Nizahker Venikatev

Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide to Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, Simhat Torah

The close of the High Holy Day season comes not with Yom Kippur but with three special days at the end of Sukkot: Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simhat Torah. Hoshana Rabbah takes place on the seventh day of Sukkot and is rooted in both biblical traditions of pilgrimage festivals and kabbalistic practices around ensuring a good year to come. Shemini Atzeret follows on the eighth day of Sukkot and is considered a holiday in its own right, when we are commanded to cease all of our work and hold a solemn gathering. Finally, Simhat Torah takes place the day after and is an opportunity to rejoice as we complete the annual cycle of Torah readings. Each of these holidays involves multiple sensory experiences that give us one last chance to connect to Judaism, God, and our intentions for the year.

According to the Jewish mystical text the Zohar, Hoshana Rabbah represents the moment when God’s judgments for each person are “delivered.” In other words, although the gates of prayer may seem to close during the final service of Yom Kippur, Hoshana Rabbah lets us reopen them in time to alter God’s decrees. How do you connect to the idea that our prayers and efforts during this time can have an effect on our fate in the following year? Do you believe that this is literally true? What are other ways that you can understand the power of doing spiritual and interpersonal work at this time of year in particular?

Think back to what you were doing and feeling at the end of Yom Kippur. Did you feel a sense of relief? Of purity? Did you have any lingering regrets or negative thoughts? Hoshana Rabbah reminds us that it is still not too late to work through our remaining problems. Is there an action you can take today that will continue the work you began during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

During the Hoshana Rabbah service, we circle the synagogue seven times while holding up the lulav and etrog. If you have a lulav and etrog at home, try walking around the house seven times with them. If you do not have a lulav and etrog, think of other objects you can use to represent agricultural fertility, like fresh produce or a leafy twig from a tree. What does it feel like to circle your home with these objects? Do they help you to feel more connected with the earth?

In biblical and rabbinic times agricultural production was the main measure of a successful or calamitous year. What measures do we use today to assess individual and communal success? Consider the reasons why most people are disconnected from agricultural production today. Can you find a way to pay more attention to the sources of your food, clothing, and household goods? Take a look at an item of clothing and discover where it was produced. Look at the materials used to make it and imagine the people who tended to those materials, whether natural or synthetic. Take a moment to thank them for their work.

One of the sources for Shemini Atzeret is Leviticus 23:36:

שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים תַּקְרִ֥יבוּ אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַה’ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֡י מִקְרָא־קֹדֶשׁ֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֨ם אִשֶּׁ֤ה לַֽה’ עֲצֶ֣רֶת
הִ֔וא כָּל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ׃

Seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to Adonai. On the eighth day you shall
observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to Adonai; it is a solemn
gathering: you shall not work at your occupations.

What does a “solemn gathering” look like for you in a time when we cannot come together in person? Can you carve out time to cease work on this special day, even for a few moments? What is one thing you can do to make this day feel different from other days?

In his commentary on this verse, Rashi uses the parable of a king who invites his children to a banquet for a certain number of days. When the time comes for them to leave, he says, “Children, I beg of you, stay one day more with me; it is so hard for me to part with you!” What would it feel like to stay in God’s presence for one more day? Do you feel closer to God during Jewish holidays? Is it hard to say goodbye? How can you carry a sense of presence with you beyond this holy time?

Simhat Torah at BJ is a very exciting time, when high-energy dancing and enthusiasm for the year to come fill the sanctuary. Think back over the last seven months. When was the last time you danced? Find a piece of upbeat music (perhaps a traditional Jewish melody like “Sisu Et Yerushalayim” or a contemporary song like “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams) that makes you want to move. Play it as loud as you can (while respecting your housemates and neighbors). Close your eyes and dance with complete abandon. What did it feel like? Were you uplifted? According to the Hasidic masters, we should always observe Judaism with this level of ecstatic joy.

Think back over the journey you have taken throughout this High Holy Day season: Elul, Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Repentance, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and now these last days. How was it different from any other year? How did you manage to make it feel important? Were there ways in which it felt more relevant and special than in other years? Think of one aspect of this journey that you would like to carry into future holiday celebrations. What can we learn from this unique and unprecedented time about new and innovative ways to connect to Judaism?

Look for one artifact from this High Holy Day season. It could be a grocery list, a screenshot of a Zoom service, a song that moved you, a journal entry, or anything else that represents this strange time. Find a way to preserve this item, perhaps by taking a picture or writing down a few words about it. Store it in a place where you can pull it out next year to remind you of what the Jewish people is capable of when forced to be flexible and adapt to a world completely unlike anything we knew before.

For Families & Kids:

These last days of the High Holy Day season are kind of like the end of a long trip. What do you feel like at the end of a trip? Do you feel sad that it is over? Are you happy that you got to do it? Think about a fun trip you went on with your family: Did you learn anything new while you were away?

On Simhat Torah, we dance around with the Torah scroll. Why do you think we dance around with a scroll? Have you ever been so happy that you can’t help but dance a little bit? With your grown-ups’ permission, play your favorite song and dance to it. How do you feel when you do this? The rabbis say that Judaism should always feel like that!

Go for a walk with your family and notice five things in nature that you never noticed before. What are you most thankful for in nature?