A holiday when food plays second fiddle to being with God


Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17

Numbers 29:35-30:1

Kings I 8:54–9:1

Shemini Atzeret revives for me vivid memories of trying to convince a college campus security guard that this night really was another Jewish holiday. She kept insisting, “Don’t try that with me. Your holidays were two weeks ago and I know it.”

Shemini Atzeret — perhaps rivaled only by Shavuot — is the “unknown” Jewish holiday, and for good reason.

What exactly is it about? Its name (“the eighth-day holiday”) indicates that it is connected to Sukkot and serves as its finale. Yet a closer look at the laws of the holiday indicate that it stands on its own; we say the Shehechiyanu blessing that we say on new festivals, and no longer shake the lulav.

And what about ritual actions and objects? Shemini Atzeret has no item to characterize it. It is also the only holiday completely lacking a parallel historical event to commemorate.

So what are we celebrating on Tishrei 22 (Saturday, Oct. 10 this year)?

To make things even more confusing, another holiday, Simchat Torah, was doubled up onto this one. Ezra the Scribe organized the system of weekly Shabbat Torah readings at the time of the building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and set it up so that we would finish reading the Torah and begin it again on this date.

These are the origins of Simchat Torah, the rabbinic element layered on top of Shemini Atzeret. But why on this date, and not on Rosh Hashanah? Or, perhaps instead on Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah in the first place?

There is a well-known midrash that picks up on the 70 sacrifices that were offered in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem over Sukkot, on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. It then notes that Shemini Atzeret has only one sacrifice, and continues to explain by way of a parable: There was a king who threw a party for seven days for all the noblemen of the kingdom. As they left, he turned to his dearest adviser and asked him to stay an extra day. That day is Shemini Atzeret, the day for HaShem and the Jewish people to be together.

But one who looks carefully at the classical texts will discover another version of the midrash, and a puzzling one at that.

It continues the story, describing how when the king and the adviser look around at the aftermath of the party, all they find to eat is a bit of leftovers. And this is the sacrifice of Shemini Atzeret; it is akin to the remaining scraps from the Sukkot bash.

How strange! Isn’t is disgraceful to consider the sacrifice of Shemini Atzeret to be like “leftovers?”

Perhaps, however, this midrash holds the key to understanding Shemini Atzeret. The king and the beloved adviser don’t care about the quality of the food; the company is much more important. Because when you’re in love, leftovers on a paper plate are just fine.

That is what this little misunderstood holiday is all about. There is no ritual object for it, and no specific actions to be taken. It’s not about a message or particular educational theme, but rather it is about the loving relationship that we share with HaShem.

At the end of a season of time together, from the glory of Rosh Hashanah to the Yom Kippur’s solemn joy and the elation of Sukkot, we have prayed for humanity and the entire planet.

Now as the season closes, we get together before we “go back home” to our regular lives for a bit of quiet time in HaShem’s company and some leftovers. No special agenda, no need to cover a topic, and no historical event. Just a need to spend a few moments together.

There could then be no better time to celebrate the Torah, our precious gift and special message from HaShem. Shavuot is a time for learning Torah, but it is about celebrating our connection.

Nothing beats dancing with a Torah to show how thrilled we are to be in a relationship with the Divine. Let us dance and sing, and enjoy a plate of whatever is left with love in our eyes.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected]