AFTER SUKKOT COMES MUCH JOY IN THE FORM OF TWO HAPPY HOLIDAYS, IN WHICH WE CELEBRATE OUR BONDS, OUR HISTORY AND OUR SCRIPTURES.
Coming at the conclusion of Sukkot are the two joyous holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. In Israel, the celebration and customs of these two days are compressed into one day.
Integral to all the festivals on the Jewish calendar, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are the mitzvah to rejoice. Of all the festivals, however, only Sukkot is described as “the season of our rejoicing,” because the joy of Sukkot eclipses the joy of the other festivals. Shemini Atzeret is characterized by utterly unbridled joy, which surpasses even the joy of Sukkot. The joy reaches its climax on Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the conclusion—and restart—of the annual Torah-reading cycle.
Shemini Atzeret means “the assembly of the eighth day.” G-d is like a host who invites us as visitors for a limited time, but when the time comes for us to leave, He has enjoyed himself so much that He asks us to stay another day. On Shemini Atzeret we still eat in the sukkah but without reciting the blessing on the sukkah or over the Four Kinds. There’s also no eating in the sukkah on this day in Israel, for the reason to eat in the sukkah is in consideration of the extra “Diaspora day” of the holiday of Sukkot. The morning service includes Yiskor as well as a special prayer for rain, officially launching the Mediterranean rainy season.
On Simchat Torah we celebrate the conclusion of the reading for the Torah. Throughout the year we read a set portion of the Torah. On Simchat Torah that cycle is finished when the last verses of Deuteronomy are read. The first few verses of Genesis are read immediately afterward, starting the cycle again. On Simchat Torah we no longer eat in the Sukkah. The highlight of this day are the hakafot, held both on the eve and morning of Simchat Torah, in which we march and dance with Torah scrolls around the reading table in the synagogue. Chassidic communities, including Chabad, have the custom of conducting hakafot also on Shemini Atzeret at night.