We are in the midst of counting the Omer from the second night of Passover for seven full weeks. The first day of the eighth week will be the festival of Shavuot. Last week’s parasha is named Shmini, meaning “eighth.” In this week’s double parasha of Tazri’a and Metzora, we read the following:
“On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3).
“On the eighth day that person shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil” (Lev. 14:10).
“On the eighth day of purification, the person shall bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before the Lord” (Lev. 14:23).
“On the eighth day of purification, the person shall bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before the Lord”Leviticus 14:23
“On the eighth day he shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and come before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and give them to the priest” (Lev. 15:14).
“On the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 15:28).
Highlighting the number eight in Judaism
The number eight, or rather the “eighth day” during this period of time in the Jewish liturgical calendar, gets a lot of attention and invites us to investigate.
At its core, eight is seven plus one, seven expressing a whole finished period of time – think of the first seven days of creation. That which follows, represented by the number eight, is the future.
In that light, we can understand the reason a brit milah (circumcision) takes place on the eighth day of a child’s life. During that ceremony, we mark the part of the body through which future generations will emerge. In addition, as part of the brit milah ritual, the child is brought into the covenant (brit) of the Jewish people; his future identity and responsibilities are declared at that moment by his family and community.
That declaration parallels the holiday of Shavuot and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. There, the Jewish people entered into the covenant with God:
“Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one saying, ‘All the Lord has spoken, we will do!’ And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord” (Ex. 19:7-8).
Shavuot, as mentioned above, is the first day of the eighth week after the counting of seven full weeks from the second night of Passover. That day marks when the people stood at the base of Mount Sinai and entered the covenant for themselves going forward, as well as for all future generations of the Jewish people. And so the symbolism of falling on that number eight, which represents the future, should not be lost on us.
The other verses noted from this week’s double parasha all spotlight a transition from one status to another, with eight highlighting that new future chapter in one’s life.
WHEN WE think of Judaism and the number eight, the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah is often what first comes to mind:
“Then Judas, his brothers, and the entire community of Israel decreed that the rededication of the altar should be celebrated with a festival of joy and gladness at the same time each year, beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev and lasting for eight days” (I Maccabees 4:59).
“Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards and instituted these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name” (Shabbat 21b).
We are usually taught that Hanukkah is eight days because of the story of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days (Shabbat 21b). That, however, is an explanation given by the rabbis centuries after the events in an attempt to lessen the role of the Maccabees. The Maccabees, known as the Hasmonean dynasty, were some of the most corrupt leaders in Jewish history, in large part because of their exploitation of power when they combined the priesthood and the kingship. They were descendants of Aaron, and so it was logical they became the priests, but they were not descended from the House of King David, and so they should not have also been the kings. That separation of powers is the Jewish version of Lord Acton’s statement “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” An important lesson then and today.
In fact, Hanukkah was celebrated for eight days as a late celebration of Sukkot. During the war to liberate Jerusalem, the Maccabees could not celebrate the pilgrimage holiday of Sukkot in Jerusalem:
“They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot and recalled how a little while before, during Sukkot, they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals. So, carrying lulavim [palm branches]... they offered hymns of praise [perhaps Hallel] to God, who had brought to pass the purification of his own place” (II Maccabees 10:6-7).
In addition, the eight-day dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees parallels the earlier dedication by King Solomon of his Temple in Jerusalem. As Noam Zion points out:
“The connection between Sukkot and Hanukkah (as the Rabbis later called this holiday) goes beyond the accident of a postponed Sukkot celebration. Sukkot is the holiday commemorating not only the wandering of the Jews in the desert in makeshift huts but the end of that trek with the dedication of the First Temple (i.e., the permanent Bayit/Home of God in Jerusalem by King Solomon circa 1000 BCE).”
Zion then quotes from I Kings: “King Solomon gathered every person of Israel in the month of Eitanim (Tishrei) on the holiday (Sukkot) in the seventh month... for God had said, ‘I have built a House for my eternal residence’” (I Kings 8:2).
He concludes, “Thus the Maccabean rededication celebration is appropriately set for eight days in the Temple.” Here we once again see the use of the number eight connected with communal ceremonies setting the stage for the future – the dedication of Solomon’s Temple and the rededication by the Maccabees.
We are told that in the future, the harp of the Messiah will have eight strings:
“Rabbi Yehuda says: The harp in the Temple was of seven strings.... Rabbi Yehuda continues: And in the days of the Messiah, eight strings, as it is stated: ‘For the Leader, on the eighth: A Psalm of David’ (Psalms 12:1)” (Arachin 13b).
Over and over, we see in the Jewish tradition the connection of the number eight to the future. Rabbi Naamah Kelman adds a fascinating insight to this concept: “Knock the number eight (8) on its side and it is a symbol of infinity; eight is sanctified time, endless time.” ■
The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.