There is always a bit of confusion about when the Feast of Tabernacles ends. The biblical holiday of Sukkot lasts an entire week. But somewhere along the way you may have heard of foreign-sounding holidays, like Hoshana Raba, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. What do they all mean and when are they celebrated?
Don’t worry, you are not the only one asking. Since some overlap with Sukkot and others with each other, even some Israelis need a moment to arrange these days in their head! So, let’s start with that – their correct order.
Hoshana Raba, which means Great Salvation, is the seventh final day of Sukkot and God called it great.
Although the seventh day is technically the last, the celebrations continue, because God told the Israelites to hold a closing ceremony on the eight day. This is the day we call Shemini Atzeret.
Simchat Torah is the holiday that causes the most confusion, because it falls on a different day depending where you are. If you happen to be in the land of Israel, Simchat Torah is celebrated on the same day as Shemini Atzeret. However, if you are anywhere else in the world – it is the day after.
Now let’s take a closer look at each one of these holidays, how they are celebrated, and what the Bible says about them.
Hoshana Raba and the Water Pouring Ceremony
A what ceremony? If this is the first time you are hearing about it, it may be because it is not mentioned in the Bible. Why do we mention it then? Because the ritual must have started some time during the Old Testament days. Though mentioned only in the Talmud (the oral law honored by the Jewish people), the tradition was widely practiced in Jesus’ lifetime.
The Water Pouring Ceremony, or Water Drawing, was an event on the last day of Sukkot. The Priests would pour water over the altar that was earlier drawn from the Pool of Siloe. The previously mentioned name Hoshana Raba (Great Salvation) was derived from the words of Prophet Isaiah who wrote, “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (12:3). Thus, the people were drawing and pouring the water while praying for salvation.
It is no coincidence that on this day, which Apostle John calls the greatest day of Sukkot, Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah was on the Temple Mount to tell His brothers and sisters that He can give them living water:
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them. John 7:37-38
Shemini Atzeret – Staying Another Day
As mentioned in the beginning, the day after Sukkot is also a holiday, because God gave the Israelites specific instructions to set it apart: “On the eighth day hold a closing special assembly and do no regular work.” Numbers 29:35
The word shemini comes from the Hebrew word for ‘eighth’ and atzeret means to hold back or to remain. The name was chosen specifically because after the fullness that is seven days of Sukkot, God asked the people to stay and to dwell with Him for another day. The eighth day becomes a new beginning, and it is a privilege to remain in God’s presence for an additional day.
Shemini Atzeret is also associated with the first rains of this season. After a hot and dry summer in Israel, the whole nation would pray for rain – both in the ancient days and today! A sign of blessing and God’s favor, early rains are an integral part of the fall feasts.
Don’t ask me what the odds are, but in the recent years the first rains of this season in Israel would indeed come at the end of Sukkot! It is all the more surprising if you consider the fact that the Feasts can fall either in September or October. Will the rains come on Shemini Atzeret this year as well? We will soon find out, but regardless, Israel will be praying.
Rejoicing in God’s Word on Simchat Torah
The last remaining holiday of the fall feasts – which simultaneously starts a new season – is Simchat Torah (literally Joy of the Torah). The yearly cycle of reading through Scriptures for the Jewish people begins and ends on this joyous day. After reading the last passages in the Torah, the scrolls are rolled back to the beginning, to read the first verses of Genesis.
You may remember that in the spring Jewish people observe Festival of Weeks, commonly known by its Hebrew name – Shavuot. It is a celebration of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. While Shavuot focuses on receiving the commandments which confirmed God’s covenant with Israel, Simchat Torah celebrates living it out and having our lives changed by the Word of God.
Since the days of Judges and Prophets, the people of Israel have been following laws and obeying commandments that set a very high standard for their lives. In fact, with centuries gone by, they have not been able to fulfill the entirety of the Law. That is because all Scripture is fulfilled only in the Messiah. He is the embodiment of the Torah.
By delving into Scriptures, we discover God’s wisdom and His mercy. We rejoice in His faithfulness and are grateful for His Salvation. The Word of God is our light post in any hardship, and our hope in times of trouble. Although the Bible doesn’t instruct us to observe Simchat Torah, we know that the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). So, we rejoice in God’s Word and glorify His name.
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