The eighth day of Sukkot is described to us in our Parasha as “Atzeret” (Bamidbar Chapter 29 Verse 35). We also know from the Talmud (Sukkah 48) that what we today know as “Shemini Atzeret” is essentially a festival in its own right, independent of Sukkot. Thus we say “Shehecheyanu” on the eighth night, as opposed to the seventh night of Pessach, which is simply a continuation of the previous six days. In addition, the sacrifices of Shemini Atzeret bear no resemblance to the ongoing pattern of sacrifices brought to the Mikdash throughout the seven days of Sukkot.
Yet, having established Atzeret as a festival in its own right, we are left to wonder as to exactly what its objective is. When trying to perceive the meaning behind Pessach, and Sukkot, the many symbols and special mitzvoth regarding these days assist us.
When trying to understand Pessach, we can look into the issurim relating to Chametz, the mitzvah of Seder night, the mitzvah of eating Matza. When studying Sukkot, we are able to refer to the Arba Minim, to the Sukkah, to Simchat Bet Hashoeva. Yet when we look at Shemini Atzeret we are given no clue as to what the meaning of this festival actually is. There is no symbolism, no unique mitzvah allocated to this chag, it is simply a Yom Tov, where work is forbidden, and Mussaf is said.
In relating to the above, let us firstly study the relationship between Pessach and Shavuot. Indeed, many of the questions raised above regarding Shemini Atzeret, could equally be raised regarding Shavuot. There are no unique Torah commandments regarding the festival of Shavuot. It is true that we have the custom to learn Torah throughout the night, we have the custom to decorate the Batai Knessiot with flowers and plants; we even have the custom to eat dairy products. However, none of these customs are Torah requirements, they are minhagim that have developed over the centuries in celebration of Mattan Torah. In fact the Torah itself does not even refer to Shavuot as the day celebrating Mattan Torah, rather as the festival of Bikkurim, relating to the fact that from Shavuot onwards, first fruits should be brought to the Mikdash. Yet even this description of Shavuot is not absolutely clear, since in agricultural terms most of the first fruit were probably brought to the Mikdash at the end of the summer i.e. at Sukkot, and not at the beginning of the summer.
Before answering the points raised above, I would like to mention one other issue.
During the Seder night, we refer to the “four sons”. When the “wicked” son has finished his statement, the reply given to all those that are listening is: “Had he been there he would not have been redeemed”.
Is this statement true? We know according to Midrashic literature that many of Am Yisrael died during the plague of darkness; however, we also know that Am Yisrael was not lacking in troublemakers during the wilderness years. Clearly, some of those who left Egypt were not the most ideal of people, so how can we confidently relate to the “wicked” son that had he been with us in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed?
By answering the above question, I think that we can in fact answer all of the difficulties previously mentioned.
There were two elements to leaving Egypt. The first task was to physically leave the land of Egypt with the ultimate objective of physically settling the Land of Israel. However, the second task was equally if not more, important: The second and main objective was to leave Egypt culturally – spiritually.
The fact that a person has physically left a particular place does certainly not mean that he has culturally or spiritually left that place. To coin a phrase: ‘it was relatively simple to bring the Jews out of Egypt, but considerably harder to bring Egypt out of the Jews’. The former can be called “Yetziat Mitzrayim” “The coming out of Egypt”, the latter “Geulat Mitzrayim” “The redemption from Egypt”. It took very little time to bring the people out of the borders of Egypt, but close to forty years to bring Egypt out of the people.
If we accept these two elements as being fundamental objectives, then we can certainly understand the answer of the father to the statement of the “wicked” son. Indeed, had he been with us in Egypt he would certainly have come out – physically; however, he would not have been redeemed. The wicked son denies the service of G-d, of course he would have left Egypt, he would have crossed the borders into dessert land, but he would not have accepted the Torah, this he himself admits- thus he would not have been redeemed.
Pessach is therefore essentially the celebration of the physical exodus from Egypt. The festival begins on the historic date of leaving Egypt, and ends with the splitting of the sea, the absolute destruction of the mighty the Egyptian army, and consequently, the confirmation of freedom from slavery.
Shavuot, on the other hand is in celebration of the spiritual redemption from Egypt. Mattan Torah is the replacement of Egyptian culture with the real meaning of life.
