Happy Sukkos, all! I hope you enjoy the following fascinating insights into Shmini Atzeret, which is based on "Likkutei Levi Yitzchok" of the master kabbalist, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, o.b.m., the Rebbe’s father. I am deeply grateful to the publishers, Chayeinu, who adeptly annotated it.
SHMINI ATZERET: THE SINGULAR CELEBRATION
by Rabbi Boruch Merkur
As the leaves start to fall and the air grows cooler, the Jewish calendar brings us to a special time of celebration – Sukkot. This week-long festival, with its unique rituals and symbols, culminates in a somewhat mysterious holiday known as Shmini Atzeret. At a first glance, the connection between Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret might appear to be merely chronological. Yet, when we delve deeper into the rituals, especially the sacrifices offered during these days, a profound message emerges.
UNIVERSAL AND PERSONAL SACRIFICE: SUKKOT COMPARED TO SHMINI ATZERET
During the seven days of Sukkot, the Torah (Numbers 29) commands the offering of 70 bulls in the Holy Temple, with the number decreasing each day. By the end of the week, 70 bulls in total are offered. The sages, with their profound insights into the spiritual dimensions of the mitzvot, tell us that these bulls are symbolic of the 70 nations of the world, as enumerated in the early chapters of Genesis (Genesis 10). This expansive vision of Sukkot underscores the Jewish people's role as a conduit for divine blessing to flow to all of humanity. For seven days, Israel offers sacrifices, effectively praying for the spiritual and material well-being of every nation on earth.
Yet, as Sukkot draws to a close, the Torah introduces a day that stands in stark contrast – Shmini Atzeret. On this day, only one bull is offered. This solitary sacrifice symbolizes the unique relationship between the Jewish people and God, a relationship devoid of any intermediaries or broader symbolic gestures.
The Talmud in Sukkah 55b (cited in Rashi on Numbers 29:18), provides a poignant allegory to illustrate this distinction: "It is comparable to a king who invited his sons to feast with him for a certain number of days, and when the time came for them to leave, he said: 'My sons! I have a request to make of you. Stay with me just one more day; it is difficult for me to part with you!'" This allegory captures the essence of Shmini Atzeret. After seven days of global focus, God and the Jewish people share a moment of singular connection, reflecting the depth and intimacy of their bond.
THE ETERNAL BOND: A TIMELESS REMINDER
This unique connection between the Jewish people and God, underscored by Shmini Atzeret, is not isolated to this holiday alone. In fact, the Torah echoes this sentiment in other contexts. One notable instance can be found in the "Song of Moses" in Devarim (Deuteronomy 32:12), where it is written: "The Lord alone guided him, No foreign god was with him." Just as Shmini Atzeret symbolizes the exclusive bond between the Jewish people and God, this verse underscores the idea that throughout history, amidst nations and their many deities, it was God alone who stood by Israel.
The phrase "The Lord alone guided him" conjures an image of a solitary journey through wilderness, with God as the sole guide and protector. Just as Shmini Atzeret symbolizes the exclusive bond between the Jewish people and God, this verse in Devarim underscores the idea that in the grand tapestry of history, amidst nations with their myriad deities, it was God alone who stood by Israel. It reinforces the notion that even when surrounded by the influences and cultures of the 70 nations, the Jewish people maintained a unique relationship with God, untouched and uninfluenced by alien gods.
This mirrors the progression we observe during the days of Sukkot leading up to Shmini Atzeret. Throughout Sukkot, as we mentioned earlier, the sacrifices symbolically account for the 70 nations, reflecting a universal outlook. Yet, on Shmini Atzeret, the focus narrows to the singular, unique bond between the Jewish people and God. In a similar vein, the verse from Devarim highlights that amidst the multitudes, God's guidance was exclusively for Israel.
The message here is twofold. Firstly, it serves as a reminder of the singular love and protection God offers the Jewish people. But, it also serves as a call to the Jewish nation: To recognize this unique bond and to cherish and nurture it, to ensure that no alien influences dilute the purity of this relationship.
As we reflect on the essence of Shmini Atzeret and its symbolic meaning, the words of Devarim serve as a poignant reminder of the timeless bond between the Jewish people and God, a bond that has remained unbroken and pure throughout history.
THE WAR OF GOG AND MAGOG: ETERNAL RELEVANCE OF SUKKOT AND SHMINI ATZERET
The theme of universalism in Sukkot and the exclusive relationship between God and the Jewish people in Shmini Atzeret find further resonance in the prophecies concerning the War of Gog and Magog. As cataclysmic as it appears, this prophesied conflict isn't just about warfare; it's about recognition, repentance, and the acknowledgment of God's sovereignty.
The Prophet Zechariah, speaking of the aftermath of this war, states (Zechariah 14:16-19): "Then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths. If any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain upon them. And if the family of Egypt do not go up and present themselves, then on them shall come the plague that the Lord inflicts on the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths. Such shall be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths."
The Talmud (Avoda Zara 3a) states: "And it will come to pass, that everyone that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles." The Talmudic sages elaborate on this passage, highlighting that the nations who fought against Jerusalem are given a mitzvah, specifically the observance of Sukkot. This observance serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it is a test of their genuine commitment to adhere to God's commandments. Secondly, it presents an opportunity for them to receive the blessings of rain and produce. However, the Talmud further discusses the outcome of this test, stating: "Immediately, each and every gentile will take materials and go and construct a sukka on top of his roof. And the Holy One, Blessed be He, will set upon them the heat [makdir] of the sun in the season of Tammuz, i.e., the summer, and each and every one who is sitting in his sukka will be unable to stand the heat, and he will kick his sukka and leave." The nations' recognition and observance of Sukkot, thus, become not only an outward manifestation of their submission to God’s sovereignty but also a reflection of their inner spiritual state.
What's intriguing is the juxtaposition. After a war that's essentially a confrontation against the divine plan, the survivors among the nations are not cast away but instead are invited to celebrate Sukkot, a festival that, as discussed earlier, symbolizes universal blessings and the Jewish people's role as a conduit for divine favor.
By linking the war's aftermath to Sukkot, Zechariah emphasizes the festival's enduring message of hope and unity. Even those who were once adversaries are given a chance to come together under God's shelter, to recognize His sovereignty, and to receive His blessings. This mirrors the theme of Sukkot where the 70 bulls are sacrificed for the 70 nations.
Furthermore, this passage reinforces the importance of Shmini Atzeret. After the universal call of Sukkot, the focus narrows once again to the special relationship between the Jewish people and God. As the nations are judged based on their commitment to Sukkot, Israel stands as a testament to an unyielding, intimate bond with the Divine, reminiscent of the sole bull offered on Shmini Atzeret.
A DISTINCT DAY: DIVINE INTIMACY REAFFIRMED
In the wake of profound universal events, such as the War of Gog and Magog, it becomes even more essential to understand the unique position of the Jewish people in the divine scheme. Our journey brings us back to the intimate setting of Shmini Atzeret, a day set apart from the rest of Sukkot.
Rashi, in his commentary on Numbers 29:35-36, reiterates the distinct nature of this day. He emphasizes that Shmini Atzeret is not merely the concluding day of Sukkot but is a separate festival in its own right. This distinction serves as a profound metaphor for the Jewish people's relationship with God. After the universal outpouring of the Sukkot celebrations, which encapsulate the broader concerns for all nations, Shmini Atzeret hones in on the more intimate bond between the Creator and Israel.
This dynamic is reminiscent of the aftermath of the War of Gog and Magog. After a universal confrontation, where nations rally and the world undergoes monumental change, the enduring bond between God and the Jewish people remains unshaken, mirrored in the singular observance of Shmini Atzeret. It's a day that serves as a powerful reminder of a relationship that withstands the vicissitudes of time and history, a bond that is both timeless and unique.
THE EIGHTH DAY: BEYOND THE NATURAL ORDER
Building upon the unique nature of Shmini Atzeret, the Torah provides further insight into its significance. "On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations" (Numbers 29:35). While this verse outlines the restrictions for Shmini Atzeret, there's more beneath the surface. The specific mention of the "eighth day" resonates with profound depth within the Jewish tradition.
