Commentary for Shmini

26 Apr

This week’s parshah is called “Shmini,” meaning “eighth.” This name comes from the fact that it begins with the eighth day of the ceremony to inaugurate Aaron and his sons as the priests and to consecrate the Tabernacle, the first seven of which we read about in the previous parshah. It seems odd to not include all eight days of the ceremony in the same parshah, but everything in the Torah happens the way it does for a reason.

To understand the significance of the number eight in Judaism, it is first necessary to understand the significance of the number seven. Seven represents completeness, such as the seven days in a week or the seven weeks of the Omer or seven aliyot in each parshah.

If seven represents completeness, then eight represents that which comes next. A bris, representing the entry into the covenant is held on the eighth day of a baby’s life (unless there are medical complications). The Shmini Atzeret is either a one-day holiday coming after the seven-day holiday of Sukkot or it is the next phase of Sukkot, coming after an initial seven-day phase.

The eighth day that our parshah begins on also marks such a moment for the Jewish People. The inauguration of the priests and the consecration of the Tabernacle are major changes to how the Israelites worship God. There will now be a central location at which all sacrifices are to take place and designated people who will work there in order to ensure that the sacrifices are carried out in accordance with the new guidelines Moses has received. After a week’s worth of ceremonies during which poor Moses had to erect the Tabernacle each morning and then take it down each night all by himself, the Tabernacle will now be left up, and it will be Aaron and his sons, not Moses, who are in charge of facilitating this avenue of the Israelites’ relationship with God. This is a moment of major change in the way the Israelites relate to God.

This theme of a change in the nature or focus of the relationship between us and God is a theme that is found throughout these “eighth day” occurrences. On the seven days of Sukkot we offer a total of seventy sacrifices, one representing each of the other nations of the world, but then, on Shmini Atzeret, we offer only one, representing the Jewish People, and shift our focus from worldly matters, such as the celebration of the harvest, to our relationship with God. A bris represents an inauguration into the Jewish People and becoming part of the covenant that our ancestors made with God.

This theme even goes all the way back to the very first “eighth day” in history. In discussing why we bless God as the One “Who creates the illuminations of fire,” during the havdalah service but not any other time we use candles (such as lighting Shabbat candles) the Talmud (Pesachim 54a) says that fire was created at the conclusion of the very first Shababt. A midrash expands on this statement, explaining that the light God created at the beginning of creation was an all-encompassing light, illuminating everything, with no connection to any celestial or terrestrial source. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, part of their punishment was to be the removal this light from the world they inhabited. The midrash further explains that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge just before Shabbat started, so God decided to delay their punishment until after Shabbat ended. When Shabbat ended and the sun went down, Adam and Eve experienced darkness for the first time in their lives, and they were utterly terrified. Seeing their fear, God gave them the gift of fire so that they would not be afraid whenever it was dark.

Transitions are never easy. They are stressful, worrying, and even sometimes downright terrifying. In these difficult and uncertain times it is important to remember the lesson of Shmini: No matter what else changes when the seventh day ends and the eighth day begins, God will always be there for us.

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