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The Meaning of ‘Atzeret’

The Sages use the word עצרת as the name of the holiday of Shavuot, even though this term is not used in Tanach for this holiday. “Atzeret” is used in Tanach to refer to the last day of Sukkot (Lev. 23:36 and elsewhere) and to the last day of Pesach (Deut. 16:8). The simplest explanation for the Sages’ use of the name “Atzeret” for Shavuot is that they viewed Shavuot as being an appendage to Pesach, just like the eighth day of Sukkot and the seventh day of Pesach are appendages to their first days. Pesach and Shavuot are of course connected by counting of the Omer throughout the period. (Josephus, writing around 100 C.E., also uses something similar to the “Atzeret” term for Shavuot. See Antiquities 3, 252.)

I want to focus on what the noun “atzeret” means in the Sukkot and Pesach contexts. The word appears six times in Tanach, along with an “atzroteichem” at Amos 5:21. Also, the related word עצרה (atzarah) appears four times.

As further background, three out of the six times that the word atzeret appears it is followed by a prohibition on doing any “melechet avodah” (Lev. 23:36 and Num. 29:35) or any “melachah” (Deut. 16:8). When used as a verb, עצר usually means “restrain.”

Let us look at Lev. 23:36 regarding the eighth day of Sukkot. The relevant part of the verse reads: “The eighth day will be a mikra kodesh to you, and you shall bring an offering made by fire to God; it is an atzeret, you shall do no melechet avodah.”

Here are various approaches to “atzeret”:

1. Rashi on this verse understands the meaning of “atzeret” as: “Restrain yourselves from leaving,” i.e., God wants the people to stay another day. (Rashi’s explanation here is based partially on a passage at Sukkah 55b.)

2. Rashbam and Ibn Ezra understand the meaning as: “Restrain yourself from doing work.” This interpretation is found at Chagigah 18a. (It is also the first interpretations that Rashi offers at Num. 29:35 and Deut. 16:8.)

3. Onkelos and many others understand the meaning as “gathering.” Onkelos uses the term כנישין.

(Seforno believes it is a warning to spend time gathering in holy places, serving God. He cites 1 Sam. 21:8, “ne’etzar lifnei Hashem,” but this verse does not really support his point. Others view the gathering as merely a reference to it being one of the shalosh regalim.)

4. Another view is that עצר means “close up” here. This is its meaning in the phrase from Shema at Deut. 11:17: ve-atzar et ha-shamayim. The meaning in our context would be a day that “closes up” the holiday. (This suggestion is one of several mentioned in Daat Mikra. Also, Rabbi Dr. Hertz uses the term “closing festival,” seeming to prefer it over the term “solemn assembly.” The latter is found in the King James version.)

Which view is to be preferred?

With regard to approach #2, three times the phrase with “atzeret” is followed by a prohibition on doing “melechet avodah” or “melacha.” On the simplest level, this suggests that “atzeret” is teaching us something different.

Most significantly, “atzeret” means “gathering” at Jer. 9:1. See similarly Amos 5:21 (“atzroteichem”). Also, the related word “atzarah” appears four times and probably means “gathering” each time. For these reasons, approach #3 is most likely and “atzeret” probably means “gathering” in our Yomim Tovim context.

(Perhaps there was a double meaning intended in the Yomim Tovim context. The “gathering” meaning was the primary meaning but a “close up the holiday” meaning was also intended.)

But what type of gathering? The King James version (or perhaps a predecessor English translation) used the term “solemn assembly.” But why “solemn”? Would not “assembly” be a better translation, to allow for the possibility of a “festive” assembly?

One possibility is that “atzeret” was a reference to a concluding ceremony, such as a concluding prayer ceremony. (I have seen the suggestion that at Pesach it was a prayer for a successful harvest and at Sukkot a prayer for future rain.) Another possibility is a concluding feast. See, e.g., Philo of Alexandria (first century C.E.), Laws 2:211 (writing about the eighth day of Sukkot).

Note that regarding the eighth day of Sukkot, the people would still have been in Jerusalem. But regarding the seventh day of Pesach, it would seem from Deut. 16:7 that they already returned home. So the gathering would have been in their home cities. (I have seen the suggestion that, if the reference is to a prayer gathering, here we might have the origin of our synagogues!)

Rashi at Deut. 16:8, in his second opinion, suggests that “atzeret” is a reference to a gathering for food and drink. But that verse began with a reference to eating. Rashi did not make this suggestion on the other “atzeret” Yomim Tovim verses.

We can attempt to learn more about the connotation of an “atzeret” gathering if we are willing to learn from the four times that the word “atzarah” appears. But we are faced with the same difficulty. At Yoel 1:14 and 2:15, the context of the “atzarah” gathering was a drought and locust invasion, suggesting a solemn prayer gathering. But at 2 Kings 10:20, the context was a joyful feast for Baal. See similarly the meaning at Isa. 1:13.

So, after all that, we cannot determine the nature of the “gathering” and have only offered suggestions.

***

One final detail needs to be addressed: How does a verb that means “restrain” turn into a noun that means “gathering”? The answer is that when people are gathered together they are restraining/confining themselves to one location. See Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim, and Brown-Driver-Briggs.

***

Finally, I would also like to quote from the inspiring words of Rav S. R. Hirsch on Lev. 23:36:

“If we examine the places where the root עצר is used in Tanach, we find, in the far predominating number of cases, that it has the meaning of retaining, keeping back persons, things or forces to guard against their being withdrawn or lost… We accordingly think we are not wrong if we take עצרת to designate a day that is not fixed to bring new lessons and new truths…but which has the mission to keep us still before the Presence of God…to strengthen and solidify the impressions and knowledge that we have already gained, so that they remain with us permanently, and do not become lost in the hurly-burly of life… [It] is a gathering up of all the spiritual ‘treasures’ that we have collected during the days of the Festival…so that we can, at the end…step over into the course of our ordinary life which then begins, truly enriched by them…Therein lies the dual conception of עצר:… remaining with God, and holding fast to all the spiritual acquisitions obtained…”

(The above statement is made by Rav Hirsch regarding the seventh day of Pesach. But he gives a similar explanation regarding the eighth day of Sukkot.)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. His mission is to stop work early and gather up his sources and write articles that all can enjoy in this newspaper that is assembled for you.

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