Shmini, or eighth, is the only Torah portion named with a number (not to be confused with Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah and its opening portion). In this week’s parshah 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 God, which He commanded them not.” (Leviticus 10:1). Aaron is silent in the face of this tragedy, on what should have been the most joyous and respectful day of his life.
The mikvah 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, as is 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 that 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 can have serious consequences.
The message continues following the flood, which changes forever our relationship with animals (many hold that prior to the flood, humans 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 parshah.
Is there any relationship among 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 such as shamen and shemen (fat and oil, respectively).
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 such as “save’a” (satiated — but not over-eating!). Marriage celebration lasts seven days and is accompanied by seven blessings, while during times of mourning we sit shiva — seven days.
Seven stands for the natural manner in which life flows, while eight stands for the little extra, that which is 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 new: It’s the day of brit milah (covenant of circumcision), marking the relationship between God and His people. It’s also Shmini Atzeret, the eighth and final day 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.” Again, above and beyond.
But the first time there ever is an eighth day, according to our teachings, is the day following the completion of creation. That very original first eighth day is the first chance we have to be active partners with God in 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 God created and people joined later on, this is a structure that the Children of Israel built, and upon its completion, invited God into it — on the eighth day.
The eighth 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 tikkun olam, in making the world a better place, in our interactions with all those we touch, far and near.
Michal Kohane is the director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She has served in leadership roles throughout Northern California and holds advanced degrees in studies of Israel, psychology and education. Her columns replace those of Rabbi Elisheva Salamo. She can be reached at email@example.com.