Parshat Shemini: Who Knows 8 – I Thought I Did

This week’s Torah reading, parashat Shemini, delves into all the things that happen on the 8th day.  The only problem is, there is no 8th day. I mean, of course there’s an 8th day if we’re counting from day 1 and we just keep counting, but that’s not how the Torah taught us to do things.  The universe was created in 7 days. The world revolves around 7 days. When I get to number 7 I am supposed to start again at number 1 – so really the 8th day is actually day 1 of my second group.

In fact, everything in the Torah revolves around 7 for groupings.  Now that Passover is finished, we are counting the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot.  We are told to count these days in groups of 7: seven weeks filled with 7 days each. We count the Omer by citing which week it is and which day, always aware of how the number 7 is framing our count.  We are counting up to Shavuot, we add in our counting. In Judaism we never count down to things, we always count up to them. Counting down has a sense of doom as we near the deadline (who thought up these terms?). When we count down we have a sense of dread but when we count up we have a sense of anticipation.

I recently asked an engineer why space shuttle launches count down with the phrase ‘T minus 10 seconds, T minus 9 seconds…’ etc.  I was told that T stands for the Time variable and therefore the time variable is set to 10 and the countdown will now reference that variable with the subtraction of 1 second each time.  I asked why they don’t just count down without the ‘T’, like the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. He blinked a few times and said he didn’t understand my question. However, he did tell me that after the launch they switch to T plus formulas.  But even there, the T refers to the deadline for launch and so the deadline becomes the constant reference point, the ‘zero’ – except we all know there is no such thing as zero, it’s a place holder (all our math teachers were correct, we just didn’t get it till we were older).  So everything counts toward and away from something that doesn’t really exist…and we’re all fine with that?

The most I can make sense of all of this is that our physical bodies move forward with a set rate of cellular decay.  Aging is a process of our cells breaking down, not building up. Maybe that’s why we naturally gravitate toward countdowns.

But Judaism speaks to our souls as well as our bodies.  Our souls grow in strength and expression, they count up.  

All of this brings me to how Jewish text teaches us of the numbers 7 and 8.  As I mentioned, 7 frames our week and frames our holidays. Here is how the number 7 stabilizes us:

  1. The world was created in 7 days
  2. The 1st verse of the Torah has 7 words
  3. We count the Omer in 7 groups of 7 days
  4. The Menorah in the Temple had 7 branches
  5. There are 7 Noahide laws guiding all of humanity
  6. There are 7 blessings for a bride and groom
  7. We mourn a loved one by sitting shiva for 7 days (the word shiva means 7)

The world was created in 7 days and we mourn a loved one for 7 days.  Life itself is framed with the number 7.

But then the Parshah says “And on the 8th day” and we are struck!  What 8th day?! And as we read further, we realize the 8th day contains irrational things.  It is the 8th day on which the Tabernacle is inaugurated, the place that embodies holy space that we created.  We take it with us as we move nomadically. It is a threshold of connection between the holy and the mundane, between the physical and the spiritual, between this world and another world.  It is the doorway to the irrational. But it doesn’t end there.

In this week’s parshah, Shemini (the 8th day), Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer foreign fire on the altar and are immediately killed.  We’re never quite sure what foreign fire is and we’re never quite sure what they intended because we’re all so stunned by their deaths. Ritual is supposed to be a safe place, holiness is supposed to be a haven and a relationship with God is supposed to be a protected space.  They entered all of that and were killed. We will never figure out what it all means because it will simply never make sense. It is irrational and we live with it because we have no choice.  

In the parshah we are also told of the laws of kosher animals and fish.  Again, try explaining rationally why an animal with a split hoof that chews its cud is ok but one with a split hoof that doesn’t chew its cud is not ok.  You’ll never explain it because it’s irrational.

And the irrational of 8 continues.  Baby boys are circumcised on the 8th day after their birth (notice we count up from the birth, not down).  Circumcision is irrational. We do it because we are commanded to do it. Even if one argued a medical benefit, there is no medical benefit to be had by saying a bracha – it is clearly a spiritual moment.

Ancient Jewish texts list 8 genders within humanity.  If gender were rational, there would only be 2 to facilitate procreation, yet 2000 years ago the Sages were discussing 8 of them.  

The number 8, the space within Judaism where things exist and impact us but our minds will never catch up with them.  

Pesach just ended and we look forward to Shavuot – we are counting up toward the holiday.  The spirituality of Judaism is moving us toward a positive future moment and we can start to get excited for it.  We are still in our homes, Covid 19 is still not understood well enough and so the world around us has mostly shut down.  It is unrecognizable to us right now – it is the 8th day. But a beautiful Talmudic text states that all the harps of the Temple had 7 strings on them and all the soulful melodies of the Levites were played on those harps, but in the days of Redemption, the harps will have 8 strings on them.

So the 8th day is the day of the irrational, it has both positive and negative within it but it mostly has potential redemption.  It is only negative if we try to force it into the rules of the 7th day – if we fight it. We move through the 8th day often in our lives.  We need to accept it for what it is and understand that it speaks to our souls and in that way it can make us feel redeemed. We will feel it, we will never understand it.

The 8th day teaches us that our eyes are always forward.  It shows us that we are always counting up.

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