Shmini Atzeret – the last of the fall feasts

Torah Scroll with Torah pointer (yad) Photo: Tuvia Pollack

Of all holidays, I think Shmini Atzeret might be the least mentioned in the Bible. It’s not even really clear whether it is a part of Sukkot or a separate holiday. But according to the gospel of John, Simchat beit haShoeva was “the last day of the feast,” which indicates that the New Testament has embraced the rabbinic tradition that Shmini Atzeret is a separate holiday unto itself, celebrated the day after.

Shmini Atzeret means “assembly on the 8th”. That is, a day of assembly on the 8th day after Sukkot. Atzeret also comes from the word “to stop” – it’s the last holiday before the mundane every day takes over, and with it the festivities are coming to a halt.

“For seven days present food offerings to the Lord , and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present a food offering to the Lord . It is the closing special assembly; do no regular work.”
Leviticus 23:36 NIV

The number 8 often symbolizes the supernatural. 7 stands for fullness or completeness, while 8 then becomes “above and beyond.” We only have 7 days in the week – having an 8th day becomes supernatural. This could be one of the reasons circumcision is done on the 8th day. We also count 7 weeks after Passover and celebrate Shavuot after that, on the 8th week.

If the fall feasts, as I have said before, are to commemorate future prophetic events, then Rosh haShana is the day he comes with the clouds, Yom Kippur is the day of judgement and the 7 days of Sukkot is the fullness of happiness with him in the millenium kingdom. In that sense, the 8th day symbolizes what comes after the millenium – eternity with him.

It is not by chance that God decreed such a holiday to be the very last one before a long mundane time of no holidays. Before Hanukka and Purim were instituted during the time of the Persians and Greeks, there were no more holidays until Passover after this. This holiday is the one to give us the “taste” for how to enter our regular day-to-day life. A huge assembly and a memory that we have a future with Him in eternity.

It is therefore not strange that the Jewish tradition has connected this holiday to Simchat Torah – the celebration of the Torah. Every Sabbath one part of the Torah is read in the synagogues, and Simchat Torah is when you read the very last part and start over. Symbolically they will read both the end of Deuteronomy and the start of Genesis on this day, to show that one can never finish reading the Torah. There is always more to learn, more to study.

Growing up in a Christian context in Sweden, without Jewish customs, I remember how often we spoke of “the law” in negative terms. I now know that this is a gross misinterpretation of Paul’s attitude towards the Torah. He never said of the Torah that it is negative, but somehow the Christian tradition developed in that direction. As a child I would hear things like “praise God that we are no longer chained to the law,” or “those poor Jews believe that they are still chained to the law.”

But if you visit a synagogue on Simchat Torah you will not find sadness or misery over being “chained to the law.” You will see quite the opposite. You will see a joy over the privilege of having received God’s law. It struck me then and there how dismissive some Christians often are towards God’s word. Even if they believe that the law is no longer binding, shouldn’t it at the very least be respected and revered as God’s word, and as something that God – at least at one point in history – expected his people to follow?

Many secular people look at faith in Jesus the same way as some Christians look at Judaism. To them, it’s just a constraining set of laws and rules that imposes on our freedom. But this is not the way God sees it. It’s not the way we should see it. Our freedom is to follow God’s will for us out of love to him. Not because we are afraid of punishment, but because we love him and want to honor him.

Just as our Jewish brethren rejoice in the Torah on this holiday, so should we be able to rejoice in God’s revealed Word to us. This is what we do on this holiday, and this is the taste we want to keep with us during the day-to-day routine coming up. Because this is what eternity is really about.