The number seven represents the natural order, evident in the seven days of creation. Eight, then, transcends this cycle, representing a realm beyond the natural, a dimension of the divine. Shmini Atzeret, celebrated on the "eighth day," underscores this very notion. It's not merely an extension of the seven days of Sukkot but stands distinct, symbolizing a day that's outside the natural order.
After a week of Sukkot, where the focus is on the universal — the 70 nations, the entirety of creation — the eighth day narrows the scope to the bond that goes beyond the confines of nature: the relationship between God and the Jewish people. This day isn't constrained by the broader concerns of the world. Instead, it transcends them, underscoring a connection that is both intimate and divine.
The commandment to refrain from work, as emphasized in the verse, further instills the sanctity of this day. It's a day of spiritual introspection, of deepening our connection with the Divine, a day where our actions are elevated beyond the routine.
A PSALMIST'S WISH: THE UNIVERSAL DESIRE FOR PEACE
The themes of Shmini Atzeret, and particularly the significance of the "eighth day," find echoes in other parts of the Tanakh. Psalms 122:8 proclaims, "For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, 'Peace be within you.'" This verse, penned by King David, highlights the universal desire for peace, unity, and harmony.
Just as Shmini Atzeret transcends the natural seven-day cycle and represents a special bond between God and the Jewish people, King David's words transcend individual concerns and extend a wish for peace to all. It's a heartfelt call for unity and well-being, echoing the intimate connection celebrated on Shmini Atzeret.
In the context of the festival, this psalm reinforces a broader message: after dedicating days to the wider world during Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret brings our attention back to the foundational importance of peace and unity within our own community. Such internal peace can then radiate outwards, influencing the nations. The "eighth day" highlights not only a unique bond but also the aspirations stemming from that bond: hopes for peace, unity, and divine connection.
THE DEEPER PEACE: INSIGHTS FROM THE ZOHAR
The call for peace in Psalms 122:8 transcends mere interpersonal harmony. The Zohar (I:208a) reveals that peace signifies a profound spiritual harmony, one that encompasses and unites the divine emanations or sefirot. At the heart of this idea is the sefira of Yesod, a channel for divine blessings to the world. Often linked with Joseph, titled "the righteous" (Tzadik), Yesod acts as the harmonizing force ensuring the continuous flow of divine sustenance and blessings.
King David's plea for peace wasn't restricted to individuals or nations; it hinted at a cosmic peace — a harmonious alignment of divine emanations that channel blessings throughout creation.
Within the frame of Shmini Atzeret, this Zoharic insight takes on greater significance. The "eighth day" transcends the tangible, venturing into a realm rich in spiritual nuance. It becomes a symbol of paramount peace: the unison of the Jewish people with their Creator, anchored by the balancing energy of Yesod.
As Shmini Atzeret differentiates itself from Sukkot, signifying a heightened bond, the peace described in Psalms and elaborated on in the Zohar surpasses everyday understanding. It speaks of a peace that guarantees the uninhibited flow of divine blessings and a harmonious liaison between the earthly and the divine, anchored by Yesod.
THE DEEPER HARMONY: A ZOHARIC PERSPECTIVE ON PEACE
King David's yearning for peace in Psalms 122:8 acquires profound layers when viewed through the Zohar's lens. The Zohar (II:55b) suggests that peace is not just the absence of conflict; it encapsulates a balanced fusion of divine energies, particularly the dance between Tiferet and Malkhut, the sefirot emblematic of divine masculine and feminine attributes. Through this prism, Shmini Atzeret celebrates spiritual equilibrium, spotlighting the close-knit bond between God and Israel.
The Zohar's notion of harmony transcends the divine realm. Drawing from the Zohar (II:122a), we see a web of interconnected souls, where every virtuous act has the potential to draw divine compassion and blessings. This concept resonates deeply with Shmini Atzeret, as it emphasizes the Jewish people's unique bond with God and the ripple effects of individual righteous actions on the collective.
Navigating the rituals and prayers of Shmini Atzeret, the Zohar's contemplations on prayer become particularly poignant. The Zohar (III:22a) postulates that genuine prayer is not mere words but a soul's ascent, a passionate quest to bridge the earthly and the divine. On Shmini Atzeret, this spiritual ascent reaches its pinnacle, mirroring our intense wishes for unity, peace, and profound communion with the Creator.
