Shemini Atzeret - A Special Time

On the eighth day, it shall be a holy occasion for you, and you shall bring a fire offering to Hashem. It is an Atzeret [day of detention]. You shall not perform any work of labor.
 בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַה' עֲצֶרֶת הִוא כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ
Vayikra 23:36
What is  an Atzeret after Sukkot?
Following the 7 days of Sukkot, the Torah stipulates another time to be holy and be devoid of work, calling this an Atzeret. While all the other festivals on the Jewish calendar are anchored to a historical event, Shemini Atzeret is unique, a holiday with no apparent historical or mitzvah association. An English translation elucidates the word Atzeret, calling it 'a day of detention'. What does it imply 'to detain'?

Rashi explains the word Atzeret as:
“I have detained you [to remain] with Me.” This is analogous 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! Please, stay with me just one more day, [for] it is difficult for me to part with you!” [Similarly, after the seven days of Succot, G-d “detains” Israel for one extra holy day.]
Elaborating on the reason for the 'day of detention,' Rashi explains that it is difficult for Hashem to separate from the Jewish people. But what makes just one more day any easier, why just an extra day after the 7 days?

A Special Day of Detention 

Another verse in Bamidbar following the detailed descriptions of all the sacrifices brought over Sukkot, appears.
The eighth day shall be an Atzeret for you; you shall not perform any mundane work.
בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי עֲצֶרֶת תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ
Bamidbar 29:35 
Here, Rashi further clarifies the meaning of Atzeret, explaining specifically why Hashem ordered the Jewish people to remain focused on the holy, an extra day after Sukkot, and why that one day was sufficient.
For throughout the days of the festival they brought offerings symbolizing the seventy nations, and when they came to leave, Hashem said to them, “Please make Me a small feast, so that I can have some pleasure from you [alone].”
How do we see Israel's unique place and relationship with Hashem, in contrast to the nation's of the world?
R. Eleazar stated, To what do those seventy bullocks [that were offered during the seven days of the Festival] correspond? To the seventy nations. To what does the single bullock [of the Eighth Day] correspond? To the unique nation.
Sukkah 55B

 A Holiday unto Itself

The Gemarah goes onto explain that Shemini Azeret can function as a continuation of Sukkot. When private offerings due on the first day of Sukkot could not be brought, then they may still be offered up till the eighth day (Shemini Atzeret).  Regarding the making up for offerings, Shemini Atzeret can make up for the first [day of Sukkot]. For we have learnt: He who did not bring his festal offering on the first festival day of the Sukkot, may bring it during the whole of the Festival even on the last festival day! Since in regard to making up for missed offerings the eighth day is an essential part of Sukkot.

So where does Shemini Atzeret fall, is it a unique space or another day of Sukkot?

Rabeinu Behaye says that the eighth day is holiday unto itself. He reconciles the paradoxical nature of Shemini Atzeret by comparing it to an etrog. Just as an etrog stands on its own, yet is an inseparable part of the 4 Minim, Shemini Atzeret is a holiday that while a connection to Sukkot, is a unique entity. Just as the Atzeret after Pesach (Shavuot) marks the giving of the Torah, so also this Atzeret (Shemini Atzeret) is a time for celebrating the receiving of the Torah.

How is this eighth day a festival by itself?

The gemarrah in Hagigah 17A elaborates on 6 qualities that distinguish Shemini Atzeret from Sukkot, denoted by the symbol abbreviation (פז"ר קש"ב).
  • פייס Lottery: Atzeret has a lottery [by the watches], (the ballot or allotment in regard to the Temple services decided by a show of fingers on the part of the priests present (cf. Yoma II, 1f). Throughout the seven days of Sukkot, the public sacrifices were offered up by the priest-watches according to rota; but on the eighth day the offerings were allotted by lottery "For the bullock which is offered on the Eighth Day lots are cast as at first". (Sukkot 55b).
  • זמן - Time: Recital of  Shecheyanu, (Eccl. III, 1): the blessing at the end of the benediction recited on the entrance of a festival, which refers to the return of the festival season - ‘Blessed art Thou, ..., Who hast kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season’.
  • רגל - Holiday: Shemini Atzeret is taken as an independent festival separate from the other days of Sukkot.

    - Rashi
    : It is a distinct festival in as much as it enjoys a special name - Shemini Azeret and not Sukkot.

    - R. Tam: It is a separate festival in the sense that it requires the pilgrim to even spend the night following its termination in Jerusalem (Sukkot 47a).

    - R. Hananel: It is a separate festival in regard to the thirty days of semi-mourning for the dead. If the period of mourning began on the eve of Sukkot, it is able to annul seven days out of the thirty in addition to the fourteen cancelled by the end of the first seven days of Sukkot (Moed Katan 24a).
  • קורבנות - Sacrifices: [the prescribed number of] sacrifices for Sukkot are detailed (Bamidbar 29:12-38), while the sacrifice for Shemini Atzeret is listed as "one bull, one ram, and seven lambs in the first year, [all] unblemished.  (פַּר אֶחָד אַיִל אֶחָד כְּבָשִׂים בְּנֵי שָׁנָה שִׁבְעָה תְּמִימִם)"
  • שיר - Song: the [Temple] Song, (Tosafot suggests that Tehillim XII was said; and whereas the Tehillim  allocated for the different weekdays of Sukkot were not completed each day but spread over two days (Sukkah 55a), on the eighth day the Tehillim was completed.)
  • ברכה - Blessing: (according to Rashi, the people blessed the king on the eighth day, as it is written Melachim I 8:66

    R. Tam: this refers to the special mention of Shemini Azereth in Birkat Hamazon and in the Amidah (Sukkah 47a) 
So it could be said that Shemini Atzeret isn’t about anything. We weren't saved from Egypt on this day. We weren't given the commandments on this day. We don’t commemorate the miracles of the wilderness years on this day. Even the celebrations of Simchat Torah were only added many years after the Torah in the Gaonic period, once the yearly cycle of public Torah readings had been established. On this day, we are happy just because we are. A special nation. In a special relationship with Hashem. (Shemini Atzeret - the Jewish holiday about nothing in particular [Oct 7, 2012])

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