“It came to pass on the eighth day . . .” Thus opens the Torah section of Shemini (“The Eighth”), which describes the events of the day on which the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary build by the people of Israel in the Sinai Desert, was inaugerated.
It was “the eighth day” because it followed a seven-day “training” period, during which the Mishkan was erected each morning and and disassembled each evening, and Aaron and his four sons were initiated into the kehunah (priesthood). But it was also a day which our sages describe as possessing many “firsts”: it was a Sunday, the first day of the week; it was the first of Nissan, marking the beginning of a new year; it was the first day that the Divine Presence came to dwell in the Sanctuary; the first day of the kehunah; the first day of the service in the Sanctuary; and so on. There is even an opinion that this was the anniversary of the creation of the universe.
With so many “firsts” associated with this day, why does the Torah refer to it—and by extension, to the entire Parshah—as “the eighth day”?
The number seven figures prominently in our reckoning and experience of time. Most familiar, of course, is the seven-day work/rest cycle that comprises our week, a reenactment of the original seven days of creation when “in six days G‑d made the heavens and the earth . . . and on the seventh day He rested.” Each Shabbat thus completes a full revolution of the original cycle, following which we start anew from “the first day”—yom rishon, as Sunday is called in the Holy Tongue.
This is why many Jewish lifecycle observances are seven-day affairs. Two seven-day festivals frame our year—Passover, which runs from the 15th to the 21st of Nissan, and Sukkot, occurring exactly six months later, on Tishrei 15–21. A marriage is celebrated for a full week of sheva berachot (“seven blessings”), and the death of a loved one, G‑d forbid, is mourned for seven days (shivah). There are the seven clean days of the niddah (menstruating woman), the seven-day training period before the Sanctuary was inaugurated (shiv’at yemei milluim), the seven-day purification period from ritual impurity, and numerous other “sevens.” Thus the freedom of Passover, the joy of Sukkot, the bond of marriage, the coming to terms with loss, and all these other features of Jewish life are assimilated in all seven dimensions of created time.
Our years, too, follow the cycle of creation: six workday years are succeeded by a sabbatical year of Shemittah (“suspension”). In the Land of Israel, all agricultural work is suspended in the seventh year, and the land’s produce is declared free for the taking for all. Also suspended in the Shemittah year are all private debts and the terms of servitude of indentured servants.
Finally, our sages describe the whole of human history as a seven-millennium week, consisting of 6,000 years of human labor in developing G‑d’s world and a seventh millennium that is “wholly Shabbat and rest, for life everlasting”—the era of Moshiach.
The Kabbalists explain that the seven days of creation embody the seven sefirot (divine attributes) which G‑d emanated from Himself to define and characterize His relationship with our existence. So seven is not only the elemental number of time, but of every created thing and of the created reality as a whole. This is especially true of the human being, who was created in the “image of G‑d”: the human character is comprised of seven drives (love, restraint, harmony, ambition, devotion, connection and receptiveness), mirroring the seven attributes which G‑d assumed as creator of the universe.
Matter and Spirit
Each of the seven units of time embodies the particular characteristics of its respective sefirah. But in more general terms, the cycle consists of two primary phases: mundanity (chol) and holiness (kedushah). Six days of mundane labor are followed by a day of spiritual rest; six years of working the earth, by a year of suspension and disinvolvement from the material; six millennia devoted to struggling with and developing the physical world, by a seventh millennium in which the sole occupation of the entire world will be the knowledge of G‑d.
The Torah’s word for “holy,” kedushah, literally means “removed” and “apart.” Its names for the seventh day, Shabbat, and for the seventh year, Shemittah, respectively mean “cessation” and “suspension.” For holiness requires complete disengagement from all material involvements. In order to experience the holiness and spirituality of Shabbat, we must cease all material labor; in order to touch base with the holiness of the land in the Shemittah year, we must suspend all physical work upon its soil and all claims of ownership on its produce; in order to experience the divine goodness and perfection of our world in the age of Moshiach, we must first achieve a state in which there is “no jealousy and no competition” over its material wealth.
