Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah Theology and Themes
Shemini Atzeret is the holiday that follows immediately after the seventh day of Sukkot. Literally, Shemini Atzeret means “the eighth [day] of assembly.” The Torah designates this day as one of solemn assembly and prohibits labor.
Shemini Atzeret serves to conclude the holiday of Sukkot, although it technically stands as its own festival. In this way Sukkot begins with a yom tov (full holiday) and ends with a yom tov, while the days in between are the intermediate festival days (hol ha-mo’ed). Thus, the concluding holiday acts as a transitional day leading the worshipper out of the various levels of meaning inherent in Sukkot. The community assembles again to end the festival.
Jewish tradition has attributed various meanings to Shemini Atzeret, to which the Torah offers little justification. One example: The Rabbis say that the festival is God's way to retain closeness with the Jewish people for a little while longer; Sukkot was a pilgrimage festival in which the nation gathered in Jerusalem during Temple times. The addition of Shemini Atzeret delayed their departure briefly.
It is customary to read the book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) on the Sabbath of the intermediate days of Sukkot. However, should there be no Sabbath on those days, Ecclesiastes is read on Shemini Atzeret. The theme of Ecclesiastes is very fitting for this holiday, as it emphasizes that all of nature is a closed system, and life itself can appear to be a futile journey.
The dynamic that fights off this sense of futility is the individual’s relationship with God. The nature themes and the spiritual musings found in Ecclesiastes mirror many of the themes of Sukkot, and we are reminded of them once again on Shemini Atzeret as we close the holiday. The prayer for rain recited on Shemini Atzeret provides a further thematic link with nature and perhaps hints at the ancient Sukkot water libation festival.
In Israel and in liberal congregations, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on the same day. In all other congregations Simchat Torah is celebrated the day after Shemini Atzeeret, following the tradition of adding an additional day to festivals in the Diaspora.