We can thus see, in real terms that Pessach and Shavuot are in fact one festival, Sefirat Haomer being the Chol Hamoed (Intermediary days) connecting the first and last days of this chag of cherut (See Ramban to parashat Emor). We begin the chag by celebrating our physical release, and immediately begin working towards our spiritual goal -Mattan Torah, spiritual freedom. This project takes forty-nine days, for as we know from Pirkei Avot, there are forty-eight traits needed to possess Torah.
If we accept the above hypothesis, we can also understand, as to why there is little to no symbolism or actively unique mitzvoth on Shavuot.
Pessach – relating to the physical aspect of our freedom, requires Matza, Chametz, Seder night, in order to ensure that we internalize the fact that we are not celebrating physical freedom de-facto, but physical freedom as a means to a greater ends. The mitzvoth of Pessach essentially instill what is seemingly a historical reality with spiritual content.
Shavuot needs no symbolism, the essence of the chag in its entirety – spiritual freedom, is a clear statement as to the objective of the day. The day is an Atzeret, a solemn day where we stop our day-to-day activities and rejoice in Hashem.
Having defined Pessach-Shavuot as one festival, let us now concentrate on Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret.
The Torah tells us that, essentially, Sukkot is to celebrate the physical leaving of Egypt. We are told to dwell in Sukkot, because Hashem sat us in Sukkot when we left Egypt. According to the plain meaning of the text, we are celebrating our independence in the midbar after years of slavery. Once again there is a need to ensure that we internalize the fact that we are not celebrating physical freedom de-facto, but physical freedom as a means to a greater ends, thus the mitzvot of Sukkah and Arba Minim serve to direct us in our celebration of freedom. The Sukkah puts matters into perspective, lest we take full credit for our freedom, we are reminded as to whom took us out from Egypt, and protected us for all of our years in the dessert. We are reminded that we were in fact totally passive in the story of our freedom from slavery. The Arba Minim, remind us that all of our assets, everything that we own, comes from Hashem. Thus we take the four species that we have to own, and wave them in all directions.
Shemini Atzeret, however, requires no symbolism, the essence of the chag in its entirety – spiritual freedom, is a clear statement as to the objective of the day. The day is an Atzeret, a solemn day where we stop our day-to-day activities and rejoice in Hashem.
We can therefore see a clear parallel: Pessach Sukkot
Shavuot (Atzeret) Shemini Atzeret
What is even more striking is the fact that Daat Zelainim Mibaalei Hatosfot suggest that ideally there should have been fifty days between Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, just as there are fifty days between Pessach and Shavuot.
We therefore understand Shemini Atzeret to be a celebration of our spiritual freedom, a celebration of our Torah. When we understand this, it is not surprising that Chazal, when fixing the yearly calendar with an aim towards the annual finishing of the Torah reading, chose to juxtapose the finishing of the Torah with Shemini Atzeret.
We are left with one final question. If in essence the message of Pessach-Shavuot is identical to that of Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret, why celebrate the same festival twice? This question is actually raised by the Mishna Berurah, who suggests eating Matza in a Sukkah during the spring. The Chafetz Chaim answers that what makes the Sukkah experience unique is the fact that exactly at the time when the rest of the world is going indoors for the winter, we are building Sukkot. The mere fact that he asks the question suggests the parallel explained above.
I would like to suggest the following: We have two yearly cycles. The first cycle begins in Tishri, the creation of the world, the creation of man. The second yearly cycle begins in Nissan, the creation of our people – Am Yisrael.
When we celebrate Sukkot-Shemini Atzeret, we are in fact celebrating our physical/spiritual freedom as individuals, as sons of Adam Harishon, fulfilling the purpose for which the world was created.
When we celebrate Pessach/Shavuot, we are celebrating our physical/spiritual freedom as a people, fulfilling the tasks handed down from Hashem to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.
The inherent message is that we must be on the one hand individuals (If I am not for myself – then who will be for me), yet on the other hand we are being taught that we are all part of one people that is an entity in itself (We are all mutually responsible for each other).
We have a role in life to fulfill ourselves to the full, in order to do so we must be physically free, and spiritually directed – Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret. However, everyone of us has an additional role, we are part of a people that has been given a mission by Hashem, in order to fulfill that mission to the utmost we must be physically free and spiritually motivated – Pessach/Shavuot.
Our Judaism involves an intense individual effort, but whatever the intensity, we must never forget the needs of our people.