THE SPIRITUAL FOUNDATION OF SHMINI ATZERES: YOSEF
Shmini Atzeret invites us to explore the fundamental theme of Yesod, a spiritual cornerstone that ensures a steady flow of divine blessings into our world. This concept is deeply connected to Shmini Atzeret and is beautifully personified through the character of Yosef, as detailed in the Torah.
Yosef, more than just Jacob’s favored son and a mysterious dreamer, led a life that can be aptly described as a roller-coaster ride, filled with trials but eventually leading to unparalleled triumphs. His journey doesn’t merely reflect his life events; it captures the ethos of Yesod, a foundation of balance, resilience, and spiritual connectivity. As we delve deeper, the narratives of Yosef begin to intertwine with the themes of Shmini Atzeret. This intertwining paints a vivid picture that offers a fresh perspective on their shared essence and, more intriguingly, on our own spiritual quests.
One of the most captivating episodes from Yosef’s life revolves around his dreams. The dream where he saw his sheaf standing tall while his brothers’ sheaves bowed ignited tensions that had long been simmering. It wasn’t just about the audacity of the dream; it reflected deeper uncertainties and potential shifts in family dynamics. The potency of this particular dream is captured in Genesis 37:8, where his brothers voice their concerns, “And his brothers said to him, ‘Will you indeed reign over us? Will you indeed have dominion over us?’ And they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.” Their response wasn’t merely jealousy; it was grounded in deep-rooted concerns, amplified by past family events where displacements had changed the course of family legacies.
HIS BROTHERS AND THEIR BLIND SPOT FOR YOSEF
A crucial aspect of Yosef’s relationship with his brothers revolved around a significant contrast in their spiritual perspectives. While the patriarchs and brothers favored a pastoral life, often shepherding and keeping away from the complexities of society, Yosef, even in the political epicenter of Egypt, managed to maintain his unwavering spiritual bond with the Divine. This divergence became apparent during their unexpected encounter in Egypt. They saw Yosef, but they didn’t truly “see” him, failing to grasp his spiritual evolution and depth (as referenced in Torah Ohr, Hosafos 103b; Likkutei Sichos ibid.).
Further emphasizing the importance of Yosef’s role, the Jewish people are sometimes refered to as “children of Yosef” (Psalms 77:16; Talmud, Sanhedrin 19b). More than just a testament to Yosef’s influence, this identification bridges the tales of the patriarchs to the destiny of the tribes, ensuring that the values and lessons of the past continue to resonate and guide generations to come.
YAAKOV IS SUKKOS, AND YOSEF, SHMINI ATZERES
Building upon the concept of continuity, Jewish festivals emerge as rich metaphors, encapsulating this bridging role that Yosef embodies. Essentially, just as Yosef forges a harmonious link between patriarchal values and the tribes’ destiny, the festivals of Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos encapsulate the spiritual essence of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.
Pesach, celebrating liberation and heralding the birth of a nation, mirrors Avraham’s trailblazing journey in monotheism. Shavuos, marking the gifting of the Torah, embodies Yitzchak’s unwavering commitment. Sukkos, with its comforting embrace of the sukkah, epitomizes Yaakov’s unique ability to blend love and discipline, laying the foundational ethos for the Jewish legacy.
Shemini Atzeres, following Sukkos, can be seen as a culmination, an embrace that’s more intimate, echoing Yosef’s bridging role. Through this lens, Yosef transforms from just a familial character into a key figure that shapes the rhythm and themes of the Jewish calendar.
The sages in Bereishis Rabbah (84:6) illuminate many parallels between Yaakov and Yosef’s life experiences. Beyond shared journeys, there’s an intriguing observation in the Midrash (ibid. 84:8) that their facial features mirrored each other. An onlooker glimpsing at Yosef might just see shades of Yaakov.
This reflection affirms a profound bond, suggesting Yosef wasn’t merely a successor but was infused with many of his father’s inherent qualities. In the grand calendar of Jewish festivals, Shemini Atzeres emerges as a day blessed with the combined spiritual essence of both Yaakov and his mirror image, Yosef, extending an invitation for deep reflection and divine closeness.
