Tonight, Israelis across the country are going to conclude the Sukkot holiday and begin celebrating Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. In the Jewish Diaspora, where holidays usually last two days, one day is the Shemini Atzeret celebration and the next day marks Simchat Torah. However, in Israel, the two holidays combine into one.
Yet even though Israelis celebrate both holidays right on top of each other, the Talmud stresses that Shemini Atzeret is a holiday in its own right. According to Leviticus 23:36: “For the seven days of Sukkot, you shall bring a fire offering to G-d; on the eighth day, it shall be a holy convocation for you.”
Rashi in his commentary of Leviticus 23:36 explained that when there was a Temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish people brought 70 sacrifices on behalf of all humanity over the course of seven days during Sukkot.
On Shemini Atzeret, the Jewish people however only bring one sacrifice to G-d on behalf of themselves. According to Rashi, “This is analogous to a king who invited his sons to feast with him for a certain number of days and when the time came for them to leave, he said: ‘My sons! Please, stay with me just one more day; it is difficult for me to part with you!’”
It is considered a mitzvah (good deed) in Judaism to celebrate on Shemini Atzeret. Jews are supposed to be happy and joyful about the atonement that they have obtained for the upcoming year, as the fate of every person is determined for the next year after the conclusion of Sukkot. All work is forbidden on Shemini Atzeret. Women and girls light candles and prepare festive meals accompanied by a Kiddush. A fire is lit prior to the initiation of the holiday so that cooking can be permitted over the course of the holiday, enabling the existence of BBQ’s and feasts. Jews are not permitted to work, drive and write.
At the conclusion of the holiday, Jews celebrate Simchat Torah, which marks the fact that the Jewish people have finished reading the Torah for this year and will start reading it over again for the next one. In Israel, Simchat Torah is celebrated the following evening but is attached to Shemini Atzeret but in the Diaspora, Simchat Torah is a full second day of celebrations.
The root of this tradition is that the Jewish people always seek to celebrate their holidays in unison with Israel, even if they are in different time zones. For this reason, Jews in the Diaspora celebrate holidays for two days that are only celebrated for one day in Israel.
Simchat Torah demonstrates that the Torah is a cycle that is part of the daily life of the Jewish people. The meaning of the holiday literally is “rejoicing in the Torah.” Across Israel, Jews hold great celebrations where they dance with the Torah scrolls to festive music. Children wave special Simchat Torah flags and candy is thrown in the air. It is a happy, joyful and special holiday that highlights how much the Jewish people is attached to the Torah and is looking forward to another year of Torah study.