Shemini Atzeres: Extra Joy and Celebration

Shemini Atzeres (also known as Simchas Torah) is a day of joy. But what is it, and what do we do on it? Let’s look at its roots.

Immediately when the Holiday of Sukkos ends, the Yom Tov of Shemini Atzeres begins.

“Shemini Atzeres” means “the eighth day, a [day of] restraint.” Shemini Atzeres gets its name from the Torah itself, which says,

The 15th of this seventh month shall be the festival of Sukkoth to God, [lasting] seven days. The first day shall be a sacred holiday when you may not do any mundane work. For seven days you shall present a fire offering to God. The eighth day is a sacred holiday to you, when you shall bring a fire offering to God. It is a time of restraint when you may do no mundane work.

– Leviticus 23:34-36

The actual term “Shemini Atzeres” is taken from another verse: “Day eight, a restraint it shall be for you, you shall do no mundane work” (Numbers 29:35). Of course, in English, that is better said as “The eighth day shall be a time of restraint for you when you shall do no mundane work.” But the Torah puts the two words together: “Shemini Atzeres,” and that is what we call the Holiday.

Why a “Restraint?”

So why does the Torah call it a “restraint?”

By “restraint,” the Torah basically means a day of calm, of no milachah (physically creative activity as defined by the Torah, but which I have translated as “mundane work”), a day of self-restraint. But the meaning goes deeper than that.

Here is an important point that can help us understand why the Torah calls Shemini Atzeres a “restraint.” Besides the other Laws of the Holiday, we also had to sacrifice special offerings at the Holy Temple on each Holiday, and each one has its special offering, different than those of any other Holiday. On each day of Sukkos we brought sacrifices on behalf of the well-being of all the other nations of the world. A total of seventy sacrifices were brought just for the Gentile nations, over the course of the seven days of Sukkos. On the first day we offer 13 bulls, on the second day 12 bulls, the third day 11 bulls, and so on, until the seventh day, when seventy bulls have been brought on the altar. However, on Shemini Atzeres, the eighth day, we bring just one
bull, and that is for the nation of Israel.

The Rabbis tell us:

Why is the Holiday called “atzeres,” a restraint? It is like a king who proclaimed a festival for seven days. He invited all his subjects to attend the feast for all seven days. When the seven days ended, and everyone was to leave, the king told his son, “Stay with me just one more day, and we will celebrate together, just you and I.”

Likewise, when Sukkos ends, Hashem says, “I have “restrained” you, that is, I have held you back another day, after Sukkos has ended. All Sukkos you have offered seventy Sacrificial Offerings at the Holy Temple on behalf of the nations of the world. Today, bring just one offering, and that will be for just you and Me. Together, we will celebrate, just you and I.”

 – Rashi, Leviticus 23:36

Sukkos is a Holiday with several associations with the Gentile nations as well. But Shemini Atzeres is an additional day, an extra day during which the Jews celebrate their cherished relationship as the sons of Hashem.

In this way, Shemini Atzeres is different from the other Holidays. Sukkos, Passover, and
Shavuos, all celebrate miraculous events that Hashem did for us. Rosh Hashanah is the new year, during which Hashem “remembers” us (i.e., He judges us). Yom Kippur is the day we can be forgiven even our worst sins. Shemini Atzeres, however, celebrates our relationship with Hashem, and is not associated with any particular event.

Outside of Israel

Every Jewish Holiday except Yom Kippur has an extra day outside of the Land of Israel (though Rosh Hashanah has two days even in the Land of Israel). Therefore, any seven day Holiday, such as Passover, will actually have eight days when celebrated by people who live outside of Israel (even if they happen to temporarily be in Israel during that Holiday).

However, the extra day, the eight day for Sukkos falls out on Shemini Atzeres, which is a
Holiday of its own. Two Holidays are occurring on the same day! Therefore, we must assume some of the aspects of Sukkos, even as we observe the Holiday of Shemini Atzeres. So we eat in the Sukkah the night of Shemini Atzeres and the whole day of Shemini Atzeres. However, we do not make the Brachah (Blessing) that is normally made when eating in the Sukkah. Nor do we sleep in the Sukkah, nor do we use the Four Species during Shemini Atzeres.

Having said that, I must also add that many (particularly Chassidim) have the Custom not to eat in the Sukkah during Shemini Atzres. (Many great Rabbis have followed the Custom not to eat in the Sukkah during Shemini Atzeres, and we must respect that Custom with as great a reverence as we respect the Custom of those who eat in the Sukkah during Shemini Atzeres. If you have a doubt as to what to do, you should ask your Rabbi.)

