the worthiness of those who perform it?
The entire Torah we know is focussed on bringing peace and harmony. We know this from the response that Hillel gave to the prospective convert who wanted to be converted to Torah on condition that he could be taught the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel told him, “That which is hateful for yourself, do not do unto your fellow; this is the whole Torah, the rest is simply the explanation of this principle. Now, go and study it.” Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) writes, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” And the Rambam codifies, “Great is Shalom, for the whole Torah was given in order to make peace in the world.”
The gemara continues and describes what happens after Hashem gives the nations this mitzvah: Immediately, each individual will take materials and go and build a sukkah on the top of his roof. Then Hashem will intensify the sun on them and they will all feel so uncomfortable that each person will leave his sukkah and kick it. The gemara explains that, even though a person is not obligated to stay in the sukkah when he feels uncomfortable, the nations actively kick at their sukkahs when they leave, unlike when a Jew has to leave his sukkah, in which case he would feel disappointed that he is missing out on the performance of the mitzvah.
Rabbi Yechiel Michel Kossowsky, ztz”l, a prominent communal Rabbinic leader in South Africa from 1941 until his passing in 1964, who co-founded and lead Yeshivah College, explains that we celebrate Sukkos, the festival of the gathering of crops, when wealth is bountiful, when the money is coming in. This is precisely when we are all asked to leave our homes – some of us our more modest homes and some of us our fancier and grander homes – but we all move into the simplest sukkahs and are connected as equals under the sukkah of Hashem’s peace.
Just as the societal strata of power and wealth are being arranged at the end of the agricultural season, we are asked to remind ourselves that, before Hashem, the one who studies much Torah and the one who studies very little Torah are equal. “I am Hashem’s creation and so too my friend, my work is in the city, and his work is in the field…perhaps one could say I do more and he does less (and therefore I am better than him)?! This is not so, for we have been taught that whether one manages to do much (offer an elaborate sacrifice) or only a little (a small basic sacrifice), (the value in the eyes of Hashem is equally significant), as long as he intends his heart towards Heaven” (Hashem assesses each person’s capacity on an individual personal scale). As Jews, this sentiment permeates our lives. We are all Hashem’s children and equal under Him. We don’t carry ourselves in any sort of class system of rank, with more and less important Jews.
This is lived out in the beginning of the calendar year in the seven days of Sukkos, Chag HaAsif, the festival of in-gathering, gathering all of us together. It is also symbolised in the four species, just as the esrog has taste and fragrance, so too there are some Jews who have Torah and good deeds. The lulav is from a date palm which has taste, but no fragrance, so too there are some Jews who have Torah but not good deeds. The hadassim (myrtle branches) have fragrance, but no taste, so too there are some Jews that have good deeds, but don’t have Torah. Then there are the aravos (willow branches) that have neither taste nor fragrance, so too there are some Jews that don’t have Torah or good deeds.
And for seven days we all live the same way, in the simplest huts and we take the four species in one united bundle and live out this model of harmony, togetherness, and equality under Hashem – which is the instruction “to rejoice on your festival, you, your son, your daughter, your slave and maidservant, the Levi, stranger, orphan and widow who is in your gates”.
However, when the nations went to make their sukkahs, each made it “on the top of his roof”. They brought their societal rank into their mitzvah of sukkah and they endeavoured to make their sukkahs higher and more opulent, to outdo each other. But regarding Yisrael it says, “Every citizen in Yisrael should dwell in Sukkos,” and the gemara learns from here that any single kosher sukkah can suffice for any Jew, as there is no requirement that each Jew must own or possess his personal sukkah that he sits in.
This is the teaching of sukkah that we need to inculcate during the full week of living out these values of brotherly and familial unity and equality, the festival of gathering together. On the eighth day we are going to leave the sukkah and each one will go back to his respective societal roles. But Hashem, our Father, says to us, “Your separating is difficult for me, stay just one more day unsegregated, unified all as equals and as a brotherly loving family.” When we do this after Sukkos, at the time that we don’t have the external symbolising tools of the sukkah and the four species to remind us to maintain ourselves as equal to each other, but we still “as one man with one heart” hold our camp as a single unified nation, then we can be worthy recipients of the Torah that Hashem holds in His lap like his precious child.