In the holistic picture, Shemini Atzeres represents more than an extension; it signifies ascent and transcendence, encapsulating the spirit of the patriarchs while integrating Yosef’s aura.
22 OF TISHREI: MARKING A DREAM’S FULFILLMENT
The date of Shemini Atzeres, the 22nd of Tishrei, aligns with Rosh Hashanah in the weekly cycle and even reverberates with its unique character (as seen in Sefer Hamaamarim Kuntreisim 2:339a, cited in Hayom Yom, 22 Tishrei). The number “22” and its relation to Rosh Hashanah beautifully entwine with pivotal episodes from Yosef’s saga.
Looking through the lens of Talmudic lore, the number 22 gains prominence. It symbolizes the two-decade-long wait for Yosef’s dreams, where he foresaw his brothers in prostration, to materialize (reflected in Talmud, Berachos 55b and Megillah 17a). These dreams, and the years leading up to their realization, highlight themes of anticipation, unwavering faith, and the eventual manifestation of even the loftiest visions.
There’s another chapter in Yosef’s chronicle that intertwines with Rosh Hashanah. It was on this day, symbolic of fresh starts, that the prison doors swung open for Yosef, heralding his ascent to Egyptian prominence (as detailed in Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a). In this pivotal turn of events, we discern Divine choreography, linking Yosef’s personal ascent with Rosh Hashanah’s overarching message of rejuvenation.
In this light, Shemini Atzeres isn’t merely a festival. It’s a confluence of time, history, and individual narratives. With its deep-rooted symbolism and timing, it intertwines the rich tapestry of our communal celebrations with the layered story of Yosef. In its quiet reflection, it beckons us to recognize that personal odysseys, with all their ups and downs, are woven into the grander tableau of the Jewish journey and the undulating rhythm of our sacred calendar.
YOSEF AND HIS NEMESIS, EISAV
The exploration of Shemini Atzeres wouldn’t be complete without delving into its connection with Yosef’s nemesis, his uncle Eisav. In understanding this relationship, we gain deeper insights into the festival’s unique character. The Torah’s account of eight Edomite kings, descendants of Eisav, serves as an intriguing backdrop.
The saga of Eisav’s lineage presents us with a line of eight Edomite monarchs (Bereishis 36:31–39). For the first seven kings, their reigns are almost rhythmically recorded: each one’s ascent, rule, and eventual decline. These narratives mirror the “World of Tohu (chaos)“, an early cosmic state marked by spiritual rupture and dispersion of Divine essence. This sets the stage for the redemptive “World of Tikkun (repair)”, where the task of the Jewish people is to reclaim and elevate these scattered Divine sparks.
A turning point arrives with the eighth king, Hadar. His name, resonating with “beauty”, mirrors the Torah’s depiction of Yosef: “handsome of form and handsome of appearance” (Bereishis 39:6). The parallels don’t stop here. Moses’s blessing to Yosef’s lineage shines with the words, “his firstborn ox has glory (hadar)” (Devarim 33:17). Intriguingly, Hadar’s capital, Pa’u, shares a numerical kinship with Yosef, both summing up to the value of 176.
But the uniqueness of Hadar doesn’t just rest on these numerical or linguistic synchronicities. Among the line of kings, only Hadar’s queen is explicitly named in the Torah. This seemingly small detail unveils profound insights about union, an underlying theme of Shemini Atzeres. Yosef, personifying the Sefirah of Yesod (“foundation”), is a symbol of this unity. Yesod epitomizes the profound urge to connect, mirrored in the human anatomy by the organs of generation (Tikkunei Zohar 17a), fostering the sacred bond between spouses and, on a grander scale, between the Divine and His cherished Israel.
As we reflect on Shemini Atzeres, its myriad connections to Yosef, and the allegories drawn from the reign of the Edomite kings, we’re reminded of an overarching narrative. It’s a narrative of deep unity, love, and an unbreakable bond between the Divine and His people. Shemini Atzeres isn’t a mere afterthought to Sukkos; it’s a culmination, an intimate embrace, capturing the enduring heartbeat of Jewish spirituality and commitment.