Many who do not eat in the Sukkah during Shemini Atzeres have the Custom to say Kiddush in the Sukkah Shemini Atzeres during the day, and eat a little there (without saying the Brachah of “Sitting in the Sukkah,” of course). They then say a short prayer of farewell to the Mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah, and they leave the Sukkah. The Holiday meal itself they eat in the house.

The second day of Shemini Atzeres, which is celebrated everywhere outside of Israel, is usually called Simchas Torah (Joy of the Torah), though in the prayers it is still called Shemini Atzeres.

One of the reasons we are so joyous on Shemini Atzeres is because during that Yom Tov we finish the yearly cycle of Weekly Torah Readings, and begin the cycle anew. We therefore rejoice and are very grateful for the Torah that Hashem has given us.

So on the first night of Shemini Atzeres, the second night, and the second day, it is the Custom to take all the Torah Scrolls out of the Ark and dance with them. Some people are given the honor to hold the Torah Scrolls and dance with them, and everyone else sings and dances in a circle or a line around them. This is done seven times, to represent the seven attributes with which Hashem manages and maintains the world (Chessed, Gevurah, etc., i.e., Kindness, Strength, etc.).

All the repentance and self-improvement we have been busy with for the past month and half culminates at this time. We begin with the declaration that Hashem is the G-d, and there is none other. We declare Hashem’s greatness. We ask Hashem to keep on helping us as we attempt to grow closer to Him. And then we rejoice over the Torah. And through that joy, we can merit a favorable judgment, because having joy for a Mitzvah has the power to annul a negative Heavenly decree.

Each and every Jew, no matter how great, and no matter how small he may think himself to be, is an equal inheritor to the Torah. The Torah says, “The Torah that Moses taught us is an inheritance to the Congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4). We all have a right and a responsibility – like anyone who inherits a fortune — to the Torah. And we can all reap the benefits of that inheritance, if we avail ourselves of the Torah.

The Four Species

The Torah commands us to take, on the Holiday of Sukkos: «one beautiful Esrog (citron); one Lulav (center branch of a palm tree); two Aravah (domesticated river-willow) branches; and three Hadassah (myrtle) branches.»

The palm, willow, and myrtle must be bound together, and the citron must be held next to them while we pray. At some points during the Prayers, we shake all the Species in all directions.

What is the meaning of all this? Well, we don’t always know the full meanings of all the Commandments. But some deeper concepts we do know.

The Commandment of the Four Species can be understood at many levels, all of which are true. Here are some of them about this Commandment.

Now that we have cleared our slates of sin, we are new people. We must now bind ourselves together; we must now focus our energies to completely serve Hashem, with all our hearts, all our souls, all our feelings, and all our resources. This is the lesson of the Four Species.

On one level, each of the species represents a part of the body, because their shapes call to mind various parts of the human body. Together, they signify a unified person.

The Lulav (center palm branch) represents the spine; the Esrog (citron) represents the heart; the Aravah (willow) represents the veins and/or arteries (because of the red stem of the willow) and lips (shape of the leaves); the Hadassah (myrtle) represents the eyes (shape of the leaves).

Another concept is that of a unified Jewry. We hold these Four Species together, though they are of different types, for together they are all one Mitzvah, just as all Jews are one People.

The Esrog has both taste and fragrance, which symbolizes Jews who are both learned in Torah and do good deeds.

The Palm Branch comes from a tree that grows dates, which have taste, but its leaves offer no special fragrance. This represents those Jews who have learned Torah but do not do good deeds.

The Myrtle leaves have fragrance, but there is no concomitant fruit or taste. This denotes the Jews who do good deeds, though know no Torah.

The Willow branch, which has neither taste nor fragrance, calls to mind Jews who have neither Torah nor good deeds.

What does the Torah say? Bind them together, so that they will atone for each other.

With what may they be bound? Only with something that is of one of those species. We may not bind them with gold, even though we want to beautify the Mitzvah. We may bind them only with something made purely of materials of those Four Species.

Why is that? It is to teach us that only something Jewish can bind Jews together. No matter how beautiful, no matter how rewarding, no matter how emotionally satisfying something else might be, only Torah can bring merit or atonement for Jews, and only Torah can bring together Jews in a lasting bond. Just because something feels emotionally satisfying, that does not mean it is spiritual. It is only through Torah that we can achieve the goal that Hashem has given us.

It is customary to use leaves from another lulav branch to bind the species together. The esrog is not bound together, but it must be held together with the other three when the Blessings are said and when the shaking of the Species is done.

