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Shemini 5768-2008

“The Eighth Day”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, opens with a description of the special service that Aaron and his sons performed on the day of their inauguration as Kohanim–priests of Israel.

The opening verse of the parasha reads (Leviticus 9:1), “Vah’yeh’hee bah’yom ha’sh’mee’nee, kah’rah Moshe l’Aharon ool’vah’nahv ool’zik’nay Yisrael,” And it came to pass on the eighth day that Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel. The Torah then goes into a detailed description of the various offerings that constituted the first official service of the new priests.

The commentators are perplexed by the phrase, “bah’yom ha’sh’mee’nee,” which contains the definite article, underscoring that the events were taking place on THE eighth day. This usage usually indicates that the day is a particularly special day.

In the Talmud (Megillah, 10b), the rabbis confirm that it was indeed a very special day. They state that on the day that the Tabernacle was erected there was joy before the Holy One, Blessed Be He, as on the day when heaven and earth were created. The rabbis note further that this occasion was the first day of Nissan, a day that had been set aside by the Al-mighty to serve a special function. It was as if a new world had been created on that day.

The parallel between the erecting of the Mishkan and the creation of the world goes even further. According to tradition, for seven days prior to Rosh Chodesh Nissan Moses erected and disassembled the Tabernacle each day. This tradition bears a striking resemblance to the Midrash that states that before G-d created this world, he created other worlds and destroyed them.

Why then the emphasis on the “eighth day”?

The number eight has several important metaphorical meanings in Jewish tradition. While the number seven appears far more often than the number eight, they are often closely related. In tradition we find seven days of creation, the seventh day as a day of rest, the seven branches of the menorah (candelabra) in the Tabernacle, there are seven days of impurity, seven days of mourning, seven days of the festivals Passover and Succot, and seven days of celebration for marriage, just to mention a few of the significant sevens.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) states that the number seven has the general connotation of “fullness” “wholeness” or “final completion.”

As parashat Shemini opens, the seven days of the consecration ceremony known as the days of “mee’loo’im,” have concluded. The events in the early chapters of Parashat Shemini take place on the next day, the eighth day. Everything is in place, the Tabernacle, which had been assembled and disassembled seven times, is now standing and has been consecrated. Aaron and his children have been properly anointed and are now ready to serve. The rules of the service governing the Tabernacle have been clearly articulated and the new sanctuary is about to begin functioning. A bright new page of history is about to be written on the occasion of the Mishkan‘s inauguration, and the entire nation of Israel anticipates the arrival of the Shechina, the Divine presence.

According to the kabbalists, the Shechina had to be retrieved from the seven levels of the firmament where it was hidden away on the day that Adam sinned in defiance of G-d. Now, as a reward for the devoted labor of the people of Israel in creating the Tabernacle, the Divine presence is finally going to be brought back down to earth.

The rabbis see the seven days of assembling and disassembling the Tabernacle as a parallel to the seven generations from Abraham to Moses who repaired the sinful actions of the earlier generations. The special effort required to erect and disassemble the Tabernacle seven times was necessary to atone for the peoples’ additional sinfulness with the Golden Calf.

Thus, on the eighth day, “Yom Ha’sh’mee’nee,” the Jewish people merited complete forgiveness.

Wherever the number seven is noted in Jewish tradition, it always reflects what is natural–nature running its course. The number eight, on the other hand, implies a new dawn, a new era, a new epic. It is supernatural, serving to repair and elevate. The number eight is a Divine gift. After all, only with Divine compassion do mortals get the opportunity to start afresh, despite their many acts of rebellion and trespasses against G-d.

David ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once said about those living in Israel that “anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.” This can be similarly said about the Jewish people and their relationship to the Al-mighty. We are fortunate to have a G-d who is truly compassionate. It is rather remarkable, if not outright miraculous, that despite messing up so badly in the Garden of Eden and with the Golden Calf, G-d gives His people, Israel, a new dawn, an eighth day.

We, who are the constant and continuous recipients of the Divine gift of the eighth day, need to use this gift properly, and recognize its great significance. Consequently, when we are given the unique opportunity to begin afresh, we must make certain that we stay on course, so that our “Tabernacle” will remain erect until the end of days.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Parashat Parah. It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.