Seed for Winter - Sh'mini Atzeret

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

From CHAPTER IV: Seasons of Our Joy

(Beacon, 1990)

After the moon of Tishri has been celebrated in its birth, its swelling, and its fullness, the moon begins to wane, prophesying its own disappearance. At the same moment, in the solar cycle of the year, the fields stand bare and the seed is stored away. In the land of Israel, farmers begin to sniff the smell of rain. Winter looms, the fourth season of the year. The earth prepares to hibernate, go underground, build up reserves of strength to make new life.

The waning moon and the fourth season need a fourth festival, for we need to welcome winter in the world and in ourselves. Mechanical symmetry might have required that a fourth festival stand on its own at the outset of winter, as Shavuot stands at the outset of summer. But Rabbi Joshua ben Levi explained that when the Temple stood, we could not wait till winter to make the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Torrential rains, muddy roads — these meant that we must stay home. So the winter festival was placed immediately at the end of the fall festival, when the pilgrims were still at the Temple.

Just as the spring festival of new life and liberation was not complete till we had counted seven weeks plus one day to the summer festival of fullness and revelation, so the fall festival of ingathering and redemption was not complete till we had counted seven days plus one day to the winter festival of sleeping and inwardness. When the pilgrims returned home, they needed just behind them not the boisterous joy of the sukkah and the water pouring, but the quiet celebration of a sense of inner peace.

So to meet this need we had Sh'mini Atzeret. Some translate this as the Eighth Day of Completion, others, the Eighth Day of Assembly. For atzeret means putting a boundary, restraining, collecting — either the days (and so, completion of the festival) or the people (and so, assembly of the multitude).

We can understand the restraint as inward, too. While the Temple stood, we turned from the expansive week of the multiple sacrifices of Sukkot to the minimum: one bull, one ram. The Talmud teaches that this reduction of the sacrifice from 70 bulls to one represents God's turning from concern with the 70 nations — the whole world — to a quiet tete-a-tete alone with the people of Israel. The approach fits well with seeing Sh'mini Atzeret as the inward, wintry holy day, the festival of self-restraint.

Not only was the explicit message of Sh'mini Atzeret a measure of constriction, retreat, quiet — so was its medium, the implicit message of its form. For by tacking Sh'mini Atzeret right on to Sukkot, the Torah made sure that it would almost disappear from sight — like a seed disappearing into the ground; made sure that the tradition would speak of the three pilgrimage festivals — Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot — while almost forgetting the fourth. Almost-but never quite.

It is as if this shadowy festival, this miniature celebration, was the yod — the tiny letter of the four in God's most holy name. The yod is the first letter of the Name, but suppose we see the Name as a continuing process, a spiral in which the end is a new beginning and the beginning stands also at the end. Then the yod is a tiny seed at the end of the Name, the concentrated lesson of its flowering, the seed that carries meaning forward to begin the next saying of the Name.


In the four passages where Torah recites the festivals, Sh'mini Atzeret appears only twice. In Exodus 23 and Deuteronomy 16, Sukkot appears as a seven-day holiday, standing alone. But in Leviticus 23:36, God tells Moses to explain to the Israelites:

On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred assembly and bring a fire-offering to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations.

And Numbers 29:35-38 specifies:

On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations. You shall present a burnt-offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord; one bull, one ram, seven yearling lambs, without blemish; the meal offerings and libations for the bull, the ram, and the lambs, in the quantities prescribed, and one goat for a sin offering — in addition to the regular burnt offering, its meal offering and libation.

During the period of the Second Temple, it became the norm to pray for rain for the first time each year on Sh'mini Atzeret. Thus Sh'mini Atzeret became the specific place among the Tishri festivals to locate that part of the ancient Middle Eastern autumn celebration that looked forward to the winter rain.

The Mishnah explains that rain during Sukkot would drench the lattice-roofed sukkah, and so would feel to those who were living there like a curse rather than a blessing. So the prayer for rain should wait till the sukkah dwelling was complete. It may also be true that by waiting to pray for rain till Sh'mini Atzeret, separating the water pouring of Sukkot from the rain prayer of Sh'mini Atzeret by one full week, the tradition kept the two from fully combining into one act of sympathetic magic.