The Shaking of the Four Species in all six directions is part of the our prayers that all winds, rains, and dew be of beneficial nature. We should have calm winds that bring us what we need, pollinate the vegetation, and so forth, and not strong winds that do harm. We should have healthy rains that don’t cause floods or destroy crops. And so forth.

For more on how to use the Four species, and the proper Blessings to make on them, I urge you to get an Artscroll Sukkos Machzor, the Prayer Book for the Holiday of Sukkos. It contains all the instructions.

What Sort of Foods Mandate a Sukkah?

Not all foods need a Sukkah. Most types of food one may eat outside of the Sukkah as well; fruit, vegetables, candy, meat, eggs, fish, most soft drinks, and some others, may be eaten in the house, unless they are part of a meal.

However, there are foods that the Torah considers «respectable,» or special. (Perhaps «formal» is a better word.) A man may eat these foods only in a Sukkah.

  • Any product made of the five types of grain: wheat, oat, spelt, barley, and rye.
  • Any grape or wine product.

Before eating, we recite the proper blessing on the food, and then we recite a special blessing for eating in a Sukkah:

Boruch Attah Adonoy, Elohainu Melech ha-olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav, v’tsivanu laishaiv basukkah.

(Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments, and commanded us to live in the Sukkah.)

We do NOT say this Blessing on any other foods, even if we eat them in a Sukkah.

If a man sits down to eat a meal, breakfast, lunch or supper, even if he is not eating anything that requires a Sukkah, he must still eat in the sukkah. However, he does NOT say the Brachah «laishaiv basukkah.» If he’s eating only a snack, then does not need to eat in the Sukkah unless he is eating from the foods that mandate a Sukkah.

To clarify again: if you’re eating a meal, you must eat in the Sukkah.

If you’re eating any of the foods that mandate a Sukkah, whether as a meal or a snack, you must eat in the sukkah and make the Brachah (Blessing).

If you’re eating a snack that does NOT include any of those foods that mandate a Sukkah, then you may eat outside the Sukkah, but it is praiseworthy to eat it in the Sukkah.

So, if you’re sitting at the computer reading this, and you want to munch potato chips, or maybe something healthy like an apple, you do not need to go to the sukkah. You may sit there and eat the potato chips or the apple. Still, it would be paiseworthy if you never ate or drank anything at all outside the sukkah, but the fact is that we are not OBLIGATED to be so praiseworthy!

But if you decide you want to eat supper, and you put on your plate (for example) chicken and potatoes and string beans, you should eat that in the Sukkah, because it’s an actual meal you’re eating. However, none of those foods technically mandate a Sukkah, so you do not say the Blessing of using the Sukkah.

A woman may eat in the house at any time, because she is not required to keep the time-bound Commandments. Since a Sukkah is only required during the eight days of the Holiday of Sukkos, women are exempt.(If you want to understand this concept better, read my wife’s articles on this subject, at Kresel’s Korner.) However, if they choose to eat in a Sukkah, they do get rewarded for it, and they receive holiness as a result as well. They may even make
the blessing, according to Ashkenazi Custom. However, the Sefardi Custom is that women do not say the Blessing for a time-bound Mitzvah that they are not obligated to fulfill.


The Four Species

How do we make a Sukkah?

The most important part of the sukkah is the roof, but let’s talk about the walls first. The walls may be made of anything at all, as long as they won’t fall down when the slightest wind blows. Aside from being unacceptable according to Halachah, you also want it to be safe!

Here is a cutaway picture of a sukkah. Perhaps it gives you an idea of how a sukkah should look. Of course, a sukkah usually has four walls, or three walls built against the wall of a house.

A sukkah, to be valid according to Jewish Law, must have a minimum of two long walls and one short wall, and a doorway (either with or without an actual door) in that short wall. However, I have never seen a sukkah built that way. As I said above, every sukkah I have ever seen has always had four walls, and sometimes the fourth wall is the wall of a house. (A sukkah can also be built between two houses, where two of the sukkah walls are the walls of the houses. However, you have to be careful that there are no eaves hanging over the sukkah from the tops of the walls, or the sukkah could become invalid. See below.)

The «roofing» (called s’chach in Hebrew — one of the more difficult words to pronounce in the Hebrew language, to be sure) of the sukkah has some very strict rules. It must be made of pieces of vegetation. Any kind of vegetation is permissible. Bamboo used to be very popular, so were bulrushes. Leaves of any tree are acceptable, as long as they have been completely severed from the ground before they are placed on top of your sukkah. I have seen some people use loose slats of wood.

Each piece of vegetation for the s’chach must not be too wide. An inch or two is fine. Some light must also be able to enter between each piece. The length of the s’chach does not matter.

