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Is Shemini Atzeret a holiday?


Written by the rabbi

Dedicated to the memory of
Amram son of Sultana

Do we consider Shemini Atzeret a holiday? In the Tefillot we refer to the day as Chag Haatzeret- a feast of Solemn Assembly. This is the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch ( 588-1) . Surprisingly, the Rema disagrees and points out that our custom is to omit the term "Chag" in reference to the eight day. We simply find no mention of "Chag" anywhere in the Torah in reference to Shemini Atzeret. In contrast, Sukkot is referred to as "Chag"- three times. (Devarim 16). This distinction repeats itself in Bamidbar 21. There Sukkot is described in terms of "celebrate a Chag for Hashem for seven days" whereas for Shemini Atzeret it says "the eight day of solemn assembly".

The custom we follow today is that of the Mishna Berurah, who authorizes us to mention "Chag" in reference to Shemini Atzeret. Yet the question remains how can some nullify any description of Chag when discussing this unique day?

There is a clear distinction between Chag (Sukkot) and "Atzeret". Chag describes a religious pilgrimage, a time of rejoicing, a time when Jews gather from all over the world to celebrate in the shadows of Jerusalem. Here we find joint participation, group feasting and masses parading in the Simchat Beit Hashoeiva.
In contrast Atzeret is a solemn day, a day of introspection, of inner searching on the personal level. On this day we deal with deep dilemmas and moral questions. Perhaps in this sense Shemini Atzeret is more than a Chag. On this day we stop and take a solemn moment to remember our past, rededicate ourselves to the future, and refresh our spiritual batteries. What better time then, then now, to remember the joy and celebration in the Yerushlayim of yesteryear, while committing ourselves to returning to, and rebuilding the Yerushalayim of today?

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