Just from the name of this week’s Parsha (“Shmini”), we get a hint that there is something special about the number 8. The number 8 in Judaism is what is called a typological number – in other words, it is not just a number but it is also a symbol. In order to understand its significance we have to be familiar with another and maybe even more common symbolic number: “7”. These two numbers are not only important in and of themselves but are also related to one another. I will give you a couple of examples and let you find some more on your own: The world was created in 7 days. As we read in our Parsha, the Mishkan was inaugurated on the 8th day. Pesach and Succot are both 7 days long and immediately following Succot; we celebrate Shmini Atzeret on the 8th day. Following Pesach, we count 7 weeks of 7 days (Omer) and then we celebrate Shavout. A child is circumcised on the 8th day of his life. An animal is acceptable as a sacrifice on the 8th day of its life. There are many more such examples but I think that already from these few examples one can start to understand the hidden meaning behind these two special numbers. If you are not already familiar with this concept, take this opportunity to try to think of more examples and see if you can come up with an explanation of their symbolism.
For those of you who do not have the time, knowledge or strength to do this, luckily the Maharal already did the job for us. In the first two chapters of his book “Tiferet Yisrael”, he goes into great detail explaining the philosophical and mystical meaning behind specific numbers in the Torah. He cites numerous examples and offers many proofs. His ideas have become the mainstream explanation for this typology even in less mystical and more academically oriented circles. If you have not already figured it out by now, here is how it goes. “7” represents the entirety of the natural world. We are not talking about the physical world alone, without a G-d, but of the whole world including G-d. Hence, the creation in Beraishit takes place over seven days – six of physical creation and one extra day devoted to Hashem i.e. Shabbat. If you count all the directions in our three dimensional world – east, west, north, south, up and down – you come to 6. Add to that the spiritual realm and you get to seven. This same explanation applies to the 7-day extent of the agricultural festivals. On Pesach and Succot, we thank and pray to Hashem for his involvement in nature.
“8” comes after seven, indicating the spiritual level beyond nature. When a child is born, he is naturally uncircumcised. His connection with Hashem is the same as the rest of nature, the relationship of the Creator and his creation. On the 8th day of his life, we demonstrate that the child is connected to Hashem on a higher and much more personal level. Not only is he a creation of Hashem but he also has his own private pact (“Brit”) with Him. He is part of the Jewish people and is obligated to maintain the standards of their relationship with Hashem. This includes keeping Torah and Mitzvot, concepts that would have been unknown in our world if it were not for Hashem’s unnatural, miraculous meeting with us at Har Sinai. This is why we celebrate Shavuot after counting 7 times 7 days, to show that we receive the Torah on that same eighth, non-physical, level. Matan Torah was a direct intervention of Hashem in the natural world. Shmimi Atzeret serves the same purpose to Succot as Shavuot does to Pesach, a deeper level of connection with Hashem. The same idea applies to the animals. They were created to roam the earth, living out their lives and dying naturally. Taking an animal and sacrificing it as a burnt offering to Hashem shows this same connection on a personal level between Hashem and us. That is why the animal is acceptable for sacrifice only after the eighth day of its life.
Using this concept, we can now understand the name of our Parsha in a new light. Hashem is not meant to have a house in our world. Under the laws of the nature, G-d cannot be perceived in the physical realm; it is as if there is a wall blocking him from our apprehension. Therefore, the Mishkan, the place of G-d’s indwelling in our world, must exist on a higher level than seven must. Its inauguration takes place on the 8th day, symbolizing its special otherworldly existence and purpose.
We live in a world of seven, where spirituality is hidden and impersonal. But we do have hope for the future. The Gemara in Arachin (13) says: The harp of the temple had seven strings but the harp of messiah shall have eight strings as the pasuk says: “lamnatzeach al hashmnit”. May we all live to see this prophecy come true.