In Vayikra 23:34, G-d commands Moses to inform the people of Israel, “On the fifteenth day of this seventh month [Tishre] shall be the feast of Tabernacles.” For seven days in the Land of Israel and for eight days in the diaspora we are to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot followed by the holiday of Shemini Atzeret.
On the first day in the Land of Israel and on the first and second days in the diaspora, G d commands us, “You shall do no manner of laborious work” (Vayikra 23:35). At this time, we are to rejoice. “When you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast unto the L-rd . . .and you shall take . . .the fruit of a goodly tree [the etrog], branches of palm tree [the lulav], and the boughs of thick leaved trees [hadasim], and willows of the brook [aravot]” (Vayikra 23:39-40). On each day of Sukkot, except for the Sabbath, we are to take the lulav, flanked by the hadasim and the aravot, in the right hand and the etrog in the left hand. In this manner, do we rejoice in G-d’s blessings. At this time, when farmers gather in the produce of their harvest, which provides for our nourishment and physical survival, we take these four species belonging to four different ecological settings. The lulav belongs to the desert; hadasim, to the hill tops; aravot, to the river beds; and the etrog, to the cultivated plain. Thus, we express our gratitude for the rain that G-d had allowed to fall on each of these ecological areas to produce the food necessary for our sustenance. “You shall dwell in booths for seven days” (Vayikra 23:42). At this time, when we enjoy the pleasure of G-d’s bounty, the Al-mighty enjoins us to limit and confine our materialistic aspirations. He asks us not to let the bounty that we have been blessed with go to our heads. He requests us to leave our comfortable, warm and finely decorated homes and dwell for seven days in the simplicity of small huts “so that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel reside in booths when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt” (Vayikra 23:43). By sitting in these simple sukkot, we are to be reminded of our escape from slavery in the cruel and tyrannical land of Egypt, and of G-d’s bestowal of His divinely inspired system of precepts and moral directives – a lifestyle that can exclusively ensure one’s perpetual bliss. However, this perpetual bliss requires one’s de-emphasis of physical gratification; and, this we are reminded by our dwelling in sukkot during this time of year.
Following the actual holiday of Sukkot, on the 22nd day of Tishre – what we call the eighth day of Sukkot – is, as our Sages explain in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 55b, actually a holiday in its own right. It is the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. In Bamidbar 29:35, G-d tells us, “On the eighth day, you shall have a solemn assembly; you shall do no manner of laborious work.” Despite its juxtaposition to Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret is not an integral part of that holiday. In fact, a number of observances of the holiday of Sukkot do not apply on Shemini Atzeret. For example, we no longer are obligated to stay in the sukkah nor do we take up the lulav. Rather, the two main customs connected to the holiday of Shemini Atzeret are the annual prayer for rain and the yearly celebration of Simchat Torah (rejoicing with the Torah).
The prayer for rain is part of the Musaf services of Shemini Atzeret. At this time of year, when the rainy season begins in the Land of Israel, we pray that G-d should find us worthy to allow the sky to shower us with the necessary rain to produce the food needed for our sustenance. Thereby, do we reaffirm the ultimate dependence of natural occurrences on the will of G-d.
Regarding the celebration of Simchat Torah: in the Land of Israel, we celebrate it on the one day of Shemini Azeret; whereas, in the diaspora, we celebrate it on the day after Shemini Atzeret. It is at this time that we conclude the annual Torah-reading cycle and begin again anew. Consequently, it is at this time that we indulge in joyous celebration of our possession of the Torah and its holy precepts and moral directives – the only means by which we can be assured of everlasting spiritual bliss.
In celebrating the holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, we recognize G-d’s gifts of rain and sustenance and rejoice with the Torah, and, thus, strengthen our convictions in G-d and His Torah, which, in turn, will ensure the provision of all the needs necessary for the eventual immortal existence that is our destiny.