How The Shemini Atzeret Haftarah Was Chosen

Connecting the reading to the occasion

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This article is excerpted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The recitation of 1 Kings 8:66 ("On the eighth day he let the people go") as the haftarah for Shemini Atzeret is mentioned in the Talmud (B. Megillah 31a). Rashi's explanation ("because of the eighth day he let the people go") is tautological; it simply connects the festival day with the notice of an eighth day at the end of the Sukkot season. The Rabbis understood this "eighth day" to be the festival of Atzeret itself, when the people performed their rites in the Temple and departed for home.

Scripture says little about this holiday. According to Leviticus 23:36, "eighth day from onset of Sukkot is marked off as a "sacred occasion" (mikra' kodesh)--thestandard expression for a festival day in this calendar; but it is also called an atzeret (or "solemn gathering"), without further explication.

The list of festival sacrifices in Numbers 28-29 likewise uses the term mikra' kodesh to designate holidays, but it does not do so for the eighth day of the Sukkot season, which is only called an atzeret (Numbers 29:35). Significantly, the cycle of sacrifices prescribed for the Sukkot week is drastically curtailed on that day. This fact, along with the references to the time as a mikra' kodesh and atzeret, gave the impression that the "eighth day" was an independent holiday--the very last of the three pilgrimage festivals beginningin Nisan(with Passover).

The Sages thus said: "The last holiday [yom tov]of the Festival [Sukkot] has its own [priestly selection by] lottery; its own [benediction for the sacred] Occasion [zeman]; its own [distinction as a] Pilgrimage Day [regel]; its own [distinct] Sacrifice; its own Psalm; [and] its own Blessing--as Scripture says, "On the eighth day he let the people go, and they blessed the king [1 Kings 8:66]" (Tosefta Sukkot 4-:17). In further elaborating the ritual and theological significance of the day, rabbinic homilies paid special attention to features found in Numbers 29:36 and I Kings 8:66.

In their attention to detail, the Rabbis noted that according to Numbers 29:36 only one ram was offered on Shemini Atzeret--whereas 70 rams were offered during the prior festival week. This fact, along with the designation of the atzeret as being "for you" (a locution not used on the other days), stands behind a midrash wherein "God said to Israel, 'On all seven days of the festival of Sukkot, you were busy with sacrifices for the 70 nations of the world; whereas now, [just] you and I shall rejoice together, and I shall not burden you overmuch, just one bull and one ram: When Israel heard this, they broke into praise of God and said, 'This is the day that the LORD has made [special], let us exult and rejoice [ve-nismechah] on it!' (Psalm 118:24)" (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Shemini Atzeret 9). This point was celebrated by synagogue poets, as well. For this reason, Shemini Atzeret came to mark an occasion of special intimacy between God and Israel.

The conclusion of the haftarah notes that the people departed from the Temple "joyful [semechim] and glad of heart" (I Kings 8:66). This theme was repeated in hymn and homily. For example, the ancient poet Yannai exulted: shillum simchah hi' kol simchah; ve-tosefet simchah sason ve-simchah. By this he meant that the "completion" (shillum) of the Festival of Joy (Sukkot) is the "sum" (kol) of all joy (simchah); whereas the "supplementary" (tosefet) joy of Shemini Atzeret adds "gladness" (sason) to this "joy" (simchah).

But Yannai also implies here that the "reward" (shillum) for joy on Sukkot is the "added measure" (tosefet) of joy experienced on Shemini Atzeret. According to one ancient sermon, the people received an "extra" token of heavenly grace on this day; another states that the Day of Atzeret gave the people further occasion to request rain in the coming season. One midrash even proves that God hinted at this possibility in Scripture itself.

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Michael Fishbane

Michael Fishbane is the Nathan Cummings professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. His research spans the spectrum of biblical and Jewish studies and he has written numerous books in Jewish Studies.