Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret,

and Simchat Torah
Sukkot This is the festival where we dwell in small "booths".  They are temporary dwellings, many with canvas walls.  The roof is made of natural materials such as bamboo,  corn stalks, or other greenery, usually supported by a few wooden beams.  It provides more shade than sun, but you can still see the sky through it and the stars at night...that is, if the sky is not cloudy.  In Israel during this time of year, the weather is mild,  so many sleep outside.  Other places not blessed with Israel's weather are too cold to allow people to sleep in the sukkah, but we still eat in them.  This holiday lasts 8 days in the diaspora, 7 days in the Land of Israel.

During the time when the Temple stood, a total of 70 sacrifices were offered during the 7 days of Sukkot which are celebrated in the Land of Israel.  Zechariah, the prophet, said (chapter 14 of his book) that during the messianic era all nations of the earth will send pigrims to Jerusalem on Sukkot.   Sukkot is a very univeral holiday in many ways.

Today, as in Temple days, we still wave the lulav and etrog as mandated in the Torah.  The lulav is made of a palm branch, willow, and myrtle.  The etrog is a citron.  Together the lulav and the etrog are refered to as the 4 species.  We also say hoshanas (hosanas in English) during Sukkot.  In fact, one day of Sukkot is called Hoshana Raba or the many hoshanas which falls on the 7th day of Sukkot.  Hoshana Raba is seen as the day when G-d apportions water for the comming year to all the world.  After Hoshana Raba, the 4 species will no longer be used and are laid asside.  The palm branch is often used later in the year during Pesach (Passover) to burn the chametz (leaven), since it is appropriate to use them only for fulfilling another mitzvot (commandment).

 Shemini Atzeret is the eight and final day of Sukkot.  We no longer use the four species, as yesterday was Hoshana Raba.  We still eat in the Sukkah until the very end of this day, when the Sukkah will no longer be used -- until the  next year.  While Sukkot is universalistic in scope, including all nations as seen above, Shemini Atzeret is very particular.  We turn inwards, and on this day, unlike the rest of Sukkot, we begin to say the prayer for rain to be sent to the Land of Israel, as in Israel, this is when the rainy season is supposed to begin.  We will continue to pray for rain until Pesach (Passover).

Simchat Torah or rejoicing in the Torah falls on the day after sukkot in the diaspora and celebrates the completion of one cycle of Torah reading, and the immediate start of another cycle of Torah reading.  Every year the Torah is studied, from Bereshit  or Genesis to D'varim or Deuteronomy, by Jews all over the world.  The Torah is divided into Parashot or portions so that it can completely studied in one Jewish calendar year.  On Simchat Torah, the last book is finished, and the first book immediately begun.

There is much celebration surrounding this yearly cycle and the Torah itself.  All but one of the Torah scrolls are taken out of the aron or ark in which they are held.  Congregates of synagogues, with the Kohenim (priests, decedents of Aaron) and Leviim (Levites) getting the first opportunities, carry the scrolls around the synagogue, dancing.  The scrolls, like the 613 mitzvot (commandments) contained on them, are heavy burdens, and yet they lift us up making the load lighter, light enough that we dance with joy.  We dance in celebration of the joy that only living under the Torah's guidance can give us.  We dance celebrating the freedom only the guidance of the 613 mitzvot can give us.  We are carried by the Torah, even as we carry it.  We dance as King David did in front of the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the very same Torah that we now carry.  Only in the presence of G-d and His Torah can we truly experience simcha, joy, and such we experience on Simchat Torah.

A special thanks to my teacher, Rabbi Moshe Berger for teaching me some of the insites contained in this page. All errors that may be here are purely my own.

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