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Shemini Atzeret / Simhat Torah 5764

Shemini Atzeret
(I Kings 8:54-66)
October 18, 2003
For the Diaspora Only

Solomon, David’s son and king of Israel, has just completed the building of the first Temple. He has offered a prayer of thanksgiving before God and now offers prayers on behalf of the people and the nation. These events of dedication occur, according to the biblical account, during the season of Sukkot: “So Solomon held the feast at that time, and all of Israel with him, a great congregation, [including all of the people] from the entrance to Hamath [in the north] unto the brook of Egypt [in the south], before the Lord, seven days and seven days, even fourteen days. On the eighth day he sent the people away, and they blessed the king. And they went to their tents joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the Lord had shown to David His servant and to Israel His people.” (1 Kings 8:65-66) The final day of the festivities fell on the last day of the Sukkot festival, Shemini Atzeret. This fourteen day period of festivities began seven days before Sukkot with the dedication activities and continued through Sukkot.

This series of events presents an interesting question. Since the seven festive days preceding Sukkot included Yom Kippur and possibly Shabbat, as well, what did the people do on these days? The dedication of the Temple was so important that it was one of the rare instances in the Jewish tradition which supersede normal observance of Shabbat and Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, this approach was not without its problems as we find recorded in the following midrash: “Rabbi Levi said: As it is written: ‘for they kept the dedication of the altar seven days, and the feast seven days.” (2 Chronicles 7:9). There cannot be seven days before Sukkot where there will not be Yom Kippur and Shabbat and during those seven days, the people of Israel were eating and drinking, rejoicing and lighting candles. In the end, the people regretted this behavior and said: ‘You might say that we have sinned for we have profaned Shabbat and did not fast on Yom Kippur.’ God wanted to assuage their guilt since He was pleased with their deeds, so a heavenly voice called out and said: ‘All of you merit the world to come and warrant a blessing, as it says: ‘And they went to their tents happy and good heartedly’ (1 Kings 8:66)’ (adapted from Genesis Rabbah 35:3)

This midrash contends with a dilemma which confronts each of us at one time or another. There are times when we are faced with situations where a choice must be made and we make the right decision and do the right things and yet it feels so wrong. In the situation mentioned in the midrash, the people did what they were supposed to do. On this one occasion festive rejoicing, even on Yom Kippur, was the correct action. Still, it did not feel right. God’s answer to the people was a confirmation that they had acted properly and were worthy of being blessed.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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