In its instruction about the festivals and appointed times, the Torah presents us with a startling contradiction.
On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. (Leviticus 23:39)
This verse clearly tells us that the Festival of Sukkot is exactly seven days long. So how can it have an eighth day? It’s like saying “January 32nd.” It is almost as if the Torah wants us to be perplexed about this holiday.
Since Sukkot is seven days long, the eighth day must be a different holiday of its own. The Torah specifically states that the mitzvot associated with Sukkot—sitting in the sukkah and waving the four species—are required for only seven days. On the other hand, it must be a part of Sukkot, otherwise the Torah would not have called it the “eighth day,” connecting it to the other seven.
The name of this mysterious dual-faceted holiday is Shmini Atzeret, which means “eighth [day] assembly.” The word atzeret means “stopping,” “holding back,” or “gathering in.” One could see it as a conclusion or culmination of the previous days.
The Atzeret of Sukkot
Sukkot is the third of the three pilgrimage festivals in the Torah, the first two being Passover and Shavu’ot (Exodus 23:17; 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16). The parallel between Passover and Sukkot is easy to see, both being seven-day festivals.
The lone day of Shavu’ot, however, is not an island. It is tethered to Passover by the seven-week Counting of the Omer. This counting shows that Passover and Shavu’ot are a part of one long process. In a way, Shavu’ot is the final eighth day of Passover, even though there are several weeks in between.
What Shavu’ot is to Passover, Shmini Atzeret is to Sukkot. In fact, the sages often refer to Shavu’ot simply as the atzeret of Passover.
By noting the parallels between Shmini Atzeret and Shavu’ot, we can learn a lot about the meaning of the day. For example, on Passover and Sukkot, we are busy with mitzvot for seven days.
How fitting that atzeret means “stopping,” since on both Shavu’ot and Shmini Atzeret, there are no special mitzvot. There are no unique rules about what or where to eat, no waving of plants or seders. All that is required is to rest and soak in the holiness. There is no more striving for holiness—rather, it is bestowed on us as a gift.
Giving and Completing
Passover occurs in Nisan, which the Torah calls the first month. It is a time of newness, youth, and beginnings. Sukkot occurs in Tishrei, the seventh month. It reflects maturity, growth, and completion.
On Passover we celebrate our freedom from bondage in Egypt. But that was only a beginning, since not being in Egypt is only the first step toward redemption. Sukkot reflects the ultimate fruition of that release: dwelling in the promised land and reaping its harvest. So when bringing the first fruits (which typically accompanied the Sukkot pilgrimage) the Torah instructs the Israelites to retell the full story of redemption. The bringing of first fruits from the land of Israel is proof that God fulfilled his promises.
On Shavu’ot we celebrate the giving of the Torah. In a sense, giving the Torah was a culmination of the exodus, but in another sense it was the beginning of a whole new journey. It takes time and dedication to implement the Torah. At Mount Sinai, Israel was in its infancy.
But Shmini Atzeret represents maturity. On Shmini Atzeret we celebration the completion of the Torah, even as we acknowledge that it is not an end but a new beginning. That is why Simchat Torah, the day when we complete the yearly Torah cycle and begin again, is associated with Shmini Atzeret.
The Completion of the Spirit
On Shavu’ot we look back on that day when Ruach HaKodesh filled the hearts of the first generation of Yeshua’s disciples. We reflect on the moment in our personal lives when the Spirit of God began to chip away at our stony hearts. We entered the kingdom like children, precious and innocent, full of wonder and hope, eager to learn.
But since then, we’ve been growing. The Spirit of God is producing fruit in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23). Our goal is to attain mature adulthood, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Messiah (Ephesians 4:11-13).
On Shmini Atzeret we envision the day when the knowledge of God will saturate our world:
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:9-12)
- In Israel, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are the same day. Outside of Israel, holidays are extended for an extra day to account for calendar discrepancies. In that case, Simchat Torah is observed as the second day of Shmini Atzeret.