Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather its fruit. And the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest for the land, a sabbath for G‑d . . .
You shall count for yourselves seven sabbaths of years, seven times seven years . . . a total of forty-nine years . . . And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all its inhabitants . . . (Leviticus 25:3–10)
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.
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).
The eights in our lives come in two forms: eight and fifty.
For example, the two seven-day festivals, Sukkot and Passover, each culminate in an atzeret—a one-day festival of “retention” whose function is to internalize the festivals’ achievements. But while the atzeret of Sukkot immediately follows the festival, in effect constituting its eighth day, the atzeret of Passover is the festival of Shavuot, observed fifty days after Passover, culminating a 49 (7 × 7)-day counting of the Omer.
For each of the seven components of the natural system has a natural system of its own—its own seven-phased cycle of immanence and transcendence, making a total of forty-nine elements and phases in the cycle of nature. Fifty is an “eight” which follows a thoroughly detailed development of the seven dimensions of nature in all its forty-nine subdimensions. Shavuot, the atzeret of Passover, is such an eight: our exodus from Egypt marked the onset of a forty-nine-day process in which we refined and perfected the forty-nine drives and impulses of our souls, thereby liberating ourselves from the forty-nine gates of impurity into which we sank in the course of our enslavement to the most debased society in the history of mankind, and entering into the forty-nine gates of understanding of awareness of and commitment to G‑d. This forty-nine-day process (re-experienced each year with our seven-week counting of the Omer) culminated in the revelation at Sinai on Shavuot, when we were granted the Torah—the divine fiftieth dimension which supersedes and integrates all forty-nine dimensions of creation.
Another fifty is Yovel, the Jubilee year. Seven seven-year Shemittah cycles, each culminating in a year of suspension and transcendence of the material, are followed by a fiftieth year of liberty in which all servants, including those who had sold themselves for lifetime labor, were set free, and all ancestral lands that had been sold reverted to their original owners. The Jubilee year represents a state of true freedom in which, rather than just suspending the earthliness of the land, we free it of all the restraints of materiality.
In other words, our experience of time (which defines practically everything we do and achieve) comes in various forms and configurations. There are times and situations in which we live our lives completely within the natural cycle of seven. There are times and circumstances in which we relate to the supra-natural eighth dimension, but only in a general, abstract way. Finally, there are times and circumstances in which we access an eight that is a fifty—an eight that is experienced in all particulars and sub-particulars of our existence.
Three States of Jubilee
The Shemittah/Yovel cycle itself comes in three different forms, as dictated by the variant spiritual climates of different epochs in our history.
The Torah instructs that the Jubilee year is to be “proclaimed throughout the land to all inhabitants thereof.” The Talmud interprets this as a stipulation that the special laws of the fiftieth year are enacted only when the Land of Israel is fully populated by the Jewish people. The only period in our history when this was the case was from the year 2503 from creation (1258 BCE), when the Jewish people under Joshua completed their conquest and settlement of the Holy Land, until they were driven from it by Babylon’s armies 836 years later with the destruction of the First Temple in the year 3339 (422 BCE).
Seventy-six years later, with the partial return of the Jewish people to their land under Ezra (six years after the building of the Second Temple), the Yovel count resumed—but this time only for the sake of calculating and implementing the Sabbatical year seven times in each 50-year period. Since much of the Holy Land was not resettled, and a large part of the Jewish nation remained in exile, the Jubilee year could not be observed. Nevertheless, a fiftieth year was counted following each seven Shemittah cycles, so that the Sabbatical years would fall at their proper times. In other words, after the seventh Sabbatical year in year forty-nine of Ezra’s count, the next seven-year cycle could not begin until after a theoretical “Jubilee” was proclaimed; thus, the next Sabbatical year came eight years later (in year fifty-seven), not seven years later (in year fifty-six).
When the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 3829 from creation (69 CE), this Yovel count also ceased. The Sabbatical year continues to be observed every seventh year (the most recent Shemittah year was 5768 on the Jewish calendar—2007-08), but because we are in a state of galut (exile), deprived of the divine presence that manifested itself in the Holy Temple, we lack even the theoretical Jubilee of the Second Temple era. Today (as was the case in the period between the two Temples) our seven-year cycles run consecutively, without the half-century landmark of Yovel.
Applied to the miniature universe that is man and the forty-nine chambers of his soul, these three eras represent three levels in our quest towards self-refinement and self-perfection.
The ideal model, which defined the lives of our ancestors in the First Temple era, is one of seven Shemittah cycles which yield a fiftieth Jubilee year. On the individual level, this means that a person’s struggles to suspend and transcend the negative in himself are experienced as stages in the process of the complete transformation and liberation of his soul.
A lesser state was that of the Second Temple era, which represented an intermediate state between galut and redemption. While a large segment of the Jewish people lived in the Holy Land, for much of these 420 years they were under the dominion of other nations. And while the Holy Temple facilitated G‑d’s presence in their lives, it was a lesser expression of the divine reality than the First Temple. Thus, the Shemittah cycles were not of the caliber to produce a full-fledged liberation. Nevertheless, they were permeated by the vision of perfection that the Jubilee year represents, as expressed by the fact that while the Yovel was not actually observed, it set and defined the Shemittah cycles.
But in the more than nineteen centuries since the Holy Temple’s destruction, we have been fully engulfed in galut: ours is an existence that obscures all but the faintest glimmer of purpose and direction. Our lives are, by and large, consumed by the struggle with evil. Not only are our efforts at self-improvement confined to the narrow, seven-phased cycle of nature—we lack even the vision to see and appreciate their place within the context of a liberating Jubilee.
Today, our lives are a seemingly endless chain of Shemittah cycles, with nary a Jubilee in sight. Yet this “blind” struggle will yield the final and ultimate redemption, when, as Maimonides writes, “Moshiach will arise and restore the sovereignty of David to its former glory and power, build the Holy Temple and gather the dispersed of Israel. In his days, all the laws will be restored: we will offer the sacrifices, and enact the Sabbatical and Jubilee years as commanded by the Torah.” Then, our cycles of seven will yield the ultimate eight—the all-embracing perfection of the world to come.