Hashem laughs at the nations and their lack of understanding when they eagerly go out to perform the mitzvah of the Torah that he gives to them. If performing a mitzvah doesn’t bring a person to humility and to not doing to another that which displeases him then it just isn’t Torah. And, therefore, even though the nations are technically performing the requirements of the mitzvah of sukkah, they are not connecting generally to the objective of what the Torah’s mitzvos collectively are all trying to achieve. The nations remain and show themselves to be foreign to the underlying objective of Torah. For them, the Torah’s mitzvah becomes an opportunity to try and outshine and compete against their fellow, rather than to build harmony and peaceful unity amongst them.
From this explanation, we can understand that even though Shemini Atzeres is a festival on its own, it is very much an extension of Sukkos. As once Sukkos is concluded, we can now begin to personally implement the lessons of the sukkah and four species into our lives for the rest of the year after we have practically and symbolically exercised them during these mighty festivals of the month of Tishrei: Rosh HaShanah – we declare and coronate Hashem as King over ourselves and all of the world; Yom Kippur – “A day of instilling love and friendship; a day of letting go of jealousy and contention” where we forgive one another and collectively beseech Hashem for forgiveness; and Sukkos – we rejoice all together as one family, as equals.
The Torah tells us, “V’lo Ye’Ra’u Panai Rekam” – You shall not appear before me empty-handed. The pilgrimage of the festival (to the Temple), gathering as one nation to see the presence of Hashem and the royal functioning of His Temple, should not leave us empty, but should infuse us with the truth of us all being fellow creatures under Hashem and it should indeed become ‘difficult for us to separate’. Accordingly, we should treat each other with respect and familial love and not do to others what we would not want done to ourselves.
When we are able to implement our unity and peaceful harmony in our lives beyond the festival days, then our ascent during the festival will not have been for nought. When we do this well, our appearing before Hashem will also not have us leaving empty-handed. Rather with our unity, harmony, and peaceful co-existence with each other we can merit to be able to rejoice not only with the simcha of the mitzvos, but with the greatest of all the mitzvos, with the simcha of the Torah itself. We will celebrate having been given a going home present – Hashem’s Torah, to take with us into our homes and lives, building them into sanctuaries for Hashem to dwell amongst us.
Based on Toafos HaRim by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Kosofsky, ztz”l, published posthumously by his Rebbetzin.
Aron Ziegler has learned for over 15 years at the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, including five years full-time. He was among the first students of Hirsch Lyons School. For more than 10 years, he served as the spiritual leader of the Kensington Hebrew Congregation. He regularly leins at the Doorfontein Lions Shul Shabbos Morning Minyan and also leads a learning group weekday mornings at Cyrildene Shul. He strives, in the words of his beloved Rosh Yeshivah’s rebbe, to be a ‘Torah Jew’.
- Rambam, Hilchos Tefilah 13:1 ↑
- Bamidbar 29:35 ↑
- See Rashi Vayikra 23:36 ↑
- Sukkah 47a ↑
- See Rambam, Hilchos Tefilah 13:1 ↑
- Avoda Zara 2-3 ↑
- Shabbas 31a ↑
- Mishlei 3:17 ↑
- Hilchos Channuka 4:14 ↑
- Menachos 13:11 ↑
- Berachos 17a, quoting the Sages of Yavneh ↑
- Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 ↑
- Devarim 16:14 ↑
- Vayikra 23:42 ↑
- Sukkah 27b ↑
- Rashi Bamidbar 29:36 from Medrash ↑
- See Rashi Shemos 19:2 ↑
- See Yom Kippur Machzor repetition of Musaf: ‘Aval Avonos Avoseinu Hecherivu Naveh’ ↑
- Shemos 23:15 ↑