Right after the festival of Sukkot, the two-day festival of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah is celebrated.
“…On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the Festival of Sukkot, seven days for the L-RD… on the eighth day, there shall be a holy convocation for you.” -Leviticus 23:34
While very often Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret are considered part of Sukkot, these days are not part of this festival and differ in customs. For example, on these days we do not hold and recite a blessing over Etrog and Lulav, nor do we spend the entire day in the Sukkah.
Shemini Atzeret is Tishri 22 and 23, while Simchat Torah is Tishri 23. In Israel these two days are a one day celebration, while in the Diaspora they are a two-day celebration. Constituting a major holiday, they are considered Yom Tov.
Origin of Names
Shemini Atzeret translates in English to "the assembly of the eighth (day)." According to Rabbinic literature, God 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. Another related explanation: Sukkot is a holiday intended for all of mankind, but when Sukkot is over, the Creator invites the Jewish people to stay for an extra day, for a more intimate celebration.
According to chassidic masters, the primary purpose of the festival is to retain and "conceive" the spiritual revelations and powers that we are given during the festivals of the month of Tishrei, so that we could subsequently apply them to our lives during the year.
Simchat Torah means "Rejoicing in the Torah." This holiday marks the completion of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings.
Shemini Atzeret is the first day and on this day we recite the prayer for rain and Izkor prayer, so God will remember the souls of the departed.
Work is prohibited, women and girls light candles and have Kiddush.
Simchat Torah is a day of great celebrations; we go out into the streets for ‘Hakafot’ in the morning and evening, carrying the Torah scrolls and dancing together, beginning in the synagogue. The ceremony begins in the synagogue when men and children are given the opportunity to make Aliyah; reciting a blessing over the Torah reading. After the Aliyah we begin a new cycle of reading the Torah from book of Genesis.
Aliyah means ‘to go up’, making Aliyah to the Torah is having the honor to go up and recite the blessing before and after it is read.
Continuing the celebration of Sukkot, this special festival reminds us again the power of a congregation. Coming together in prayer, joy, song and dance, we share the same heart and love for Him and our Torah.
No matter where we are, on these days we become one, a union that cannot be shaken or separated.