HaShem’s Avatars: Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

While Shavuot probably deserves the title of Least Appreciated Jewish Holiday among progressive Jews, I’d also like to argue that the trifecta of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah is probably a close second. Sure, some people do the sukkah, but I don’t exactly see my neighbors sleeping in them. Plus, when your sukkah has air conditioning and wifi, you’re probably not roughing it like the Sages taught.

Whatever. People do sukkot on Shabbat and that’s maybe it.

Fast forward to the end of the holiday, and we have this nonsense day called Shemini Atzeret, a day of assembly. No one knows what that’s about, and by now we all have a chagim hangover and are ready to stop being Jewish until Hanukkah season roars its ugly head. Shemini Atzeret ends up on the proverbial dusty bookshelf next to all those Artscroll books people claim they read but don’t.

Then Simchat Torah comes around. Now if you’re part of the Chabad or Young Jewish Professionals crowd, then Simchat Torah is your jam. Because as we all know, Simchat Torah means booze and nightclub parties. It’s like Purim but without the costumes and the pre-game fasting.

If you’re a parent, Simchat Torah can be fun because in mainline progressive synagogues, they always give the little kids stuffed sefer torah and parade around the shul. Though there are some parents I wish were secretly hiding flasks because they might be a little less stressed out.

If you didn’t catch all that, here’s a graphic representation of the feeling of ruach people have about Judaism during this season…

ruach chart

So Rabbi, why should I care about Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah? Don’t you realize that I am completely overwhelmed by Judaism right now, and all I really want is to eat shrimp wrapped in bacon and dream of a life that doesn’t resemble Fiddler on the Roof?

OK, fair enough. But here’s another thought.

I think the Jewish tradition’s understanding of holidays is part of what makes the religion unique. Yes, every culture has holidays. But we have a lot, and no holiday is ever given second class citizenship. For most holidays, we have the same level of work restriction as our holiest holiday, Shabbat. That’s a big deal, because Shabbat is a big deal. Think of it this way: you don’t drag out the fancy china for any regular old meal. Similarly, you don’t drag out all the work restrictions, creative customs and dietary laws for any old boring, meaningless holiday.

So why does the Jewish community have such a strong passion for chag? I think it’s because in a sense, our holidays represent different aspects of God’s personality. Every generation senses God in a different way, and that’s possible because God is infinite. But during certain times in history, other aspects of God’s personality appear hidden. I think that the holidays give us an opportunity to see different “faces” of God. And in the case of the end of our festive season, we get to see God through the lens of impermanence (Sukkot), through the lens of God’s love for a gathered people (Shemini Atzeret) and through complete and utter joy (Simchat Torah).

  • Vincent Calabrese

    The only holiday which has the same restrictions on melacha as Shabbat is Yom Kippur, actually. You can carry and cook on chag, which you’ll realize is a pretty gigantic difference if you’ve ever been to a yom tov barbeque after shul. You can even smoke, as long as it’s from a transferred flame.