It is a commonplace to say that something is what it is. Well, Shemini Atseret is what it isn’t.
On the one hand, it is the eighth day of sukkot, hence the name “Shemini” which means eighth. On the other hand, as we say “Shehechiyanu” on Shemini Atseret, it is a separate holiday. On yet another hand, there are different interpretations of what Atseret means, whether ‘stop’ or ‘gather’ or to “store up” as with grain. It is marked by Yizkor, the memorial prayer, and geshem, the prayer for rain, but neither defines the holiday.
So what is it? It is the close of the extended holiday season, a chance to usher in the winter rains, an additional day to linger in God’s presence. In other words, it is many things, but without the single defining feature that so marks other holidays in the Jewish calendar. Seven days of the week, seven days of creation – the eighth is extra, over and above the requirement. Shemini Atseret expresses our unwillingness to leave the holiday sense of God’s presence; a gentle, lingering close to the celebrations and a portal to the new year.