The two days of the holiday of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah (in Israel, only one day) constitute a major holiday, when most forms of work are prohibited. On the preceding nights, women and girls light candles, reciting the appropriate blessings, and we enjoy nightly and daily festive meals, accompanied by kiddush. We don’t go to work, drive, write, or switch on or off electric devices. We are permitted to cook (using a pre-existing flame) and to carry outdoors (except on Shabbat). Click here for a basic guide to Jewish holiday laws.
In the event that Shemini Atzeret falls on a Wednesday night and Thursday (so that Simchat Torah will be Thursday night and Friday), an eruv tavshilin must be made on Wednesday, to allow cooking and other necessary Shabbat preparations to be done on Friday. Click here for more on this topic and to learn how to make an eruv tavshilin.
In some communities, it is customary that those who will be reciting Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret (i.e., anyone with a deceased parent) light a 24-hour yahrtzeit candle before the onset of the holiday.
All women and girls (or if there is no adult woman in the house, the head of the household) light candles to usher in the holiday. See this link for information regarding when exactly the holiday candles should be lit.
After lighting, recite the following two blessings:
Ba-ruch a-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu me-lech ha-olam asher ki-deshanu be-mitzvo-tav ve-tzi-vanu le-hadlik ner shel yom tov.
Blessed are You, L‑rd, our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to light the candle of the holiday.
[If Shemini Atzeret falls on a Friday night, substitute the above with the following blessing:
Ba-ruch a-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu me-lech ha-olam asher ki-deshanu be-mitzvo-tav ve-tzi-vanu le-hadlik ner shel shabbat v’shel yom tov.
Blessed are You, L‑rd, our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to light the candle of the Shabbat and the holiday.]
Ba-ruch a-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu me-lech ha-olam she-heche-ya-nu ve-ki-ye-ma-nu ve-higi-a-nu liz-man ha-zeh.
Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.
Prayers, Hakafot & Festive Meal
Festive evening services are recited. The custom in many communities—especially chassidic and Sephardic ones—is to also hold hakafot during the prayers of the eve of Shemini Atzeret.
After the prayers, a festive meal is eaten in the sukkah, though the leishev basukkah blessing is not recited (see General Introduction for more on the topic of eating in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret, as well as the reason why the blessing is omitted).
The challah is dipped in salt. Until today, on all the holidays of this month, the challah was traditionally dipped in honey (rather than salt); this is symbolic of our desire to secure a sweet verdict for the upcoming new year. The judgment, however, was finalized on Hoshana Rabbah, the day before Shemini Atzeret, so there’s no reason for the honey any more.
The Shemini Atzeret morning prayers follow the basic order of all holiday morning services: holiday Amidah; Hallel; special holiday Torah reading; and holiday Musaf, during the course of which the kohanim (priests) administer the Priestly Blessing.
In addition to the standard holiday service, Yizkor (a prayer supplicating G‑d to remember the souls of the departed) is recited by those who have a deceased parent.
Before the start of the Musaf Amidah, the gabbai (beadle) announces aloud: “Mashiv haruach umorid hageshem” (“He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall”). From this prayer forward, until the first day of Passover, those words are inserted into the second blessing of the Amidah.
After the silent Amidah, the ark is opened and the cantor—in a tune reminiscent of the liturgy of the Days of Awe—begins the repetition of the Amidah. The opening paragraphs of the repetition contain a special prayer, Geshem (“Rain”); this prayer consists of a series of piyutim (poetic verses) beseeching G‑d to grant bountiful rain, and officially launching the Mediterranean (i.e., Israeli) rain season.
Shemini Atzeret Afternoon
Sometime before sundown, it is customary to go into the sukkah, have a bite to eat, and “bid farewell” to its holy shade. In many communities there’s a special prayer recited upon leaving the sukkah for the final time—but it is not customarily recited in Chabad circles.
It’s important to bear in mind that no preparations may be made from one holiday day to the next. Each day of the holiday is uniquely important, and would be “demeaned” if used in order to prepare for the next. As such, all cooking, setting of the tables, etc., for Simchat Torah must wait until after nightfall.