For seven days you must present a gift to the LORD. On the eighth day there is to be a holy assembly for you, and you must present a gift to the LORD. It is a solemn assembly day; you must not do any regular work… On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the produce of the land, you must celebrate a pilgrim festival of the LORD for seven days. On the first day is a complete rest and on the eighth day is complete rest. —Lev. 23:36 & 39
As we can see from these verses, Shemini Atzeret (eighth day of solemn assembly) is an additional day appended to the festival of Sukkot. Technically, Hashanah Rabba is the seventh and final day of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret is an additional assembly. Although a holiday in its own right, Shemini Atzeret is integrally connected with Sukkot, which is clearly shown in its name alone, and generally viewed as the eighth day of Sukkot. Though we sit in the sukkah through Sukkot and on Shemini Atzeret, there are substantial differences in the way the two holidays are celebrated.
The four most significant differences are that on Shemini Atzeret: 1) the lulav and etrog are no longer shaken, 2) the command to dwell in the sukkah is no longer recited; 3) Yizkor (a memorial service) is said in the synagogue, and 4) the special prayer for rain is said.
In Israel, Shemini Atzeret is a one-day celebration; Simchat Torah is celebrated on Shemini Atzeret, on the eight day. Everywhere else in the world, Shemini Atzeret is a two-day celebration; Shemini Atzeret is on the eighth day and Simchat Torah on the ninth. This separation of the two days adds an extra day to the festival in the diaspora, as is the custom for most of the festivals. Regardless of whether Shemini Atzeret is celebrated together with Simchat Torah or separated into two days of celebration, the prayer for rain is said on Shemini Atzeret.
Shemini Atzeret begins the period of the year when we pray for rain, which will continue until Passover. Normally in Israel, rain only falls from around November until March. During the rest of the year, especially April to September, it does not rain in Israel. These weather patterns are influenced by many physical factors that came about at creation—geography, topography, proximity to the sun, etc. Therefore, we pray in agreement with creation for dew in the dry months and rain in the rainy months. From Shemini Atzeret until Passover, Jews, whether they live in Israel or the Diaspora, pray for rain three times a day: morning, afternoon and evening. This makes Shemini Atzeret a very special day in its own right.
May the rainy season begin, blessed by Him who makes the wind blow and the rain fall. Chag sameach!
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