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Shemini Atzeret / Simhat Torah 5767

Shmini Atzeret
(1 Kings 8:54-66)
October 14, 2006

The following midrash alludes to the religious significance of the building of the Temple: Said Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman: Before the Temple was built, the world stood on a throne with only two legs; when the Temple was built, the world stood firm. (Tanhuma Terumah 9)

Solomon proclaimed in God\’s name: \”Since the day that I brought forth My people Israel out of Egypt, I choose no city out of Israel to build a house, that My name might dwell there… \'[but now I (Solomon)] have set a place for the ark, wherein is the covenant of the Lord, which He made with our fathers, when He brought them out of the land of Egypt.\” (8:16; 21) Consequently, Solomon\’s dedication of the Temple was second in religious significance only to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. (Y. Keil, Melahim, Daat Mikra, p. 193)

At the beginning of chapter 8, we were told that this monumental event occurred at the \”feast – (hag)\” in the seventh month then know as the month of Ethanim. (8:2) At the end of the chapter, which is included in this special haftarah for Shmini Atzeret, the extent of the festivities is described: \”So Solomon and all of Israel with him – a great assemblage, from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt – observed the Feast (hag) at that time before the Lord our God, seven days and again seven days, fourteen days in all. On the eighth he let the people go….\” (65-66) The context of this verse makes it obvious that the \”hag\” being talked about here is Sukkot and the eighth day when Solomon sent the people off, Shmini Atzeret. (This explains the assignment of this haftarah to Shmini Atzeret.) The association of the second seven days with Sukkot is strengthened by a parallel tradition found in the book of Chronicles: \”they observed the dedication of the altar for seven days and the Feast seven days\” (2 Chronicles 7:9)

This understanding posed a problem for the rabbinic tradition. If the second seven days of celebration coincided with Sukkot, then the first seven days included Yom Kippur. (See Rashi and Rabbi David Kimche) In other words, the dedication of the Temple was apparently so monumental that it superseded the observance of Yom Kippur.

How could it be that So;omon could overide the observance of Yom Kippur? The Talmud comes to answer this question: \”Said Rabbi Parnah said Rabbi Yochanon: \’That year Israel did not observe Yom Kippur, and the people were worried and said: [perhaps because we have transgressed and not observed Yom Kippur,] we are deserving of destruction? A heavenly voice pronounced: All of you merit life in the world to come. How do we know this? They argued: If in the Sanctuary [in the desert] which was not to be for perpetuity, an individual\’s sacrifices offered at its inauguration were permitted even on Shabbat which meant doing things on Shabbat which normally would warrant the death by stoning, all the more so is it permitted for the Temple, whose sanctity is for ever, the offering communal, and the punished for transgressing Yom Kippur is only kareth (premature death), how much more so! So what were the people so worried about? They thought this understanding referred only to offerings to God, but what about their eating and drinking – all these are common needs? Shouldn\’t they have made their offerings without partaking of food and drink? [The Talmud replied:] There is no joyous celebration without eating and drinking. (adapted from Moed Katan 9a)

This discussion illustrated that our tradition has its own means for contending with what seem to be contradictions in the law. There are certain times when one practice supersedes another, for instance: the saving of a life (pikuah nefesh) overrides the observance of Shabbat, a person judged as too ill to fast by a doctor is not allowed to fast on Yom Kippur and in our case the dedication of Solomon\’s Temple in Jerusalem was deemed so important as to set aside Yom Kippur. On any of these occasions, not to do as the law requires would be considered a transgression and what might seem to be piety would have been a sin.

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.

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