Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah: Why Two Jewish Holidays are Celebrated Together

cheerful jewish family enjoying shemini atzeret feast

According to Leviticus 23:36:

“On the eighth day you shall observe a holy convocation.”

This commandment refers to the day immediately following the seven days of Sukkot, when Jews observe the time spent in the wilderness by those who had been freed from slavery in Egypt. Originally a time of reflection on the holy days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, which translates to “eighth day of assembly,” became a day on which a special prayer is said for rain in the coming year.

Shemini Atzeret coincides with Simchat Torah, the festival of “Rejoicing in the Torah.” On this day, the end and the beginning of the annual Torah reading cycle is celebrated. Just as the concluding section of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, is reached, Jews start over again with the beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Torah. Beginning in the 11th century, the ninth day after the beginning of Sukkot took on both the name and the festive ritual of what is currently recognized as Simchat Torah.

Two days of celebration are combined into one holiday that may be celebrated over two days or for only one day. While Shemini Atzeret is a time to celebrate the harvest and the bounty of the earth, Simchat Torah is a time to celebrate the completion of the Torah cycle. Both holidays reflect on the teachings of the Torah and celebrate the gift of the Torah, so it is only natural to celebrate them simultaneously.

When is Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah celebrated?

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated annually immediately following the seven-day Jewish festival Sukkot. According to the Jewish calendar, that falls on the 22nd and 23rd days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. According to the Gregorian calendar, they occur sometime in late September or early October. 

Sukkot begins on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, and it is a Torah-commanded holiday that is celebrated for seven days. Shemini Atzeret is Torah-commanded as the eight day of Sukkot or a day of reflection following Sukkot. Simchat Torah is a young holiday that was not mentioned in the Torah, because it was a rabbinical addition.  

How to Celebrate Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah 

When Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated over one day, the names may be used interchangeably. When they are celebrated over two days, specific practices may apply to each individual holiday. 

Celebrations include:

  • Special holiday services in the synagogue
  • Reading and studying the Torah
  • Dancing and singing with the Torah scrolls
  • Families and friends gathering together
  • Candy and treats for children

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are major holidays, and most forms of work are prohibited. Women and girls light candles on the preceding nights while reciting the appropriate blessings. Festive meals are enjoyed daily and nightly accompanied by Kiddush, the blessing recited over a cup of wine (or grape juice) expressing the sanctity of the festival.

Traditional Foods Served During Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

Specific foods aren’t mandatory during the holiday, but a typical menu may include:

Brisket

To be considered kosher, beef must come from the fore-quarters of a cow. The brisket is the cut of meat from the breast or lower chest. Practical while being impressive based on its size, brisket became a regular feature of Jewish holiday tables because of its extended preparation timeline. Jewish cooks could begin roasting the brisket just prior to pausing labor for 24 hours in observation of the Sabbath (48 hours for holidays) and have it ready for lunchtime the following day. 

A traditional Jewish holiday day dish, beef brisket is slow-cooked in broth and is often served with vegetables and/or kugel.

Chicken Soup

Chicken soup is another dish that requires an extended period of cooking. Once the chicken has been brined to remove traces of blood, it is covered with water and allowed to simmer over low heat. 

A classic Jewish comfort food, chicken soup is made with kosher chicken, vegetables, and noodles.

Kugel

Noodles are symbolic of the unity of Jewish people. Kugel is a noodle pudding that can be made savory with vegetables like carrots, onions, and potatoes, or it can be a sweet dish made with eggs, sour cream, and cottage cheese. 

A popular dish because it is easy to make and can be customized according to taste, kugel is served on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, as well as Thanksgiving in America.

Rugelach

Rugelach are pastries filled with chocolate, nuts, fruit, poppy seeds, or cheese. A triangle of dough is rolled around the filling and then baked until golden brown. Served plain or with toppings such as powdered sugar, chocolate sauce, or icing, rugelach can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, or tea. They also make great gifts for Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

Honey Cake

Honey cake symbolizes the sweetness of the new year and hope for a sweet year. A traditional Jewish holiday dessert, it is made with honey, flour, eggs, cinnamon, and spices.

Honey was a prized ingredient in many ancient cultures, so it was often used during ceremonies and festivals. The first known recipe for honey cake was found in ancient Egyptian and Babylonian texts, and it was introduced to Europeans by Jews during the Middle Ages. 

Sufganiyot

A popular treat for Hanukkah as well as Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, Sufganiyot are fried donuts filled with jam or jelly. They are made with a sweet yeast dough that is rolled out, cut into circles, and then deep-fried before being filled and topped with powdered sugar.

Polish Jews brought the recipe for sufganiyot to Israel when they immigrated in the early 1900s.

Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables are served as side dishes or snacks during Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, and sweet treats are usually abundant. Your local Jewish grocery store will stock all the ingredients for traditional recipes and any other kosher foods you may want to serve.    

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