Sukkot, Simhat Torah and the duet between God and Man

The transformation of the second day of Shmini Atzeret into Simhat Torah is a direct outcome of the Jewish exile from our homeland.

 REJOICING IN  the Torah at  Tel Aviv’s Rabin  Square.  (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG)
REJOICING IN the Torah at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG)

The festival of Sukkot isn’t anchored to a particular historical period or geographical location. It doesn’t commemorate a miraculous event that occurred on a specific day in history. Sheltered huts positioned under the open sky symbolize God’s compassion for creation, His care for humanity, and His love of the Jewish people. Exiting our homes and sitting under makeshift and “improvised” huts, highlights our reliance upon Divine supervision rather than upon human structures or conventions.

A Private Invitation

As this holiday isn’t tethered to a particular historical event, its scope extends beyond that of other Jewish holidays. Sukkot celebrates God’s care for all humanity – Jew and non-Jew alike. Highlighting this international scope, the Temple ceremonies of Sukkot were synchronized to an international audience. During this seven-day celebration of “Divine providence,” 70 sacrifices were proffered, correlating to the 70 nations of classic antiquity.

Sukkot reminds a Jew of his universalist mission: to represent God and true monotheism in this world, while challenging humanity to higher standards of morality. The holiday of Sukkot is pivoted upon the Temple as an international destination, and during this week, Jerusalem hosted foreign dignitaries from across the globe.

Toward the conclusion of this holiday, the international celebration transitioned into a one-day private rendezvous between God and his chosen nation: Shmini Atzeret, or the eighth day of repose. As the festival ebbed to a close, we were beckoned to layover an extra day, “alone” in His house. After the eight-day fanfare subsided,we enjoyed a quiet day of peaceful seclusion with God. Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret comprise a multi-layered holiday, distilling both our grand historical mission as well as our intimate relationship with God.

Extending the “Extension”

Our historical Jewish mission would be “put to the test.” For 1,900 years, Jews would wander this planet bereft of a common culture, deprived of a national homeland, all the while longing for their extinct Temple – the icon of our ageless mission. During this dark period of exile, our national experience was severely handicapped. We lacked a homeland, a government, a Temple and a judiciary body or Sanhedrin capable of properly and accurately adjusting our lunar calendar. Lacking “calendric precision” and living in foreign lands, Jews observed two days of Shmini Atzeret. Severed from Israel, Shmini Atzeret became doubled. Two days of Shmini Atzeret (and for that matter every other holiday) became a conspicuous symbol of life in exile. 

 WOMEN DANCE with a Torah on Simhat Torah at the the Tel Aviv Port in 2019.  (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90) WOMEN DANCE with a Torah on Simhat Torah at the the Tel Aviv Port in 2019. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

The Shift

A shift occurred about 1,000 years ago, as the second day of Shmini Atzeret morphed into Simhat Torah. Since the yearly Torah reading cycle concludes on the second day of Shmini Atzeret, Jewish communities initiated various festivities and rituals to celebrate Torah. Ultimately, these customs became enshrined as Jewish law, and the second day of Shmini Atzeret transformed into an autonomous day of Simhat Torah. Over time, the second day of Shmini Atzeret, which had always been a “tacked-on” day, transformed into a stand-alone celebration of the Torah.

This transformation of the second day of Shmini Atzeret into Simhat Torah is a direct outcome of exile. The conclusion of the Torah reading coinciding with an “extra day” of Shmini Atzeret invited a separately themed holiday. The two-day expanded Shmini Atzeret of exile was critical to the emergence of Simhat Torah. It is fair to wonder if Simhat Torah would have evolved without the extra “available” day of Shmini Atzeret.

Simhat Torah doesn’t only emerge within exile and because of a two-day Shmini Atzeret. Simhat Torah epitomizes the Jewish victory over the enormous challenges of exile. How did the Jews survive against such unspeakable odds? How did a nation, scattered across the globe, stripped of common national identity, despised and persecuted, not just survive, but thrive, and not just thrive but constantly advance civilization and reshape the human imagination?

Though we lacked a Temple, we always possessed a different pivot of national identity and a different rallying point to encounter our God. Torah, the directly revealed word of God, provided a geographically independent anchor of Jewish identity, and of course, a conduit for a religious encounter. Our steadfast commitment to studying and applying His word has been, and will always be, a secret of Jewish survival. Transforming the second day of Shmini Atzeret into a Torah celebration signifies the triumph of the Jewish spirit throughout this long journey of exile. Without the revealed will of God, we would have barely survived the harsh challenges of exile. The “spare” day of Shmini Atzeret – now designated as Simhat Torah – marks our monumental historical achievement.

A Duet of God and Man

This “couplet” of two days embodies the mutual nature of our historical covenant with God. Shmini Atzeret comprises God’s gift to the Jews, a special invitation for a private stay in the House of God. Annually, we were summoned by God “back” to His house, because our hurried departure would be too difficult to bear. Signaling His great love for us, God granted a cozy and intimate get-together. A covenant, though, is always bilateral. The “transformed” second day of Simhat Torah became our gift to God – a testament of our faith and commitment during the dark periods of Jewish history. Hoisting a Sefer Torah to Heaven became a declaration to Heaven: we survived, and the Torah you delivered to us preserved us. As we clutch Torah scrolls, we proclaim to God “indeed it has been difficult, but we aren’t going anywhere.” You delivered Your word to us and for close to two millennia, it has protected our faith and preserved our relationship, even without our private rendezvous in the Temple. A festival originally mandated in Heaven became amplified on Earth. Divine gesture transformed into a human anthem of Jewish courage.

Two Have Become One

After a long walk home, we have now returned to our land and to our past prestige. Jews in Israel are privileged to once again celebrate one day of Shmini Atzeret. This one day now incorporates the two complementary gifts of our Covenant. We have, once again, been invited to Jerusalem. A Divine invitation has once again been extended. Once again we feel selected for Divine interest. However, as we arrive home, we look back with pride at our extraordinary historical journey. We outlasted innumerable challenges and defeated history. Torah study is proliferating at a rate unseen in close to 2,500 years. God’s gift to the Jews and our gift to Him are no longer split into two days.

They are one and we are one! 