The Eighth Day

SHMINI (LEVITICUS 9:1 - 11:47)
14 APRIL 2018 / 29 NISSAN 5778

Parsha Summary

In Shmini, after the dedication of the Tabernacle and the ordination of the priests on the eighth day, two of Aaron's sons bring a strange fire before God and are consumed by fire; God then describes the laws of kashrut to Moses, making distinctions between land animals, birds, and animals in the water.  


“I keep them in my glove box,” he said, “just in case I need them.”

Proof of insurance? The manual for the car? Well maybe those, too. But what my former student was telling me was that he keeps a havdallah candle, grape juice box, spices, and matches handy, just in case he’s out somewhere and wants to make havdallah.

When this 20-something was in 4th grade, his class and I made havdallah together every Sunday morning. Havdallah, the culminating Shabbat ritual that ushers us into the new week, was an important part of the curriculum, but I knew most of my students likely had never experienced it. Before I started actually teaching about ritual, for weeks we just made havdallah together. We sang the blessings, looked for reflections of the fire, smelled the spices, and had some juice.

Were I pressed to choose one Jewish ritual and give up everything else, this is the one I’d keep. When I light the havdallah candle I feel a sense of completeness, when I smell the spices my soul feels better prepared to move into the new week, and when I sip the grape juice or wine my taste buds and sense of smell revel for a moment in the kinesthetic experience of partnership with God.

Seven days is a whole week. Seven is completeness.

What could be more than complete? Better even than whole?

Well . . . what is eight?

Eight is symbolic of an entity that is one step beyond completeness . . . beyond nature’s order and limitations.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, “the perfection of seven is naturally achievable perfection.” The world and its natural order, the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot when we count the omer, seven musical notes make an octave, and the day when Aaron will begin his service, ministering to the people on behalf of God:

It came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called to Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel, and he said to Aaron, take a young bull for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and offer them before the Adonai.

We are in Parshat Shmini. Vayihi b’yom hashmini, on the eighth day. Shmini, the Hebrew word for 8th.

You remember, in the beginning, everything was oblivion. Nothing. Void. And then God spoke the universe into being and day by day the world . . . emerged. Light and dark . . . upper and lower waters . . . sea and dry land. Objects of light, the sun, moon, and stars came to shine. Creatures to inhabit these spheres came next: fish and birds and land animals. Humanity. And then, Shabbat, the seventh day, the day of holiness and limits, when God rested to show there are boundaries in creation. Holiness is interwoven with boundaries and distinctions, and according to the oral tradition, even though God had decided humanity would, in the image of God, have the capacity to create, and therefore also to destroy, creation and destruction were among the boundaries of Shabbat. God prohibited actions that are creative in nature or that exercise control over one’s environment. The holy boundaries of paradise.  

But what of the eighth day? What happened the day after creation?

According to our Sages, the fashioning of Adam and Eve, the command, the transgression, the sentence to exile all happened on that same sixth day at the end of which, out of compassion, God gave them one extra day in Eden: Shabbat. And that Shabbat was full of light.

In Beresheet Rabbah 11:2, Rabbi Levi explained in the name of the son of Nezira that the pristine light of creation shone from one end of the earth to the other without bounds, and beginning on the fourth day it radiated through the vessels of the sun, moon, and stars. Because God did not want Adam and Eve to suffer darkness for the first time on Shabbat, the light of creation continued for thirty-six hours:

“. . . twelve on the eve of the Sabbath, twelve during the night of the Sabbath, and twelve on the Sabbath day itself.” When the sun set at the end of that first Shabbat, the darkness became tangible, “ha-hoshech m’mashmeish uva.” Adam ha-rishon, the first man, was terrified and exclaimed, “surely darkness comes to bruise me” (Psalm 130:11). What did the blessed Holy One do? God presented him with two flints, which he (Adam) struck together and light came forth, where upon he blessed it, as it is written, “The night was light for my sake.” (Psalm 139:11)

Midrash Tehillim 92:4 shows that Adam’s havdallah blessing was, “Blessed are You who creates the lights of fire.”

According to our sages, there is a fundamental difference between the light of the first seven days and the light of the eighth day. For seven days, the light is the illumination God spoke into existence. On the eighth day, God taught humanity how to make light. It is the light of our partnership with God in the work of creation.

This is one reason we light a havdallah candle to bring in the new week, one reason it could make sense to observe an eighth day of a holiday that could otherwise be seven, and one reason it was on the eighth day that our Torah tells of the consecration of the Mishkan, the vestments, and of Aaron and his sons. On the eighth day, God empowers us to bring light to the world. On Shabbat we remember God’s creation. On the eighth day, we celebrate our creative partnership with God.

The Zohar, a mystical text written in the 13th century, describes that the Mishkan was intended to reflect the creation of the universe, constructed by human beings. Just as God made the earth as a home for humanity, so the Israelites in the wilderness built the Tabernacle as a symbolic home for God. This time, it was the Israelites doing seven days of creating, and again the eighth that became the day of creative partnership.

Just like Adam and Eve.

Just like Aaron in Shmini.

And just like us.