With the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis preserved the sense of restraint and retreat that had pervaded Sh'mini Atzeret by seeing it as a faint and final echo of Yom Kippur. It is the day on which the world is rewarded or punished through the giving or withholding of rain, and therefore the last day of the Tishri season on which repentance and prayer before God may bring forgiveness.


Sh'mini Atzeret begins as do other Festival days. The Festival candle is lit and the blessing Sheh-hechianu said to praise God for keeping us alive until this moment. Kiddush is made over wine, and the evening service follows the usual Festival pattern.

In the morning, the Hallel psalms of praise (Psalms 113-118) are sung, the special Festival paragraph is read in the Amidah, and the Yizkor memorial service for the dead is read. There are two Torah readings: Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 describes the tithing process to support the poor, the release of debts in every seventh year, and the liberation of slaves in the seventh year of their service.

The brief passage from Numbers 29:35-39 describes the special sacrifices for the day: one bull, one ram, and seven yearling lambs. The Prophetic haftarah is I Kings 8:54-66, in which King Solomon and the whole people complete-on Sh'mini Atzeret-their dedication of the Holy Temple, and the people begin their departure to their homes.

After the Torah is read, the recitation of the Kaddish that ends the morning service is done with the melody used on Yom Kippur, and the leader of prayer puts on the Yom Kippur white robe or kittel in preparation for the rain prayer.

It is in the musaf (additional) service that Sh'mini Atzeret has its distinctive moment, different from all the other holy days. Since the previous Passover, through the summer months, the congregation has been praying that God send dew to keep the earth moist-for there is no rain in the Land of Israel during those months. Now, at musaf on Sh'mini Atzeret, the prayer changes.

When it is time for the standing Amidah prayer to be repeated aloud by the person who is leading the congregation in prayer, the Ark is opened. The leader begins the Amidah and pauses in the midst of the first of its blessings after ". . . O King, Helper, Savior, and Shield!"

The reader then chants a brief prayer: "Af-Bri is the name of the prince of rain, who gathers the clouds and makes them drop rain, water to adorn the earth with green. Be it not held back because of unpaid debts! Shield your faithful who pray for rain," and completes the blessing, "Blessed are you, the Shield of Abraham. You are mighty forever, Lord; You revive the dead and are great in saving power."

The reader then chants a prayerful poem by Eleazar Kalir that is presumably a plea for rain, but in fact asks some thirty times not for rain, geshem, but for water, mayim. In a way this prayer brings all the water imagery of the Tishri festivals to a flood of meaning, for it reminds us of all the adventures our forebears had with wells and seas and rivers.

The prayer can be sung in English to the tune of "Cool Clear Water" and the translation of David de Sola Pool:

Our God, God of our forebears:

Remember one who followed Thee as to the sea flows water
Thy blessed son, like tree well set where rivers met of water
Where'er he moved, Thou wast his shield; in fire or field or water
And heaven-proved, his seed he sowed, wherever flowed a water.
For Abram's sake send water!

Remember one whose heralds three beneath the tree had water,
Whose sire was won to do Thy will, his blood to spill like water.
Himself as high in faith could soar, his heart to pour like water.
Where earth lay dry, he dug and found deep underground the water.
For Isaac's sake send water!

Remember one, his staff who bore from Jordan's shore o'er water,
And rolled the stone-his love to tell-from off the well of water,
And, wrestling hard, achieved to tire a prince of fire and water.
Hence Thy regard him safe to bear through fire and air and water.
For Jacob's sake send water!

Remember one whose ark 'mid sedge was drawn from edge of water,
Thy shepherd son who could not sleep before his sheep had water.
And when Thy flock did likewise burn with thirst and yearn for water,
He struck the rock, there gushed a rill, to give their fill of water.
For Moses' sake send water!

Remember one, Thy Temple-priest, who hallowed feast with water.
Atonement's sun declined to night with fivefold rite of water.
The Law was read, and then afresh he laved his flesh with water.
Remote, in dread, he served his folk that swiftly broke like water. For Aaron's sake send water!

Remember last the tribes who fled across the bed of water,
Thy chosen caste for whom turned sweet the bitter sheet of water.
For Thee their race have ever shed their hearts' best red like water.
Without Thy face their spirits whirl as in a swirl of water!
For Israel's sake send water!

