Shabbat Greetings

Is Shemini Atzeret a part of Sukkot or is it a distinctive holiday? One answer to this question can be found in its major liturgical distinction. On Shemini Atzeret, Jews commence the recitation of “Mashiv Haruah u’morid hagashem – God makes the wind blow and the rain fall” – the acknowledgment that God is the source of wind and rain.

This might seem bizarre to someone living outside of Israel, especially with all of the rain we have had in the past month, but in Israel where it rains only during a portion of the year, this awareness is serious business since the rainy season begins around the time of Sukkot and today, as in ancient times, a plentiful rainy season is one of the determiners of the nation’s prosperity. If we were to follow the lead of the ritual for Passover, which marks the end of the rainy season and the acknowledgment of God being the source of dew, we might assume that we should have started the recitation of the prayers for rain on the first day of Sukkot. On this count, the Mishnah teaches:

All seven days, a person makes their sukkah their permanent dwelling place, and their house a temporary [dwelling pace]. If rain should fall, when is it permitted to leave? When their porridge would be spoiled. They explained [why rain during Sukkot is a bad thing] in a parable: To what can this be likened? To a slave who pours out wine into his master’s glass and he [the master] spilled the pitcher [of water] onto his (the servant’s) face. (Mishnah Sukkah 2:9)

This strange parable explains why rain on the festival of Sukkot is a bad thing even though Sukkot is very much about rain. The servant in this parable represents the people of Israel who come before God to request rain. The building of the sukkah, the waving of lulav and etrog and the ceremony of the waving of hoshanot (willow branches) all represent liturgical requests for rain practiced to this day. In addition, the servant who comes to bring wine to his master so that they might be mixed together. (This was how they drank wine in the ancient world.) represents the water and wine libations which were offered in the Temple during Sukkot. However, since the festival requires dwelling in a Sukkah, rain during the festival would have been ill-timed and consequently, is represented as a sign of divine anger. (See S. Safrai and Z. Safrai, Mishnat Eretz Yisrael Masekhet Sukkah p. 121)

This explains why we acknowledge God as the source of rain only on Shemini Atzeret when we are no longer required to dwell in the Sukkah.

This same consideration explains why there used to be a practice of NOT asking for rain in the weekday Amidah even at the end of Sukkot. In Israel, we wait until two weeks after Sukkot (7 Heshvan) so that the pilgrims to Jerusalem in Temple times would have adequate time to reach home outside of Israel before the rains began.

May Shemini Atzeret this year usher in a year of blessings, as we say in our prayers for rain: For blessing and not for curse; for life and not for death; for plenty and not for scarcity!