The number eight in Jewish life

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Shemini

Let’s talk about numbers, shapes, symbols and images applied to life.

There is a song that kids love which has traditionally been inserted at the end of the Passover Seder called Echad Mi Yodea (“Who Knows One?”). It progressively links numbers to important concepts in Torah. But one may naturally wonder: What does this simple numerical song have to do with telling the story of Exodus from Egypt, the objective of the night?

One theory is that it snuck into our Pesach traditions because this holiday is the most opportune time for Jewish education, namely imparting to the child (and to ourselves) a Torah worldview. Central to this system is the ability to make sharp and meaningful associations rather than random, chaotic ones. Thus, reciting “Who knows one?” instills an instinctive mental connection between numbers and holy ideas, beginning with One G-d and continuing with each subsequent number in the song.

A name and a number

This week, the number eight is particularly prominent. The parasha title, Shemini, means “the eighth” — after the opening words “And it came to pass on the eighth day.” It’s the only Torah portion whose name is a number. And in certain years (outside of Israel), we read this portion a total of eight times.

The eighth day to which it refers follows last week’s instructions to complete a seven-day inaugural process of the Mishkan (sanctuary). The day after this inauguration was designated for inducting Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. It was also the day on which the presence of G d was revealed—when the Shechinah began to rest amongst Israel.

One of the primary commentaries on the Torah, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, known as the “Kli Yakar,” is bothered by the opening words “beyom shemini.” The premise of his query is that labeling something the “eighth” in any sequence implies a common feature with the previous seven. The events of this day, however, were not a continuation of the previous seven, but the beginning of a new process. If so, he questions, why was this called “the eighth”? It should have said something like “the following day” or “the day of revelation.”

Sevenths and eighths

His answer, rich with insights, explains that the Torah uses the term “the eighth” to highlight its extraordinary quality — a day of revelation. He elucidates how the number eight, which often appears in the Tanach (scriptures) in conjunction with the number seven, carries specific connotations: While the number seven relates to the natural experience and cycles, the number eight signifies something supernatural, a unique divine disclosure. (The Hebrew word shemini, eight, also shares a root with shamen, which means fat or expanded.)

This numerical symbolism is a recurring theme: There are seven musical notes in any given scale. Our weekly cycle consists of seven days. The symbolic seven-stringed harp of the first two Temples stands in contrast to the eight-stringed harp of Messianic times when the entire world will reach a higher consciousness, “for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of G-d, as the waters cover the seabed.” Interestingly, the infinity symbol we use takes the form of a sideways eight.

The Kli Yakar’s commentary goes on to explain how these numerical representations appear even in Jewish law where the positive mitzvah of circumcision overrides the prohibition of forbidden labors on Shabbat; a brit milah is associated with eight while Shabbat is associated with the number seven — “and the rule is that the sacred takes precedence over the mundane.”

Grades of holiness

While his question on the Torah’s usage of “eighth” is thought-provoking, there are two apparent difficulties with his answer. First, how can he claim that the seventh day, Shabbat, is part of the mundane? After all, throughout the Torah and prophets we find references to how this spiritual day of rest is permeated with holiness (for example, “And G-d blessed the Shabbat day and made it holy,” Exodus 20:11). These verses — which are found in the kiddush (from the same Hebrew root word as “holy”) — clearly stress the sanctity of the day.

The commentaries clarify that the expression “seven refers to the mundane” is only relative. Our “day of rest” is indeed elevated above the other six days in its purpose — it’s the completion of the natural order, the holy element within creation. But the number eight symbolizes a level beyond creation — not just higher, but completely distinct.

What emerges from this discussion is that there are two general grades of holiness: (1) a finite holiness that still has a relationship to the natural order. We can access this level with our actions — by refining the world through mitzvot (good deeds) Then there is (2) a more transcendent holiness, too potent to be incorporated within the physical realm, except for certain occasions. The former — raw, seemingly ordinary existence of material that, when elevated, becomes the perfection within the world — is reflected by the number seven. The latter, a holiness that transcends this world, a vision of the world to come, is reflected by the number eight.

If so, it seems that the Kli Yakar didn’t really answer his question, but instead strengthened it — the number eight reflects something completely beyond the natural cycle of seven. Likewise, the eighth day was disconnected from the previous seven, a unique occurrence of revelation. How then does this intricate commentary solve the problem and offer insight?

Gifts and rewards

Upon further analysis, we are being taught a primary rule. There can be a process whereby the cause-and-effect are inherently distinct components, but where specific actions are necessary to trigger remarkable results that function as a divine gift. From a different angle, in a relationship with G-d — the global interaction between human effort and divine response — we must put in work according to natural rules. Yet what we receive in return far surpasses the boundaries of our natural achievements. Plugging this into our numerical symbolism, the level of eight is infinitely higher than seven — we can never earn eight — yet only when the process of seven is complete does the level of eight arrive.

On a broader scale, this discussion addresses an important existential question: How much of what we end up with in life is earned, and how much is due to factors beyond our effort, what we’d call a blessing or a gift? (A relevant subject in physical energy, economics and spiritual pursuits.)

A classic example is a marriage, which entails components of seven and eight. Seven represents our effort, beginning before marriage and continuing throughout. It also includes our growing love and appreciation for a spouse. Eight, however, is the deeper eternal love, the connection which reaches beyond any conscious appreciation. The ultimate goal of a Jewish marriage — “finding your bashert (soul mate)” — is to transition from seven (as the bride walks around the groom seven times under the chupah, then seven blessings are said) to eight — and continually discover and tap into this G-dly element as time passes.

On the one hand, a successful marriage can be perceived as a product of all the personal developments: the investment in trying to understand how the other person functions, to be in tune with their feelings and to build a meaningful life together. But the ultimate fruit of their efforts stems from a power beyond the boundaries of any joint achievement — a “gift.”

The same applies to parenting, where the conscious effort to nurture and shape a child into a well-balanced, wholesome, kind and intelligent individual who contributes to the community is vital, yet can only go so far. In the end, a tremendous intangible portion of the outcome depends on a divine blessing.

This principle permeates most aspects of life. Whether in personal growth, in a relationship, in career goals, intensely competitive arenas or in our spiritual obligations, we all face challenges. And at times we may feel that the next higher stage is impossible. Or the workload seems too overwhelming for one person. After all, every human being has a limited capacity.

Yet, the Torah teaches that through the proper mindset, toil and mitzvahs we can awaken a new momentum inside the soul, an inner power and vitality which had previously been hidden. Furthermore, there is a famous saying from Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn. “If you resolve to act beyond your capabilities, that resolution itself opens up new channels and activates new resources from Above to enable you to achieve things beyond your current capabilities.”

Takeaway

One important message from the opening line of this week’s parasha is that we must first recognize and accept our responsibility to fix and refine our portion of the world through natural means, a process signified by seven. But once we do our job and try to attain completion in our mission, we tap into a force way beyond us that enters our lives. And this is the gift of “the eighth day.”

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayan-chai.org.The number eight in Jewish life

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