Shmini or “8th” (“eighth”) is the only Torah portion named with a number (not to be confused with “Numbers”, the forth book of the Torah and its opening portion). In this week’s parasha we read about the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) when Aaron and his sons begin to officiate as priests and the divine Presence comes to dwell in the sanctuary.
Shmini includes also the tragic death of Aaron’s two elder sons when they offer a “strange fire before G-d, which He commanded them not”. Aaron is silent in face of this tragedy, on what should have been the most joyous and respectful day of his life. The mikveh (a pool of water with specified qualifications for ritual purity) is mentioned and the kosher laws are spelled out: Land animals may be eaten only if they have split hooves and chew their cud (but not either); fish must have fins and scales; a list of non-kosher birds is given, and even a (fascinating) list of kosher insects, all detailing the permissible and forbidden animal species for consumption.
Idol worshipers and Monotheists, Buddhists, Barbarians and Westerners alike, we all have fashioned some dietary system. The fact that each culture has so many rules and customs around food clearly implies that there is something about eating which is much more than a mere physical activity. One of the first biblical instructions is to not eat from the tree of knowledge between good and evil (Genesis 2:16). Simply picking a fruit turns from a physiological act to an expression of morality’s limits and has serious consequences.
The message continues following the flood, which changes forever human’s relationship with the animals (many hold that prior to the flood humans – and animals – were vegetarian); through the prohibition against eating even certain parts of an animal (Genesis 32:33) and the mitzvah not to mix meat and milk (Exodus 23:19). Then we come to this week’s parasha.
Is there any relationship between the consecration of the Mishkan, this extensive list of animals and the Torah portion’s name? Possibly. Let’s take another look at the word “shmini”: The root of the word “eight” – shmone – is Sh.M.N. We use the same letters to make words like sha’men and shemen, fat and oil respectfully. According to the MaHaRal of Prague, the number “seven” – sheva, stands for “just right” (like the seven days of the week). With the same letters we make words like “save’a” – satiated (but not over-eating!). Marriage celebration lasts 7 days and is accompanied with 7 blessings, while during times of mourning we sit “shiv’a” – 7 days. Seven stands for the natural manner in which life flows, while eight stands for the little extra, that which s beyond, the supernatural. In its shape it symbolizes eternity. It can remind us of our ability to get a glimpse of another dimension.
The eighth day as a concept isn’t a new: It’s the day of brit mila (covenant of circumcision), marking the above and beyond relationship between G-d and His people. It’s also reminds us i Shmini Atzeret, a holiday at the end of Sukkot, adding one more day, which as Rashi and others say, is “like being with a King and father who wishes to keep his children near a little longer”, above and beyond.
But the first time there is an 8th day ever according to our teachings is the day following the completion of creation. That very original first “8th day” is the first chance we have to be active partners with G-d in the creation. The Mishkan is considered as incredible as creation. Walking into it was like stepping into a different existence, but instead of a world that G-d created and people joined later on, this is a structure that the Children of Israel built, and upon its completion, invited G-d into it, on the 8th day.
The 8th day has thus become symbolic of our role as partners in Creation; in how we treat our environment, animals and humans. It is an eternal invitation to take a positive role in tikun olam, in making the world a better place, in our interactions with all those we touch, far and near.
This article was published in the jweekly, March 2011