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Rabbi Wagensberg
Shmini Atzeres - Simchas Torah

Throughout the week of Sukkos we are instructed to offer a total of 70 bulls in the Temple; however, on Shmini Atzeres we offer only one (Sukkah, chap. 5, "Hachalil", pg. 55b; Rebbi Elazar). The Midrash (Tanchuma, Parshas Pinchas 15) offers the following parable to explain this discrepancy:

There was once a king who made lavish banquets for all of his servants several days a year. But on the final day he told his most beloved and dedicated servant, "Make for me a small meal so that I can have pleasure from you." Like the king in this parable, God, the King of the Universe, tells His servants to prepare an 'international party' on Sukkos and to bring sacrifices on behalf of ourselves and the 70 nations of the world. But on the final day, Shmini Atzeres, He requests that we prepare a small meal just for his beloved people of Israel.

One question that can be raised about this is, "Why would God request just a small meal, rather than a giant feast for this unique and special occasion?"

The B'nei Yissaschar (Reb Tzvi Elimelech Spira, Dinov, Poland, 1783-1841, Vol.2, Ma'amarim on Chodesh Tishrei, 13:1) provides a beautiful answer to this question. He explains that God specifically requests only a small meal with Israel because it is not the meal that is of importance, rather it is the Jewish people who are important!

God requests a day for us to be close to Him, and therefore asks that we prepare a small meal and eat it hurriedly so that we can spend more time connecting to Him and enjoy the special connection. (We see this in practice on Shmini Atzeres, particularly in the Land of Israel where only one day of Yom Tov is observed, as we spend most of the time in shul praying, praising God and dancing with the Torah since Shmini Atzeres is also Simchas Torah, leaving little time to eat a large meal!)

This explains the language used in the Tanchuma where the King (God) asks His servants to prepare a small meal, not so that He can "enjoy the feast," but so that He "can have pleasure from you."

The extent of our closeness to God on Shmini Atzeres is hinted to in the Torah reading of the day. In Eretz Yisrael where Shimi Atzeres and Simchas Torah are celebrated on the same day, we conclude with the reading of the final portion of V'Zos HaBracha and commence again with the reading of Parshas Bereishis. The Torah ends with the letter lamed and begins with a beis, spelling the word Leiv, meaning heart, indicating that Simchas Torah is a time of rejoicing, "Simchas HaLeiv" (gladness of the heart) and closeness between God and Israel.

The B'nei Yissaschar (ibid, 13:3) citing the Zohar (Mishpatim 2:114a) describes the degree of our closeness with God. The verse in Shir Hashirim (8:6) says, "Place Me like a seal on your heart." The closeness of the Jewish people with God is like the closeness of a seal on a paper. Even though the paper and the seal may go in different directions, once the paper has been stamped, an impression has been made on the paper that can never be removed. This, explains the Zohar, is the essence of Shmini Atzeres. As we complete the Torah and seal the reading (the word "chotmin", meaning "complete" as well as "seal") with a final lamed and new beis (Leiv) we are sealing God and His Torah on our hearts.


By further analyzing the word Leiv, we will see that besides sealing God on our hearts on Shmini Atzeres, God also seals us with His holiness:

Each letter of the Aleph-Beis is essentially a word in itself that can be broken down into its composite letters. When we spell out the word LaMeD (the first letter of Leiv) we have the "revealed" letter lamed and the "hidden" letters mem and dalet. The word beis (the second letter of Leiv) is comprised of the "revealed" letter beis and the "hidden" letters yud and saf.

The two "revealed" letters (lamed and beis) spell the word Leiv, heart, while the 'hidden" letters (mem, dalet, yud, and saf) together possess the numerical value of 454, the same gematria as the word Chotam, meaning seal or stamp.

As we read the final portion of the Torah and re-commence with Bereishis, Hashem is stamping our hearts, as it were, with his Godliness. Once we have been stamped, the impression is eternal, hinted to by the "hidden" letters (mem, dalet, yud, and tav) which spell the word Tamid, meaning "everlasting." Shmini Atzeres, therefore, is a day of joy as we celebrate the unique closeness between God and Israel by opening our hearts to receive the eternal Divine imprint.


What we are required to do to receive this seal from God and to ensure that it is maintained?

