Our parsha this week centers on the dedication of the Mishkan. It also discusses the laws and signs for kosher animals and some of the laws of purity. The parsha is called Shemini, which means eighth. The dedication of the Mishkan, a home for the presence of God, involved a week of preparation and culminated on the eighth day.
The numbers seven and eight play significant roles in the Torah and throughout Judaism. If we look at the Torah as well as Jewish laws and customs, we see many occurrences of “sevens” including the seven laws of Noah, the Laws of Shemita where the Land of Israel was allowed to lie fallow one year in seven, seven wedding blessings and seven days of mourning after the death of a close relative. However, we also have rabbinic and kabbalistic sources which indicate very strongly that eight is also a magical number. This is one of the themes behind this week’s parsha.
What is the significance of the number eight in Judaism?
According to many commentaries on the Torah, the building of the Mishkan was the final act of creation. The Mishkan was the home for God amongst his people and a place where Jews could connect to God on a regular basis. Thus the seven days of preparation before dedicating the Mishkan, reflects the idea of remembering the original Creation and its purpose – bringing holiness into the world. The altar was also prepared for seven days and was then ready for use on the eighth day. But the eighth day was the culmination of all the preparation. The Rabbis called the eighth a day which was above nature- “lemaala min hateva”.
In Jewish thought, the number seven represents the world of nature and the world of the physical. However, the number Eight symbolizes an idea that there are things that are one step above the natural order or higher than nature and its limitations. The number eight symbolizes that which transcends the natural world. It is a world which we reach by going beyond the limits of our five senses. The number eight is the spiritual infusion that we seek in order to fulfill and touch the depths of our souls. It is that which we feel but perhaps cannot explain. It is something that brings meaning to our lives on a whole other level.
Channukah is the holiday which we celebrate for 8 days. On Channukah, we believe that the miracle was not just the oil lasting for eight days, but really about the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks which was an “unnatural” victory. It was unnatural because of the differences in the sizes of the armies and the types of weapons available. Likewise, the holiday of Shemini Atzeret (leading into Simchat Torah), the eighth day of Sukkot, has so much intrinsic holiness that we have no need for the physical reminders like a sukkah or the four species. It is a day in which we are elevated to another level in order to receive the Torah once again.
Parshat Shemini is about the transition from the physical to the spiritual world. The purpose of the Mishkan was to be a place for us to attain divine levels above nature. The goal of working through “seven” (physical) is to get to the “eighth”. What does this mean for us? The Torah does not negate the value of the physical world. In fact, like the beauty of the Mishkan, we do not deny our physical needs, but we use the physical to get to the spiritual. If we become trapped in the physical world and material objects become too central to our lives or they become that which gives us meaning, then we will never reach other heights. If materialism becomes the main way to define ourselves, determine our worth, or to make ourselves happy, then we will have missed out on the chances for growth. As we begin our Passover preparations, we need to remind ourselves that the preparations in this world are necessary and hopefully meaningful. The true experience of freedom, however, will only come if we can reach higher, to the eighth level.