As soon as you finish celebrating Sukkot, you are on to the next holiday. Shemini Atzeret is a day dedicated to the spiritual component of these festival days and the relationship between God and the Jews. Shemini Atzeret is the Assembly of the Eighth Day: shemini means “eighth,” referring to the eighth and final day of Sukkot, and atzeret translates as “solemn assembly.”
Atzeret also translates as “holding back,” suggesting another dimension to Shemini Atzeret. Indeed, the day represents a holding back from ending the festival days of Sukkot. The purpose for this extension is to bring the period of Sukkot to a state of completion or perfection. This eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, is dedicated to achieve this purpose.
Historically, Shemini Atzeret was the day of sacrifices for the benefit of the People of Israel. Since the Israelites were primarily farmers in an arid land, a special prayer for rain was made on this day. As we shall see, this prayer remains part of the liturgy on Shemini Atzeret.
Like Shavuot, which marks the closure of Pesach, Shemini Atzeret could have occurred seven weeks later. However, a midrash explains that rather than requiring the Israelites to travel back to Jerusalem during the rainy season, God allowed the closure of Sukkot to be observed as an added day when the weather was more favorable.
Observances of Shemini Atzeret
Since Shemini Atzeret is a festival day in its own right, traditional rituals like lighting candles, saying the Kiddush over the wine, and saying grace after the meal, are performed at home on the eve of the holiday.
In keeping with the festival's historical significance as a day when God's intervention is sought for a good harvest ahead, a special prayer for rain, called Geshem, is recited during the Musaf service. While chanting Geshem, the cantor traditionally dons a white gown and chants a melody similar to that for the Days of Awe. Shemini Atzeret is also an appropriate time for reciting the Yizkor, the memorial prayer for the dead.