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How is Shmini Atzeret celebrated?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

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Shmini Atzeret is a full-fledged, Torah mandated holiday. It is known as Yom Tov, and it is observed as a period of rest much like Shabbat. Work that is prohibited on Shabbat is prohibited during this period as well; with a couple of exceptions. We spend the time in prayer and celebration. We light candles, eat a traditional holiday meal, complete with holiday Kiddush and two Challahs, at night and during the day.

As explained elsewhere, outside of Israel every holiday is celebrated an extra day (see Why do we add extra holiday-days outside of Israel?). This has twofold implications when it comes to Shmini Atzeret:

1. Shmini Atzeret is two days outside of Israel, the second day being Simchat Torah; which means that in Israel the Simchat Torah celebrations are observed on Shmini Atzeret. (See "How is Simchat Torah celebrated?").

2. This also presents a problem regarding Sukkot because it is immediately followed by another holiday, Shmini Atzeret. Techincally, outside of Israel Sukkot should be 8 days. However, it would be disrespectful to Shmini Atzeret – which is a holiday in its own right, with its own laws, customs, and theme – for us to also be celebrating Sukkot on the same day. Imagine if someone who was invited to your wedding decided to bring along his son to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah by the wedding... you probably wouldn’t be very flattered!

Therefore we don’t celebrate Sukkot on Shmini Atzeret. The only exception to this is the custom in some communities to eat in the Sukkah for part or all of Shmini Atzeret.1 This doesn’t disturb the holiday of Shmini Atzeret, since we can argue that we are simply enjoying the Shmini Atzeret holiday meal al fresco, enjoying the breeze in the cool shade of the sukkah. (In Israel, it is not necessary to sit in the sukkah on Shmini Atzeret since Sukkot is only 7 days to begin with). 

On Shmini Atzeret we say Yizkor, and we also recite a special prayer, called Geshem, which officially launches the rain season in Israel. After this prayer, we begin inserting the mention of rain in the second blessing of the Amidah.

See also "What is Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah?" and "When are Sukkot and Simchat Torah?"

Footnotes

  • 1. Speak to your local Halachic authority to detemine the custom in your community. One thing is universal, no one recites the blessing for the Sukkah.

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Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Sukkot
A seven day autumn festival commemorating the miracle of the Heavenly Clouds which enveloped the Jews while traveling in the desert for forty years. On this holiday we dwell in makeshift booths and shake the Four Species.
Sukkah
The temporary structure in which we are required to dwell for the duration of the holiday of Sukkot. The Sukkah must have at least three walls and its roof consists of unsecured branches, twigs or wooden slats.
Simchat Torah
An extremely joyous one-day autumn festival following the holiday of Sukkot. In Israel it is the eighth day of Sukkot, outside of Israel it is celebrated the next day, the day after Shmini Atzeret. Every Sabbath we read a portion of the Torah. On this holiday we celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle.
Kiddush
Prayer recited at the beginning of the Sabbath or Holiday meal--both the evening and afternoon meals. This prayer, acknowledging the sanctity of the day, is recited over a cup of wine or grape juice.
Amidah
Highlight of every prayer, recited silently while standing. Weekday Amidah consists of nineteen blessings, Sabbath and holiday Amidah contains seven blessings.
Shmini Atzeret
A joyous one-day autumn festival immediately following the holiday of Sukkot. Outside Israel this holiday is celebrated for two days, the second day is known as Simchat Torah.
Yom Tov
Jewish Holiday.