Immediately following the seven-day festival of Sukkot comes the joyous two-day festival of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. (In Israel, the festival is “compacted” into a single day.)
This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to a feast for a number of days. When the time came for them to leave, he said: “My sons! Please, stay one more day; it is difficult for me to part with you!” (Midrash)
“Please, stay one more day; it is difficult for me to part with you!”
Holiday candles are lit on both nights, and kiddush and sumptuous holiday meals are enjoyed on both nights and both days of this holiday. We don’t go to work, drive, write, or switch on or off electric devices. We are permitted to cook food that is needed for that day (on a stove that has been left on from before the holiday) and to carry outdoors (except on Shabbat).
On Shemini Atzeret (“the Eighth of Retention”) we still eat in the sukkah (according to the custom of most communities), but without reciting the blessing on the sukkah. The “Four Kinds,” though, are not taken on this day.
The Shemini Atzeret morning service includes the Yizkor service, as well as a special prayer for rain, officially launching the Mediterranean rainy season.
The second day is called Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing of the Torah”). No longer do we eat in the sukkah. On this day we conclude, and begin anew, the annual Torah reading cycle, an accomplishment that produces unparalleled joy.
The focal point of Simchat Torah is the hakafot procession, in which we march, sing and dance with the Torah scrolls around the reading table in the synagogue. The hakafot are done twice, on the night and morning of Simchat Torah, and in some communities also on the night of Shemini Atzeret. Everyone receives an aliyah on Simchat Torah, even the children.
The hakafot are an event not to be missed. Click here to find one near you.
For detailed holiday how-tos, visit our expanded Simchat Torah section.