The s’chach must cast more shade than sun into the sukkah, yet still leave it possible to see some sky between the pieces. In this way, we rely on Hashem, not on a roof.

These days, someone has invented a special type of mat that may be used as s’chach. Please keep in mind that not every mat is permitted. It has to be constructed according to very specific Jewish Laws. If you can get hold of those mats made properly, or if you know how to make them yourself, according to Jewish Law, I can personally testify that they are usually much easier to use.

The s’chach may not lay directly on top of metal, or on top of any wood that has been shaped into a vessel that can hold water. In other words the beams that support the s’chach, or the top of your walls that support the s’chach, may not be made of metal. The walls may be made of metal, and then covered with flat pieces of wood or with canvas or another firm material, and the pieces of s’chach may be laid on top of that. The s’chach may not touch the metal beneath it.

The s’chach may not lay directly on top of wood that has been carved into a concave shape. It may be only flat pieces of wood (or material may cover it).

The s’chach may not be tightly secured. This means that the s’chach may not be nailed down, nor tied down too tightly (and not every type of string may be used). You may pile pieces of wood that are also valid as s’chach over the s’chach to weigh it down and keep it in place. You may bang a nail at each side of the s’chach, not to support the s’chach, but to prevent the pieces of s’chach from rolling off. You may build the walls higher than the s’chach. But you may not nail the s’chach down in any way.

If you do wish to tie down the s’chach, you may use only a simple string that is not constructed of twisted strings, and you must tie it loosely. I am told that butcher’s string qualifies (but I haven’t checked it myself).

If you keep your sukkah intact all year-round, you must remove and replace the s’chach within thirty days before the Sukkos Holiday begins, so that the sukkah is not a permanent fixture. The sukkah must be a temporary dwelling, in which we live for the Holiday. We give up our permanent dwelling for a temporary one, to fulfill the will of Hashem. It is not necessary to comepletely remove the s’chach. It is sufficient to lift each piece up a foot or more into the air, and then put it back down. You can do this with many pieces at a time, as long as they are all replaced by hand, with the intention to fulfill the Mitzvah of Sukkah. Just before you do this, you should say, «L’shaim Mitzvas Sukkah — For the purpose of the Commandment of Sukkah.»

Some construction advice for building larger sukkos: You want the s’chach to be held up without fear of them caving in. You might lay a few two-by-fours across the width of the sukkah. Nail those two-by-fours to the walls of the sukkah, or to posts attached to the walls. (Nailing down the beams is permitted because they will not be used as the s’chach.) You would then lay the s’chach over those two-by-fours. If necessary, lay some two-by-fours across the boards, and then place the pieces of s’chach over the upper ones.

A Sukkah must be outdoors, under the sky. There can be no tree or part of a tree above the Sukkah. Any part of a Sukkah that is beneath anything else is invalid. If there is anything above the sukkah, every part underneath is not sukkah. A very common example is a tree that has branches and leaves leaning over part of a sukkah. The part underneath the leaves and branches is invalid. To eat inside the sukkah that is partly underneath a tree, you must sit in a part of the sukkah that is not underneath anything else.

It is permitted to build a sukkah under a retractable roof. Lots of people have a roof on tracks, and they just roll the roof away, which leaves the sukkah below (with its s’chach on, of course) open to the sky. Whenever it rains, they simply move the roof back over the sukkah.

Many sukkos are built against the wall of a house. But often there is an eave, or a gutter, that leans over the edge of the roof, and thus is over that side of the house. Underneath that eave or gutter the sukkoh is not kosher. This means that the sukkah actually starts a foot or two away from the wall. In that situation, the other three walls are absolutely necessary.

And if you want to build your sukkah on a balcony or porch, and there is another balcony or porch directly above yours, you cannot build a sukkah beneath that balcony, or underneath anything else.

Jewish women are not commanded to eat in a sukkah, because it is a time-bound Mitzvah. In general, with some exceptions, women are not obligated to perform most time-bound Mitzvos. (Their primary focus is on the cycles of their own personal self and how their responsibilities radiate outward, while men’s focus is on factors that control them from outside themselves and attempt to make those responsibilities penetrate inwards. Of course, there is a great deal of overlap between the two necessary approaches. At any rate, this my explanation of the concept. It may be completely wrong.) A woman is therefore not obligated to eat in a sukkah. Before you email me about this, please read «On Equality,» by my wife, Kressel Housman, in which she discusses women’s role in the Torah’s Commandments.

