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There seems to be some disagreement about the nature of Shemini Atzeret and the implications of its being called a "Regel Bifnei Atzmo" (a stand-alone festival).

But I assume that, because there are different practical implications (like sitting in the sukkah or ending shiva, both mentioned in the above link), at some point it must have been known exactly what to do. As the article indicates, "The Rishonim disagree as to the implication of “regel bifnei atzmo.”" so what was known became unknown (possibly like the order of parshiyot in tefillin).

Is there any discussion about exactly how and when the nature of Shemini Atzeret became in question?

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The Rishonim are not arguing regarding any points of halacha. They simply disagree as to the meaning of the phrase regel bifnei atzmo.

Everyone agrees that (in Israel) one does not sit in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret. (Sukkah 42b)

And everyone agrees that Shemini Atzeret counts as seven days of sheloshim. (Mo'ed Katan 24b)

  • But that meaning has implications in behavior - if "Rabbeinu Chananel (Sukka 48a) explain that Shemini Atzeret is a “regel bifnei atzmno” in that if one buries a close relative, over whom he must mourn, before the Festival... Shemini Atzeret cancels another seven days of the period of mourning." and "Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot, Sukka 48a, s.v. regel) disagrees, and explains that “regel bifnei atzmo” refers to the obligation to sleep in Jerusalem (lina) during the time of the Beit Ha-Mikdash on the night of Shemini Atzeret." then in the halacha of mourning or sleeping there seems to be disagreement. – rosends Oct 4 '18 at 14:23
  • Later in the article the wording is "The Acharonim discuss whether these differences imply that Shemini Atzeret should actually be perceived as a separate festival, or simply as the eighth day of the Sukkot festival whose halakhot differ somewhat from the seven previous days." So they are unclear about the status of the day. – rosends Oct 4 '18 at 14:32
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    R Chananel and R Tam agree about the laws of mourning and sleeping. The only question is to which of these laws the phrase regel bifnei atzmo refers. The question in the acharonim is one of ‘lamdut’, without any major halachic consequences. – Joel K Oct 4 '18 at 14:46

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