The Sfas Emes (Reb Yehuda Arye Leib Alter, second Gerrer Rebbe, 1847-1905, Poland) proposes that the Sukkah has the status of a Beis Knesses (house of prayer), while the home has the status of a Beis Midrash (study hall). He expands upon this idea in the following way.

Jews are not the only ones who are connected to prayer because we find that the nations of the world are also connected to prayer as it says in Yeshaya (56:7) "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations." Since the Sukkah is compared to a Beis Knesses, we can understand why, on Sukkos, we offer sacrifices on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. It is because the nations of the world are also connected to prayer.

However, since the home has the status of a study hall, and since Torah study is unique to the people of Israel (Sanhedrin, chap. 7, "Arba Misos", pg. 59a; Rebbi Yochanan), then it makes sense that, on Shmini Atzeres when we return to the home which is like the Beis Midrash, we offer up only one bull. It is because the one bull [brought on Shmini Atzeres when Jews are back in their Batei Midrash homes] is exclusively on behalf of the Jewish people because only the Jewish people are connected to Torah study.

The Sfas Emes continues by explaining that the transition of leaving the Sukkah and entering the home on Shmini Atzeres indicates that we are leaving the holiness of the shul and entering into the spiritual dimension of a Beis Midrash, which is even higher than that of the shul.

The Sfas Emes likens this transition to the verse in Tehillim (84:8) which says, "May they go from strength to strength," to which the Talmud (Brachos, chap. 9, "Haroeh", pg. 64a; Rebbi Levi bar Chiya) says refers to entering the study hall after leaving the synagogue each morning. Just as we move from a place of great holiness (the synagogue) to an area of even greater holiness (the study hall), so too, we move from the Sukkah (a place of great holiness) into the home (a place of even greater holiness) on Shmini Atzeres.

The Sfas Emes also quotes the famous verse in Mishlei (6:23) which says, "A mitzva is a candle and the Torah is a light." He explains that the mitzvos involved in the festival of Sukkos are the candle, allowing one to receive the ultimate light of Torah on Shmini Atzeres.


Additionally, the seven days that lead up to Shmini Atzeres can be compared to the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuos. Just as we cried out to God in prayer at Pesach time, and therefore merited to see the light of Torah which we received at Mount Sinai seven weeks later, so it is that we receive the "candle" by fulfilling the mitzvos of Sukkos (which also has the essence of prayer) and merit to see the light of Torah at the end, on Shmini Atzeres.

In order to reach the great light, we must first acquire the candle. Just as we need Pesach to get to Shavuos, so do we need Sukkos to reach Shmini Atzeres. Perhaps we could add that Shmini Atzeres connects with Shavuos because they share the same essence which is Torah. This could explain why they are both referred to as "Atzeres" (Parshas Pinchas, 29:35 and Chagiga, chap. 2, "Ein Dorshin", Mishna 4, pg. 17a). Since both Shmini Atzeres and Shavuos are called “Atzeres,” it shows us that they both share a commonality and that commonality is Torah.

Another similarity between Shmini Atzeres and Shavuos is that they are the only holidays that do not have a special mitzvah associated with the Yom Tov but are still a Yom Tov in the sense that we stop doing melacha (any creative activity). When there is a Yom Tov without a specific Mitzva object, it tells us that we are supposed to focus on the one thing that we do have left and that one thing is Torah.

With this awareness that by leaving the Sukkah and entering the home, we are ascending in holiness, and, with the understanding that by performing the mitzvos of Sukkos we merit to receive the Torah on Shmini Atzeres, we must recognize that God gave us Shmini Atzeres out of tremendous kindness to His People (Rabbi Uri of Strolisk). Without Shmini Atzeres, we would find it extremely difficult to return to our homes after tasting the great holiness of the Sukkah for seven days. Once God provides us with a holiday to celebrate specifically in our homes, we can leave our Sukkah with less pain in our hearts. However, that pain is diminished only if we are moving into a home that is a place of Torah. Only in this way can we move "meChayil el Chayil" (from strength to strength).

Shmini Atzeres offers us a unique opportunity to attach ourselves to God through Torah and enjoy the special relationship that exists between us. If we make our homes places of Torah study adorned with Torah books and create an environment which is conducive to Torah learning, then the candle (the mitzvos of Sukkos) will lead us to receive the beaming light of Torah on Shmini Atzeres, ensuring a special connection with God which will stay stamped on our hearts for all eternity.

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