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Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah 101

Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah 101

An overview of the traditions and customs of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

© Shoshana Brombacher
© Shoshana Brombacher

The holiday of Sukkot is followed by an independent holiday called Shemini Atzeret. In Israel, this is a one-day holiday; in the Diaspora it is a two-day holiday, and the second day is known as Simchat Torah. This holiday is characterized by utterly unbridled joy, which surpasses even the joy of Sukkot. The joy reaches its climax on Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the conclusion—and restart—of the annual Torah-reading cycle.

These two days constitute a major holiday, when most forms of work are prohibited. The special joy of this holiday celebrates the conclusion—and restart—of the annual Torah-reading cycle 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 and to carry outdoors (unless it is also Shabbat).

The first day, Shemini Atzeret, features the prayer for rain, officially commemorating the start of the Mediterranean (i.e., Israeli) rainy season, and the Yizkor prayer (supplicating G‑d to remember the souls of the departed).

We no longer take the Four Kinds, and we no longer mention Sukkot in the day’s prayers; in the Diaspora, however, we do still eat in the sukkah (but without reciting the blessing on it).

The highlight of the second day, Simchat Torah (“The Joy of the Torah”), is the hakafot, held on both the eve and the morning of Simchat Torah, in which we march and dance with the Torah scrolls around the reading table in the synagogue. (In many synagogues, hakafot are conducted also on the eve of Shemini Atzeret.)

On this joyous day when we conclude the Torah, it is customary for every man to take part in the celebration by receiving an aliyah. The children, too, receive an aliyah!

After the final aliyah of the Torah, we immediately begin a new cycle from the beginning of Genesis (from a second Torah scroll); this is because as soon as we conclude studying the Torah, G‑d’s infinite wisdom, on one level, we immediately start again, this time to discover new and loftier interpretations.

(In the Land of Israel, the celebration and customs of these two days are compressed into one day.)

Image by chassidic artist Shoshannah Brombacher. To view or purchase Ms. Brombacher’s art, click here.
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Chana Leah Rego Park October 20, 2016

Receive aliyah Reply

Yair Ben Chaim Fuengirola, Spain October 5, 2015

The first time i entered a shul was when I was 25 years old and living in Manhattan. The synagoge was Orthodox and the Rabbi suggested I carry the Torah scroll. I do not know if it was Simchah Torah or just a regular Sabbath but either way carrying the Torah Scroll on my first day was such a privilege I will carry with me into the Afterlife. Thanks to Rabbi Stephen Friedman and Synagogue Ramath Oreh on 110 West New York. Reply

Bob The ER September 29, 2013

Rabbi gave me a ride on his shoulders on Simchas Torah- I weigh 220 Reply

Hermes Cohen Dayton OH, New-York NY September 25, 2013

It's marvelous to see a living manifestation of a Principle and an Universal Law. The Torah's closing Time is also its opening so that the joyful and or wise Reader Elevate Himself ('Aliyh) to the secret or Meaning of Continuity; the no time Reality where live his Spirit harmonizes with the closing of the "gap" or the lapse during which there is the Joy of having finished a Great Task and that of re-starting it into more Insights. Living deeply such timelessness may grow one's Spirit and or Understanding Manifesting by there the Essence of 'Aliyah; the delicious Fruit to reap. In the spiritual world, all ways are circles or Spirals and not as many think strait lines. Reply

david September 24, 2013

chag sameach! ctiva vechatima tova Reply

michaEL USA October 4, 2012

What is the reason for two days (Shemeni Atzerit and Simchat Torah) in the diaspora, while only one Shemini Atzeret (Simchat Torah) in Israel? Something to do with the different time zones? Chag Samach Sukkot! Shalom, michaEL Reply

Anonymous Newark, DE October 12, 2011

aliyah means "to go up," so to have an aliyah is to have the honor of going up to the torah and reciting the blessings for before and after it is read. Reply

Anonymous lamar, co usa October 10, 2011

what is an aliyah? Reply

Yosef ben Avraham via September 27, 2010

Shemini Atzerit literally means the "8th [day] of the Festival." As with the other 2 biblical holidays of Pesach & Shavuoth (and also of Rosh Hashannah, but for a different reason), and of course Succoth, the very first day of this season, in the diasporah we celebrate each day twice, but in Isreal only once. So really BOTH days are Shemini Atzeret in the diaspora, but the special rituals of Simchat Torah are saved for the final day here, whereas in Isreal Shemini Atzeret IS Simchat Torah- just another name for the same holiday. And all of the holidays have different names, even in the Torah. In the diasporah we just save out that one special name to designate the final day of our 2 day Festival of Shemini Atzeret (which is the closest to the actual Biblical name of this Holiday).

Just an aside, Pesach also has a second day added to its final Chag, that is only a quasi seperate festival, and not a full Holy Day in and of itself as is the 8th day of Succoth, our Shemini Atzereth Reply

Ruben Gaithersburg, Md September 25, 2010

Thanks for the great, understandable explanations for those of us who are not so well versed in the traditions. Reply

Anonymous Fairfield, NJ September 22, 2010

I don't understand the difference between Shemeni Atzerit and Simchat Torah. It's especially confusing since they celebrate only one day in Israel. How can it be two holidays? Does one holiday have two names? I know how stupid my questions sound, but if I never ask, I'll never know. Reply

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