A woman may, if she so chooses, eat in the house during the entire Holiday of Sukkos, if she wishes. Unlike a man, she suffers no loss of personal holiness by eating outside a sukkah during Sukkos. Of course if she chooses to eat in a sukkah she receives reward in Heaven for doing so, and receives holiness from performing this Mitzvah. And if she eats in a sukkah, the Ashkenazi Custom is that she says the proper Brachah (Blessing).

(Incidentally, while there are important reasons that a woman is not required to do many of the Commandments that a man is required to do, and they would be too complicated to go into here, it can be surmised that a woman does not need to do the Mitzvah of Sukkah because in a sense she herself is a sukkah. In many ways, a woman encompasses the Mitzvos she does. One obvious example is how she encompasses a Jewish child before it is born, and thus instills within it the inherent holiness every Jew has. A man does not have the power either to encompass and protect that way, nor to impart that same level of holiness. This is why the home is the mother’s province, in shoring up and strengthening that which encompasses and protects a person, not just physically from the elements, but also spiritually. Through what the mother does, the child develops the deeper spiritual (and emotional) attachment to Judaism that he will always look back at for the rest of his life. That is the true desire of the Jew to «return to the womb.» As such, the Jewish woman is herself a sort of sukkah, and does not need to fulfill the spiritual aspects of sukkah by sitting in a sukkah.)

Most people have the custom of beautifying the Mitzvah by attaching nice signs to the walls. (This is not necessary, just a way of beautifying the Mitzvah.) The signs must convey the decorum necessary for a sukkah, and should depict some holy aspect of Judaism. Generally, the signs will have words from the Torah about the Holiday, some of the prayers recited in the sukkah, pictures of Rabbis, or pictures of Jewish sites in Israel, or Jewish practices from around the year. These should be treated with respect, and packed away carefully during the rest of the year.

The most widespread practice is to hang decorations on the walls, and many also hang some from the beams supporting the s’chach, or from the s’chach itself. Pre-school and nursery-grade children will usually bring home from their Jewish dayschool or daycare center some decorations they made in school. It will make your child proud and happy if you hang them up in your sukkah. Since one of the Commandments of the Holiday is to rejoice, why not give your children an extra reason to rejoice as well?

Since a Sukkah is a holy place, we must conduct ourselves, while in the Sukkah, with an extra level of holiness and caution. And it should help us consider the value of always conducting ourselves that way. Most importantly, we must bear in mind, as we make the Blessing in the sukkah, and as we eat, that we are thanking Hashem for taking us out of Egypt and miraculously protecting our ancestors in the Sinai Desert.


What Foods Mandate a Sukkah?

What is a Sukkah?

When Hashem took us out of Egypt, we stayed in a place called Sukkos. There Hashem taught us how protect ourselves from the elements, and He built shelters for us. Later, Hashem surrounded us with the Clouds of Glory. We were surrounded on all sides: the four sides, to protect us from wind and enemies; on top, to protect us from the sun; and beneath us, to protect us from scorpions and other things found in the Sinai Desert.

To thank Hashem for this, we are required to use a Sukkah every year during the Holiday of Sukkos. We must eat in a Sukkah any meal that includes certain types of foods. One should also sleep in the Sukkah, and many people do, because that is preferable according to Halachah and very commendable.However, there is a Halachic (legal) difference between eating and sleeping. It is forbidden to eat (those types of foods) outside of the Sukkah unless it happens to be raining enough to bother you while you eat, but technically it is permitted to sleep wherever you want if you can’t sleep in a sukkah for whatever reason.

A Sukkah must have at least three walls of any reasonably sturdy type, and a specific type of roofing. The roofing must be vegetation, such as sticks or branches or leaves, that are placed on the roof to give shade, but are NOT tied down in any way. In this way, when we leave our homes and eat in the Sukkah, we are showing our complete trust in Hashem.

Being inside a sukkah is our declaration of trust in Hashem. We leave our safe homes and live in sukkos that less comfortable and not as firm and stable as our houses. We put our trust entirely in Hashem.

When we use a sukkah, we must fulfill the Mitzvah of Sukkha. To fulfill that mitzvah, we must bear in mind why we use a sukkah. It is to remember and to be grateful that Hashem took us out of Egypt and protected our ancestors in the Sinai Desert.

When we enter a Sukkah, we enter quite a different type of Commandment than almost all others. Most Commandments are things we do, or say, or eat. The holiness within the Commandment therefore begins internally, as part of the actions we do with our bodies (and souls, of course). But the holiness of the Sukkah encompasses us, and penetrates us. And like all Commandments, it both protects us elevates us, and it binds us in a strong personal relationship with Hashem.


How do we make a Sukkah?