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Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah Assembly of the Eighth Day and Rejoicing in the Torah

This article is the third of three articles taken from a class taught in October of 2006 - the week of Sukkot.   The first two articles are Hebrew Feasts and Festivals - An Introduction to the Jewish Holy Days and Sukkot - Feast of Tabernacles.

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

As we noted at the conclusion of our study of Sukkot, its seven day celebration does not complete the annual Jewish festival cycle.  In Leviticus 23:34, we read, “On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the Festival of Sukkot, seven days for the LORD... on the eighth day, there shall be a holy convocation for you”.

This eighth day (Tishrei 22) is known as Shemini Atzeret (“the assembly of the eighth” or “the eighth day of assembly”).  Along with Shemini Atzeret, the holiday of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah - the Five books of Moses) was also celebrated on the 22nd of Tishrei, but in modern times, many outside of Israel celebrate the Torah holiday on the 23rd.  These two holidays are commonly thought of as part of Sukkot, but technically, the Jewish Rabbis considered Shemini Atzeret as a holiday in its own right based upon Numbers 29:35, “On the eighth day hold an assembly (atzeret) and do no regular work”.  Rabbinic literature explains the holiday this way: “our Creator is like a host, who invites us as visitors for a limited time, but when the time comes for us to leave, He has enjoyed himself so much that He asks us to stay another day”.

During the festival of Shemini Atzeret, the Jews held an additional prayer service called the Musaf (“added” or “additional”) which began with a special prayer for rain.  Rain in Israel is rare during the summer, so the land would be utterly parched.  Only the tal (dew) that saturated the top soil during the cool evenings kept the land from becoming completely barren.  Due to Israel’s heavy reliance on agriculture, the quantity of the rains could easily make the difference between abundant crops and famine.  Thus, the Israelites were dependent on the grace of G-d for adequate spring and fall rains (Joel 2:23) for sustaining their very lives.

The Jewish prophet Hosea wrote about the coming of the Messiah, “Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth” (Hos 6:3).  So, when the Jewish people prayed for rain, many understood this also as a prayer for the Messiah to appear.

Rejoicing in the Torah

Simchat Torah marks the completion of the annual cycle of weekly corporate Torah readings (Genesis thru Deuteronomy).  On Simchat Torah, the concluding parashah (section) of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is read, then the people proceed immediately to the first parashah of Bereshit (Genesis), reminding them that the Torah is a circle whose study never ends.  The Torah ends with Moses’ death and burial in an unmarked grave, so this commemorative day ties his death back to the Creation in Genesis, reminding us that our earthly death is also our rebirth.

This completion of the readings is a time of great celebration.  Children are given candy to remind them How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Ps 119:103).  There are processions around the synagogue carrying Torah scrolls and plenty of high-spirited singing and dancing, which often spills out into the streets.  Christians could take a lesson from this tradition.  When was the last time we saw worshipers in all out celebration, parading around the sanctuary behind a pastor carrying the word of G-d?

On a historical note, Simchat Torah became the most widely observed Jewish holiday in Russia beginning in the late 1960s.  Television pictures of tens of thousands of Jews dancing in the streets drew international attention to the plight of the Russian Jews.  Since then, there has been an increased effort by many Christian and Jewish organizations to help many of the dispersed return to their homeland.  A close personal friend made several trips to provide aide before she died.  She was a great role model to many (including me) on how Christians should love the Jews.

Shemini Atzeret in Prophecy

At the conclusion of Sukkot, we noted that the Hebrew festivals provide us with an excellent picture of G-d's plan for our salvation, including its past (justification), present (sanctification) and future (glorification) aspects.  We also raised the question that, since the Feast of Tabernacles looks forward to the millennial reign of the Messiah, but the Bible declares that all believers will then spend the future eternally in heaven, does the picture of salvation portrayed by the Hebrew festivals stop short of completion?  We can answer “no” to this question and see how the festival of Shemini Atzeret completes the picture.

We can first draw an analogy between the festivals of Shemini Atzeret and Shavuot (Pentecost).  The giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai on Shavout is considered the completion of the deliverance from Egypt at Pesach (Passover), and the two festivals are linked by the counting of the omer.  For Christians, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the result of faith in Christ’s death and resurrection at Pesach and Bikkurim (FirstFruits).  Likewise, the festival of Shemini Atzeret concludes Sukkot, a seven day festival.

Next, many Jews understand the period from Creation to the end of the Messianic Age to be 7000 years (Talmud - Sanhedrin 97).  This is based upon linking each of the seven days of Creation to a 1000 year period per the Scripture “a thousand years is like a day” statements (Ps 90:4, 2Pe 3:8).  The current Jewish year is 5771 (2010), but there are errors in the Jewish calculations resulting in about 230 missing years.  Therefore, we are very near to the year 6000 in which the Messianic Age (or Millennium) is thought to begin, but note also that Jesus stated that no man knows the day or hour (Mt 24:36).

In Hebrew thought, the number “seven” (and multiples) when associated with time, represents a complete time frame.  Therefore, the seven days of Sukkot and the seven thousand years of life on earth can be thought of as a complete unit of time concluding with the end of the millennium reign of the Messiah.  Likewise, the number “eight” usually symbolizes a new beginning, so the eighth day would start a new unit of time.  In this case, Shemini Atzeret, as the assembly of the eighth day, anticipates the period after time on earth ends, namely our eternal glorious days of living in heaven.

Unfortunately for un-believers, these days of eternity will begin with the Great White Throne Judgment.  Going back to Revelation 20 (where we left off at the conclusion of our “Sukkot” article), we find the apostle John continues: Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:11-14).  Let us stress once more that only non-believers will be present at this judgment.  As believers (those trusting in the Messiah for our salvation and submitting to Him as our Lord), we will receive our rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ (possibly while the tribulation is happening on earth).  It’s interesting to note that all will bring glory to G-d, believers by accepting His grace, and non-believers by yielding to His justice.

So that we don’t end on this note of judgment, let’s continue into the next chapter to see the rest of the picture.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of G-d is with men, and he will live (tabernacle) with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.  To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life (remember the drawing of the water).  He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son” (Rev 21:1-7).

I had what I (in my humble opinion) thought was a pretty decent close to this study, but I discarded it when I realized it couldn’t begin to compare with the great Psalms that inspired Isaac Watts to write “Joy to the World”:

Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.  The LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.  He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.  Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn--shout for joy before the LORD, the King.  Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.  Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.  He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity  (Psalms 98).

Amen and Amen.  Soli Deo Gloria.

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