Is ‘eight’ a magic number in Judaism? Or, is it only coincidental that Yom Kippur comes on the eighth day following the seven days during which the High Priest would prepare himself for the temple service of that holy day and Shemini Atzeret follows the seven days of Succoth. I would like to suggest that there is a deeper connection between these two days, but first we need to understand the essence of the festival of Shemini Atzeret.
In Vayikra 23:36, the Torah tells us “…on the eighth day, you will have a holy day…it is a day of detention (“Atzeret”)….” The Sefer HaChinuch writes that in reality, Shmini Atzeret is not the eighth day of Succoth, but rather a separate holiday, which occurs at the end of the Succoth holiday. What was the reason why Hashem commanded us to observe this day as a holiday?
During Templetimes, on the seven days of Succoth, a total of seventy bullocks were sacrificed, thirteen the first day, twelve the second, eleven the third, etc., until a total of seventy was reached, corresponding to the seventy recognized nations that existed. The fact is that Succoth is not a holiday for Jews alone but for the entire world. This is one of the chief reasons why we read Megilat Koheleth on Succoth, because it is addressed to the world.
On Shemini Atzeret, suddenly the Torah speaks of “Par Echad, Ayil Echad” – one bullock, one ram. The Alm-ghty declares, “Finally, my people, we are together alone. We have celebrated for all the nations. Now, let us sit down together, Father and son. This festival is a private affair for no one but us.”
Rav Soloveitchik zt’l in one of his lectures asked the following question. Which is the “very greatest holiday?” We would have to answer that it is Shemini Atzeret despite the fact that Yom Kippur is called, “the great day”. Shemini Atzeret is even greater.
This can be explained by the following parable: There was once a king who became separated from his son. They had no contact for years, not knowing if either was alive. The king sent out emissaries to search for his son and after much effort both father and son were informed that the other is alive and ready to be reunited. The question asked is, which is the greater moment? Is it the moment when they are simultaneously informed that the other is alive or is it the moment when the two are ultimately reunited and meet for the initial time? We have the classic example of Jacob and Joseph. Was it a greater moment for the old Jacob when he learned that Joseph lives or was it when they made contact? Each occasion is described in Torah as a momentous event.
What is Yom Kippur? It is the day when the Jewish people are told, “The old father is still alive!” (Bereishit 43:28) It is the day on which Hashem waits with love for us to return to Him. His arms are wide open. “Just come back!” Shemini Atzeret on the other hand is the day when we are truly united with our Father. Our joy is so great that there is no mitzvah connected to that day. (As on other festivals such as Pesach when we are commanded to eat Matzah.) No further commandment is needed to assure that the focus of our happiness on that day is directed towards Hashem.
However, Shemini Atzeret, despite being the day we unite with Hashem, is also the day of our departure. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that Succoth is the last holiday of the Jewish calendar (if we consider the month of Nissan as the beginning of the year, and Pesach the first holiday). By giving us this holiday of Shmini Atzeret, it is as if Hashem is telling the Jewish People, “Please, stay with me one more day, as it is difficult for me to part with you.” Hashem, out of His great love for the nation of Israel, finds it hard to “leave” His children at the end of the holidays. Therefore, He added on one more day, so we, the nation of Israel, can spend one more day with Hashem before our “departure.”