Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Azaret & Simchat Torah a time of our rejoicing.
Succot is the most joyous feast of the year. With Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Azaret & Simchat Torah providing the capstone to our joy. So what is Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Azaret & Simchat Torah?
Rosh Hashanah is the 7th day of Succot. During this celebration the four species are held and waved during processions around the Synagogue. These processions commemorate similar processions around the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. While the procession is made, we recite "Hosha na!" (please save us!). On Hoshana Rabbah seven circuits are made. For this reason that day is known as Hoshanah Rabbah (the great Hoshanah). After the circuits on Hoshanah Rabbah, we beat the willow branches against the floor five times, shaking loose some or all of the remaining leaves. The rainy season in Israel begins in the fall, and the leaves falling from the willow branch symbolize our desire for beneficial rainfall.
Shemini Azaret means "the assembly of the eighth (day)." Our Rabbis explain the holiday as: Adonai is like a host, who invites us as visitors for a limited time, but when the time comes for us to leave, He has enjoyed himself so much that He asks us to stay another day.
Another related explanation: Sukkot is a holiday intended for all of mankind, but when Sukkot is over, the Creator invites the Jewish people to stay for an extra day, for a more intimate celebration.
Simchat Torah means "Rejoicing in the Torah." This holiday marks the completion of the yearly cycle of weekly Torah readings. Weekly we publicly read from the Torah, starting with Genesis Ch. 1 and working through to Deuteronomy 34. On Simchat Torah, we read the last Torah portion, then immediately begin again at the first chapter of Genesis, reminding us that the Torah is a circle, and never ends.
This completion of the Torah is a time of great celebration. Processions carrying the Torah scrolls around the synagogue with singing and dancing.
As many people as possible are given the honor of an aliyah (reciting a blessing over the Torah reading); in fact, even children are called for an aliyah blessing on Simchat Torah. In addition, as many people as possible are given the honor of carrying a Torah scroll in these processions. Children do not carry the scrolls (they are much too heavy!), but often follow the procession around the synagogue, sometimes carrying small toy Torahs (stuffed plush toys or paper scrolls).
"L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem" (or to women, "L'shanah tovah tikatevi v'taihatemi"), which means "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year." Rabbi Gavri'el