And finally, the prayer comes to a climax:

For You are the Lord our God, who makes the wind blow and the rain fall! — for blessing and not for disaster; for life and not for death; for plenty and not for famine.

From this point on in every Amidah until the Musaf service on the first day of Pesach, the congregation mentions that God is the One Who makes the wind blow and the rain fall.

Once we experience the pleading of this prayer, the Sukkot water pouring takes on a deeper quality. Perhaps it was intended not to coerce nature, but to free the people from their own dryness so they could one week later plead with God. It is to be our prayers that water heaven, not the water poured upon the ground.

Why is the prayer for rain introduced into the blessing that praises God for reviving the dead? Because rain revives the parched and deadened earth, gives life to seeds that are buried underground. And so, as Sh'mini Atzeret ends, we look once more to the great revival.

In the afternoon, although Sukkot is over and it is no longer a mitzvah to eat in the sukkah, the traditional custom was to eat there anyway one last time, as a gesture of love and respect, and on leaving to say: "Just as I merited to sit in this sukkah, may it be Your will that next year I merit to sit in that sukkah made from the skin of Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem!"

For when Messiah comes, according to folk legend, God will turn leatherworker (as at the end of Eden when God made leather garments for Eve and Adam). God will at last slay the primeval sea monster Leviathan, and from its skin will tailor the great sukkah that enfolds all Israel in peace. Under that sukkah we will all sit, to dine on Leviathan's meat. No longer will we need to fear a monster from the deeps-the ocean deep, or the depths of our own souls.

On Shabbos during Sukkot or on Sh'mini Atzeret, the book of Kohelet or Ecclesiastes (Convoker or Assembler) is traditionally read as one of the five scrolls or megillot set aside for five of the holy days. (The others are the Book of Esther for Purim, Song of Songs for Pesach, Ruth for Shavuot, and Lamentations for Tisha B'Av.)

The tradition gives two reasons for reading Kohelet at this season. One is that its melancholy overtones fit the time of year; the other, that the verse (11:2) "Distribute portions to seven or even to eight. . ." refers to the seven day/eighth-day pattern of Sukkot and Sh'mini Atzeret. On either ground, it would seem especially appropriate to read Kohelet during Sh'mini Atzeret.

It is a wintry book, the summing up of a cycle of life that has revolved its way through joy and sorrow, war and peace, merry-making and boredom. Its author has concluded: "Whoever keeps watch on the wild will never sow seed; whoever scans the clouds will never reap . . . Sow your seed in the morning, and don't hold back your hand in the evening, since you don't know which is going to succeed, the one or the other, or if both are equally good."

It is the book of detachment, of accepting whatever you get, of learning to enjoy not only the peaks but also the chasms of an involved life — and then learning to float beyond those very hills and valleys. It is the book that says: In the light of my approaching death, how disastrous is this disgrace? How wonderful this triumph?

In traditional congregations, Kohelet is read just before the Torah service. Some congregations read it individually, as a kind of introspective meditation. Others read it aloud from a handwritten scroll, like the reading of Esther at Purim, and pronounce over it the blessing "Who has commanded us about the reading of the scroll":

Baruch atah Adonai eloheynu melech ha-olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav vitzivanu al mikra megillah.

And then, the blessing Sheh-hechianu, in praise of the One Who keeps us alive. In less traditional congregations, the song "Turn Turn Turn" (taken from 3: 1-8) may be sung to Pete Seeger's tune, and part or all of Kohelet may be read and discussed later in the day.


On Sh'mini Atzeret we remember the dead in yizkor and then pray for water. Is our water prayer a plea for drops of rain alone-or also for tears, the ability to cry? Tears less exalted than those of Yom Kippur, less frightened than those of Tisha B'Av-but tears of memory and compassion?

In the phrase we add to the amidah, "Who makes the wind blow and the rain fall," we use ruach for wind — the word that means not only the rush of air in the world but also the rush of breath within our bodies and the rushing spirit in our souls.

Just so, perhaps, the raindrops that we pray for can be the drops within as well as those without: the tears that fall from our bodies and our spirits when we are most sad and most compassionate, when we are full to overflowing with a sad and plaintive love. Perhaps the real water pouring that evokes God's love is our pouring out of tears.

