Shemini Atseret has always been somewhat of an afterthought for me. Having grown up in a Reform congregation, or having been in Israel for the festival, it did not exist separately but rather as a poor step-sister to Simchat Torah and thus was never discussed or taught except as an extension of Sukkot. As I began to read in preparation to write on Shemini Atseret/Simchat Torah, for this Mekor Chayim, I found that even the best of scholars are unsure of what the word Atseret means.
The JPS Commentary on Leviticus 23:36 says: “Hebrew ‘atseret, “solemn gathering,” is a variation of ‘atsarah, a term that designates religious gatherings, such as public fasts. According to Deuteronomy 16:8, as well as the ritual legislation, the ‘atseret consistently comes at the conclusion of a prolonged celebration. This undoubtedly prompted the Septuagint to render it by Greek exodion, “finale, recessional.” Etymologically, this term derives from the verb ‘atsar, “to detain, restrain, confine,” and may refer to the fact that the people are kept together for an additional day.”
This explanation reflected what I was taught in my seminary classes: Shemini Atseret and the change in the Gevurot to “mashiv haruach u’morid hagashem” marked the end of Sukkot so that people could return to their homes after the pilgrimage to Yerushalayim before the start of the rains. Similarly we were taught that the other Atseret, the Biblical name for Shavuot marked the end of Pesach. This may be an interesting line of thought, but it is not particularly spiritually uplifting.
As I continued to read about Shemini Atseret, I found this passage from the Soncino translation of the Zohar, Chelek Gimmel amud 197a:
R. Abba discoursed on the passage beginning: ‘If thou know not, O thou fairest among women’, etc. (S.S. I, 8). ‘The Community of Israel’, he said, ‘is she that gathers in from all the camps above, and holds in all that she gathers, letting it escape only by drops like dew, because there is not sufficient faith below. For if She were to find faith as it is found in her, She would pour the light on every side without restraint, and they would give to her also gifts and presents without stint. But it is those of the lower world who restrain them and restrain her, and therefore she is called Azereth (the restrainer). Nevertheless, as a mother gives to her sons in secret and unbeknown, so she does with her children, Israel.”
Perhaps then Shemini Atseret, is like R. Abba’s “The Community of Israel”, the “Azereth”. It restrains, marking the end of Sukkot. It wants to pour its light of Torah upon us from all sides as we surround ourselves with the beginning and end of Torah on Simchat Torah. And even after the end of Sukkot, it gives us another little bit, an extra day’s worth of holiness, to “her children Israel” through this almost secret, hidden festival day.