The Torah tells us very little about Shemini Atzeret. We know that it is appended to Sukkot; the very name reflects a continuation of the holiday. But it is also distinct. The Torah does not require us to sit in a Sukkah or to wave the four species. Its sacrificial regime differs as well. Most notably, over Sukkot multiple bulls are offered daily, descending from thirteen bulls on day one to seven bulls on day seven (equaling a total of seventy). But on Shemini Atzeret, the pattern is broken, with only one bull offered.
Beyond these important and somewhat conflicting data points, we know very little about the nature of the holiday itself. There is no obvious agricultural or historical underpinning to the day. The very meaning of “Atzeret” is a matter of debate. Does it reflect retention, that the Jewish people are being asked to stay back and celebrate for one more day? Or does it simply reflect a prohibition against melakhah (prohibited constructive activities)?
A well known Midrashic tradition addresses these questions and speaks to the character of the day. The most familiar version of this Midrash to many is Rashi’s presentation in his commentary on Leviticus 23:36. There he writes:
This is like a king who invited his sons to a banquet for a certain number of days. When it was time for them to leave, the king said to them, “My sons, I beg of you, stay with me one more day. Your departure is hard for me.”
This touching metaphor portrays God as a loving father to the Jewish people. Sukkot is a banquet that God prepares for the Jewish people. Saddened by His children’s imminent departure, the King begs His children to stay for one more day. In this account, Shemini Atzeret, that one extra day, is simply a continuation of the prior seven day banquet. There is no substantive difference between it and the preceding days.
But there are other presentations of the Midrash which yield a very different understanding of Shemini Atzeret. In fact, even Rashi’s Talmudic source (Sukkah 55b) contains substantive differences. The Gemara says:
Rabbi Elazar said: to what do these seventy cows correspond? They correspond to the seventy nations of the world. And why is the single bull [of Shemini Atzeret] brought? It corresponds to the unique nation [of Israel]. This is like a human king who said to his servants, “Prepare me a banquet.” During the final day [of the banquet] he said to his beloved companion, “Prepare me a small meal so I can enjoy your company.”
As the Gemara notes, the seventy bulls offered on Sukkot are offered on behalf of the seventy nations of the world. Therefore, in this version of the metaphor, there is a third party which corresponds to the nations of the world. This could either be the servants or the unmentioned guests that attend the seven day banquet. By introducing this third character, the Gemara is not only reflecting a more universalistic perspective than Rashi’s presentation in Leviticus, it is also drawing a wedge between Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Sukkot is the banquet for everyone, but Shemini Atzeret, with its single bull offering, is just for the Jewish people. And so there is a movement over these holidays from the universal to the particular. In fact, it is a movement from the universal to the intimate. Unlike Rashi, the Gemara does not portray God’s love for the Jewish people as paternal. Instead, it is the intense love of kindred spirits that surpasses friendship. The Jewish people are God’s beloved, and God wants the pleasure of their singular company. This last point may not be a significant substantive shift in the way we think about Shemini Atzeret, but it is nonetheless a powerful one.
Midrash Tanhuma presents the following version of the midrash (Phinehas 16):
You find that on the Festival [of Sukkot] that the People of Israel would sacrifice seventy bulls on behalf of the seventy nations. Israel said to the Holy One Blessed Be He: “Master of the Universe, behold, we are offering seventy bulls on behalf of the seventy nations, and therefore, even they should love us. And yet it is not enough that they do not love us, but they [actually] hate us, as it is written, ‘in return for my love they accuse me’” (Psalms 109:4). Therefore, the Holy One Blessed Be He said to them: “Over the entirety of the seven days of the festival in which you offered sacrifices in front of Me, you offered seventy bulls for the nations of the world. But now, offer for yourselves, for ‘on the eighth day, you shall hold a solemn assembly…and you shall present a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasant odor, one bull and one ram’” (Numbers 29:35-36). This can be compared to a king who had a feast that lasted for seven days and invited all the denizens of the province for the seven days of festive feasting. After the seven days of festive feasting passed, he said to his beloved friend “We have already fulfilled our obligations to all the people in the province. Let us, you and I, make do with whatever we shall find, be it a litra of meat, or a litra of fish or of vegetables.” In a similar fashion, The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Israel: “All of the offerings that you brought over the seven days of the festival, you offered on behalf of the nations of the world. However, on the eighth day, you and I shall make do with whatever you are able to find, one bull and one ram.”
Here, the metaphor is framed by an important introduction. The Jewish people bemoan having to offer sacrifices on Sukkot for the nations of the world who reciprocate only with enmity. God responds by giving them Shemini Atzeret, which serves as a respite from the hard work.
The king’s language of “we have already fulfilled our obligations to all the people in the province” suggests that God works together as a partner with the Jewish people, dutifully serving the needs of the nations of the world during Sukkot. But Shemini Atzeret is when God and His beloved people can close the door to all of the guests, exhale, relax, and enjoy the leftovers from the party.
This is quite different from Rashi’s presentation; Shemini Atzeret is not just another day of the banquet. It is also unlike the Gemara in Sukkah which casts Shemini Atzeret as an additional, albeit more intimate, party. In the Midrash Tanhuma’s account, Shemini Atzeret is not really a party at all. Instead, it is that beautiful moment shared by partners right after hosting guests for a meal, after spending hours tending to everyone’s needs and being “on.” It is what happens when they close the door, unwind, and reflect on how the meal went while picking at the leftovers. It is when they can just be their informal selves, unguarded and calm.
The final presentation of this Midrash that we will consider appears in the Zohar. This version makes the most radical claim about Shemini Atzeret of the four (Noah 108).
This can be compared to a king who invited his beloved friend to a festive feast that he was making [for him] on a designated day, so that the king’s beloved friend would know that the king delights in him. The king said, “Right now I want to rejoice with my beloved friend alone, but I fear that as I am in the middle of the feast with my friend, all those appointed officers will come in and sit down with us at the table, to partake of the festive feast together with my beloved friend.” What did [the friend] do? Anticipating, he brought vegetable dishes and cooked oxen meat and presented it as a repast in front of those appointed officers. And only afterwards did the king sit down with his beloved friend to a meal that was more sublime than all the delicacies of the world. And while [the friend] was still alone with the king, he could ask [the king] for all his needs and wants, and [the king] could grant them to him. And the king rejoiced with his beloved friend alone, with no other strangers interfering between them. Similarly, [is the case of] Israel with the Holy One Blessed Be He, and because of this it is written in Scripture: “On the eighth day, you shall have a solemn assembly” (Numbers 29:35).
The novelty of this presentation lies in the primacy that it places on Shemini Atzeret vis-à-vis Sukkot. The king’s primary desire is for the smaller party. The banquet, which is to say Sukkot, is little more than a decoy! Additionally, this Midrash plays with the relationship between Sukkot and the nations of the world. Their interests are not really being served at this banquet. They are being fooled. The real banquet will happen once their stomachs are full and they have gone home. At that point, the king will finally have what he always wanted: a private audience with his beloved. And his beloved will have the generous ear of the king.
These four iterations of this Midrash represent only a slice of the extant versions of this aggadic tradition. And yet, among these four alone one finds dramatically distinct frameworks for understanding the essence of Shemini Atzeret and its relationship to Sukkot. The common thread throughout, however, is love. Whether viewed as parental or platonic, it is a passionate love between God and the Jewish people that characterizes this special holiday. It should be savored accordingly.