One spiritual task of Jews at Sh'mini Atzeret may, therefore, be to open the wellsprings of their own compassion. The recitation of yizkor may be a time for the congregation not only to remember the family dead and far-off famous martyrs, but the deaths and cripplings that are near at hand.

A few participatory chavurah congregations have read part of Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish — his memorial poem for his mother, one of the greatest crystallizations of the first painful generations of American Jewish life. In its transmutation of that pain into great art, the poem not only helps tears to fall but achieves the same revival of the dead that we celebrate in the prayer for rain.

There was a time one fall when Jews from all across America came together to plant a tree of peace on the grounds of the United States Capitol. It was a dismal rainy day, a dismal dispirited time in the long years of effort to end the Vietnam War. The tens of thousands who had gathered months before to call for peace had vanished, and there were only dozens in their place.

One by one, people vowed to end the destruction of the trees of Vietnam. One by one they placed a shovel-full of earth upon the roots of the tree, and one by one they watered it with tears of sorrow and frustration. Together they sang a new and plaintive tune to an old song, a song long sung about the Torah:

Etz chayim hi 1'machizikim bah . . . etz chayim hi 1'shalom.
A tree of life she is for those who hold her close; a tree of life, for peace.

And since then on Sh'mini Atzeret it has been possible to remember and to cry:

Remember those who struggled in the desert, Lord,
And for their sake please give us water.

The trees of life need water, Lord.
In this new desert, napalm-seared,
We till a soil that rots our flesh.
We turn a soil so poison-soaked it turns the rain to poison.
It rains and rains, but our trees die.
Our trees need water.

The tree of peace needs water, Lord.
On this deserted lawn beneath the Capitol
We lift our puny spades against its power.
We turn a soil so power-soaked it turns the rain to poison.
It rains and rains, but our tree dies.
Our tree needs water.

The Tree of Life needs water, Lord.
In this dry city of Your absence, Lord,
We plant old prayers of withered meaning.
We walk a land so soaked with fear it turns Your rain to poison.
It rains and rains, but Torah dies. The Tree needs water.

We do not pray for rain, O Lord;
We have enough.
We pray to be allowed to cry.
We pray You open dry canals.
We pray for tears: a stream of tears,
Enough to water into strength
The seeds that fall from helpless trees
That we have planted.

Remember us still struggling in the desert, Lord,
And for Your sake please give us water.


Recipe by Hannah Waskow z'l and Rose Gertz, z'l


2 envelopes dry yeast
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/z cup lukewarm water
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups hot water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs, beaten poppy seed
7-8 cups flour (about)

Note: pinch of saffron (brew in a little hot water and strain if you want a yellow challah)

Soften the yeast in the lukewarm water. To the boiling hot water, add the saffron (brew) if wanted, oil, salt, and sugar. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Cool and when lukewarm, not before, add the softened yeast.

Reserve about 2 tablespoons of the egg for brushing loaves later, and add the remainder to the liquid. Turn into a large mixing bowl, add about three cups of flour. Stir and beat to a smooth, thick batter.

Set aside for 10 minutes; add flour to make dough that can be handled. Turn out on a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic. Shape into a ball and grease the entire surface well. Place in well-greased mixing bowl, cover with a clean cloth.

Let rise in a warm, never hot, place to double in bulk. (If your oven does not have a pilot light, a warm pan of water in the bottom of the stove will help the dough to rise. It may be necessary to change the water once or twice.) Try to avoid over-rising as it will affect the texture of the challah. Punch down and knead again until dough is fine-grained. Divide dough to make two loaves. Form each portion into a long roll about 2 inches thick.

Coil each roll to look like a coiled snake with its head up in the center — which is how people saw angels with their wings raised. (Tuck the end of the coil under the side to hold in place.) Place loaves on greased baking sheet. Using pans of a size that will allow the ends of the challah to climb for support will help. Cover, let rise to double in bulk as before.

Add a spoonful of cold water to the reserved egg. Brush the surface of both loaves and sprinkle with poppy seed. Bake in a hot oven (400° F.) for about 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to moderate (350° F.) and bake for 45 minutes. Test for doneness by tapping bottom of challah. They should sound hollow. Cool on racks. May be sliced and frozen. Very good toasted.

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