[This is not to say that Shabbat has no effect upon the rest of the week, that the Shemittah year does not profoundly influence the farmer’s relationship with his land during the other six years of the cycle, or that the age of Moshiach is divorced from the workday generations of history. On the contrary: the primary function of these sabbaths is to provide spiritual vision, fortitude and purpose to the mundane periods of their cycle. But in order to do so, they must be kept distinct and apart. It is only when the boundaries between the holy and the mundane are strictly enforced that we can experience holiness in our lives, and then extend its vision and influence to our mundane endeavors.]
Yet despite their transcendent nature, the seventh day, year and millennium are constituent parts of the cycles of creation. Materiality and spirituality might differ greatly—to the point, even, of mutual exclusivity—yet both are part of nature: both are governed by the framework of laws which define the created reality.
Indeed, the very fact that holiness demands the cessation and suspension of all things mundane indicates that it, too, has its limits. It means that just as there exists a physical nature which defines and delimits the scope of physical things and forces, so too does the realm of the spiritual have its “nature”—its own set of laws which define what it is and what it is not, where it can exist and where it cannot, and how and in what manner it can make itself felt beyond its inviolate boundaries. So while the concept of transcendence seems the antithesis of definition, transcendence is itself a definition, for it defines (and thus confines) itself as beyond and distinct from the material.
This offers insight into a key passage in the Torah’s account of creation. In Genesis 2:2 we read: “G‑d concluded on the seventh day the work that He had done.” This seems to contradict the second part of that very verse, which reads: “And He rested on the seventh day from all the work that He had done.” If the work of creation was concluded on the seventh day, then the seventh day was one of the days of creation; but if the seventh day is the day on which G‑d rested from all the work that He had done, there were only six days of creation and a seventh day of Shabbat—cessation from work.
Our sages explain: “What was the world lacking? Rest. When Shabbat came, rest came.” Rest—transcendence and spirituality—is itself a creation. Though removed from the nature of the material, it is part of a greater nature—the nature of the created reality, which includes the realm of the spiritual as well as the realm of the material.
Circle and Circumference
If the number seven defines the natural reality, eight represents that which is higher than nature, the circumference that encompasses the circle of creation.
Seven includes both matter and spirit, both mundanity and holiness, both involvement and transcendence, but as separate and distinct components of the cycle of creation; the seventh dimension will exert its influence on the other six, but only in a transcendent way—as a spiritual, otherworldly reality that will never be truly internalized and integrated within the system. In contrast, eight represents the introduction of a reality that is beyond all nature and definition, including the definition “transcendence.” This eighth dimension (if we can call it a “dimension”) has no limitations at all: it transcends and pervades, beyond nature yet also fully present within it, equally beyond matter and spirit and equally within them.
So the covenant of circumcision, which binds the Jew to G‑d in a bond that supersedes all nature and convention even as it pervades every nook and cranny of life, is entered into on the eighth day of life. The Sanctuary (Mishkan), whose role was to make the infinite reality of G‑d an indwelling presence in the physical world, was inaugurated on the eighth day following a seven-day training period. The festival of Shemini Atzeret (“Eighth Day of Retention”), whose function is to internalize the transcendent encompassing light of the sukkah, occurs on the eighth day that follows Sukkot’s seven days. Seven Shemittah cycles are followed by a Jubilee year characterized by liberty (i.e., freedom from all bounds) rather than just “suspension.” And the messianic seventh millennium of history will be followed by the supra-historical “world to come” (olam ha-ba), in which the divine reality will unite with the created reality in ways that we cannot even speculate upon in a world where finite and infinite are mutually exclusive. In the words of the Talmud (Berachot 34b), “All prophets prophesied only regarding the days of Moshiach; regarding the world to come, ‘No eye can behold it, O G‑d, save Yours’” (Isaiah 64:3).