What is Shemini Atzeret?
What exactly is Shemini Atzeret? It seems to be both part of Succot – after all, it’s still zman simchateinu, it’s day eight of Succot – and yet, it has all the signs of being a festival in its own right. It has its own name, its own day, its own shehechiyanu, and various other things that mark it off as a distinctive day in its own right. So what is it?
The rabbis noted that during Succot, 70 bulls were offered, a large number on each day, and only one on Shemini Atzeret. And on the basis of that, they worked out the following: that ideally – and Zechariah the prophet foresaw this – all 70 nations listed in Genesis, Chapter 10, all the primary nations of the world will come to Jerusalem on Succot. That means that Succot becomes a kind of global, universal festival. But just as they’re leaving on the eighth day, when for them the festival is over, God says to us, “Stay awhile”. That’s the atzeret, the atzor: stop, don’t go just yet. “Kashah alay pridat chem” – it’s hard for Me to say goodbye (Rashi on Vayikra 23:36).
Now, what exactly does that mean? Elaine and I, some years ago, had the privilege of seeing pretty much what that means. It took place on 25th February 1997. This was the first day of the only ever state visit to Britain of a president of the State of Israel. There’s a difference between an official visit (there’ve been many of those by presidents of Israel) and a state visit, which means that you are the guest of the Queen and you stay in Buckingham Palace. And that’s what happened to President Ezer Weizman at that time. It was at the height of the peace process, and you know, somehow diplomatic possibilities opened up at that point. And the first night of a state visit, the Queen hosts a banquet in Buckingham Palace.
And on this occasion it was absolutely magnificent. Something that never happened before and hasn’t happened since. For instance, the orchestra in Buckingham Palace playing Hatikvah, the Queen toasting the President of the State of Israel with the word ‘l’chaim’. It was just totally memorable and magnificent. Now at the banquet itself, there must’ve been something like 80 people, and there comes the point where the banquet ends and everyone leaves. Just a handful of people are notified in advance that they are requested to stay for a private reception. And this is really just half a dozen people for a little private reception with the Queen, Prince Philip, in those days the Queen Mother, the then Prime Minister (this was right at the very end of John Major’s time as prime minister), and his wife, and President Ezer Weizman, and his wife. And it was just, you know, just at most a minyan of us together in Buckingham Palace for this private reception. All the formalities were dispensed with, it was just us together. The ultimate I-Thou moment.
And that is what Shemini Atzeret is. After the world has come to Jerusalem and left, God invites us to a private reception, not just with a king, but with Melech Malchei HaMelachim, the Supreme King of Kings, and we’re all invited. And that is the moment of intimacy, of informality, the ultimate ‘I-Thou’ moment between us as Jews and the Sovereign of the Universe. It’s even better than a private reception at Buckingham Palace. So now you know what Shemini Atzeret really is.