Ask anyone Jewish to tell you about Chanukah and you’ll hear the whole story of Judah Maccabee and the oil and the miracle. No problem.
Ask anyone Jewish to tell you about Pesach and you’ll hear all about the Jews leaving Egypt in a hurry and the matzoh and the plagues and the four sons and Pharaoh. No problem.
Ask anyone Jewish about Shemini Atzeret and you’ll meet up with a handful who know a great deal about the day, a few who have heard of it but can’t tell you exactly what it is, and many who ask, “You mean it’s a Jewish holiday?”
Don’t feel bad if you’re in the latter category; Shemini Atzeret is indeed rather elusive.
The holiday comes on the eighth day of Sukkot (this year, beginning after sundown on Friday, October 1), and it’s also known as “the festival of conclusion.” And while Shemini Atzeret is linked with Sukkot (there is, however, a variety of practices and customs regarding eating and dwelling in the sukkah on this day), it’s also separate.
The holiday is mentioned in the Torah in Leviticus 23:36, Deuteronomy 16:8 and Isaiah 1:13, where it’s described as a “feast of conclusion” and a “holy convocation.” It is a holiday on which Jews are bound to the same rules they observe on any major Jewish holiday. But unlike with most Jewish holy days, there are no special celebratory rituals that accompany Shemini Atzeret.
Those who attend services will notice a difference in the regular davening. We read the Hallel prayer, and insert a prayer for rain, called Tefillat Geshem in the Musaf portion of the service. (Abundant and timely rainfall in the winter months is critical to the environment of the Land of Israel.) Shemini Atzeret also is a day on which Yizkor (memorial prayer for the dead) is recited, so that means everyone will have the opportunity to enjoy yet another appeal for money.
One day before Shemini Atzeret is another rather obscure holiday, Hoshanah Rabba, which falls on the seventh day of Sukkot (this year, beginning Thursday night, September 30). It is a festive day, but also one of judgment.
According to tradition, Hoshanah Rabba is the day on which the fate of each man is set. On Rosh Hashanah, God makes his decision, on Yom Kippur the verdict is tentatively sealed and on Hoshanah Rabba this decision is given its final seal.
In ancient times, Hoshanah Rabba was widely, and rather dramatically, observed. Families would come to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem where entire communities would be blessed—or individuals would be placed in cherem, a kind of excommunication. Numerous mystical and folk interpretations arose about anything that happened on the day, such as the notion that he who did not see the shadow of his head on Hoshanah Rabba would surely die in the coming year.
A number of traditions and practices relate to Hoshanah Rabba. Some stay up the entire evening to read from Deuteronomy, or perhaps other books in the Torah, and from the Psalms. This is called tikkun (or purification) leil Hoshanah Rabba, offering a kind of last-minute opportunity for those still hoping to mend their ways.
During morning services, worshipers parade around the sanctuary in seven circuits, reciting all seven of the Hoshana prayers that were said on Sukkot (hence the name of the holiday) and later, beat bundles of willow branches against the floor.