A distinctive celebration was included when Moses conveyed God’s instructions concerning the festival of Sukkot. Not just an extra day tacked onto Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret—which is a day of Rejoicing in the Law—provides a climactic conclusion to the annual cycle in the Feasts of the Lord.
“Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep the feast of the Lord for seven days; on the first day there shall be a Sabbath-rest, and on the eighth day a Sabbath-rest” (Lev. 23:39).
Today in Israel, Shemini Atzeret— literally the eighth day assembly or “extra day”—is observed on a single day of Simchat Torah following Sukkot. In the Diaspora, however, the celebration is held over two days with the extra day of Shemini Atzeret followed by a festive second day of Simchat Torah.
Rabbinic tradition likens the celebration of Simchat Torah to a father who invites his family to a seven-day feast. When it is time for his children to leave, he’s having such a wonderful time that he begs them to stay an extra day!
Whether celebrated on one or two days, Shemini Atzeret is characterized by exuberant joy. With the reading of Deuteronomy 33-34, the yearly Torah reading schedule of the first five books of the Old Testament concludes. At this point with the opening of a new scroll, the cycle of Torah readings commences anew with the first chapter of Genesis through chapter two verse three.
The reading is followed by the Hakafot procession where synagogue members take turns holding the Torah Scroll while joyfully marching, singing and dancing around the bimah platform where the Torah is read. During a normal synagogue service, everyone is given the opportunity to touch the scroll as it passes through the congregation to the bimah.
In the Hakafot procession, every able-bodied individual has the enviable privilege of holding the Torah Scroll. These symbolic acts demonstrate the reverence and joy associated with the Torah and aptly focus on the Word of God. King David articulated the proper attitude toward God’s Word in the 19th Psalm:
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
Yea, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb (Ps. 19:7-11).
Not only is the Word of God a prized possession, but the principles and precepts contained within its divinely inspired pages are to be highly esteemed. David exclaimed, “I rejoice at Your word as one who finds great treasure” (Ps. 119:162).
Our generation enjoys unprecedented accessibility to the Word of God. Thanks to 21st century technology, we not only can carry a print Bible with us wherever we go, but also many, many translations in digital formats on a single device. There can be no doubt that we live in an unparalleled time of privilege.
God’s Word is powerful. The Bible contains everything we need to cope with daily life. Our widespread access to the Scripture comes with accountability to grasp the depths of God’s Word. This year, why not make reading, meditating upon and internalizing the Word of God your priority?
Obviously, Simchat Torah is not an archaic observance relegated to dusty bygone times! The exuberant joy that characterizes the celebration of Simchat Torah models the appropriate response to God’s Word. That kind of joy should be the experiential reality of Christians every day of the year.
Rejoicing in the Law is alive and well in Jewish celebrations of Shemini Atzeret around the world and especially in the land of God’s ancient people. The Christian community would do well to make God’s Word a joyful priority again.
1) Simchat Torah celebration, September 26, 2013 at Yokneam City Hall, Israel. (Photo used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: רועי אדוט/[Public domain]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
Copyright © 2016 Charles E. McCracken, comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Charles E. McCracken is an international Bible teacher, long-time friend of Israel and advocate for the Jewish people. Rev. McCracken authentically communicates biblical making his presentations relevant for those seeking to understand the significance of Israel and the church. He staunchly supports the nation of Israel and the Jewish people’s right to exist and live in peace.