Parashat Shmini takes its name from the opening verse: “On the eighth day, Moses called upon Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel.” Picking up where the prior parashah left off, now that the formal initiation of worship has begun, Moses calls the officials forward on the eighth day to commence regular as opposed to festive dedicatory worship.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his monumental commentary to the Torah, remarks on the significance of an eighth day. The seven-day week is enshrined in the first chapter of Genesis as an elemental period of time. Why then is the bris, Hirsch asks, celebrated on the eighth day rather than the seventh, at the completion of the first week of life? Because, he writes, “by such a counting of seven days, the condition of a previous period is entirely closed, and with the eighth day a new beginning is made, similar to the octave in music, on a higher level.” We might have thought that the seventh day is the highest, the completing day of the week. Indeed, it is the holy Shabbat.
But for a bris we wait until the eighth day, as we are not seeking to complete a period, but rather to begin a new one. And the new one is on a higher level than the one before.
Hirsch offers the testimony of the musical scale. There are seven basic steps of the scale: do, re, me fa, sol, la, ti. And yet it is not only because of “The Sound of Music” that we feel compelled to follow ti with do, although the final do is an octave higher than the initial one. We call it an octave, even though it is really as scale of seven steps, not eight. The eighth note, the do at the end, starts a new cycle, but on a higher level as the one it completes.
So too does the bris bring the baby boy to a new level that will surpass the one it completes. And so does the commencement of regular worship in the ancient tabernacle as noted in our parashah bring the people to an even higher level than the week of dedication that preceded it.
Another tension between seven and eight can be seen in the most ancient of Jewish symbols, the menorah. The original Temple menorah was a candelabrum of seven branches. But on Chanukah we light eight lights, in an expanded menorah. While the State of Israel adopted the seven-branched menorah as its seal, the people of Israel light eight candles for eight days on Chanukah, commemorating the rededication of the Temple under Judah Maccabee. Matching the original commencement of sovereign worship at the time of Moses and Aaron, and the dedication of the first Temple under King Solomon, Judah Maccabee understood that it takes eight days to start a new phase, to move forward, to overcome and surpass what came before.
In his rich commentary on the Torah that appears in the Etz Hayim, Rabbi Harold Kushner explains that “on the eighth day, we are challenged to begin living in the day-to-day world of ordinary events.” The ultimate act of religious sanctification is not merely to mark the holiness of the Sabbath, it is to bring that holiness forth into the following week, to mix the sacred into the realm of the profane. We who live in the Western world (and especially in Bergen County) are somewhat cheated of this opportunity, because our Sabbath is followed by the sabbath of the majority, that is, Sunday. We have an entire day after Shabbat when business does not happen, shopping is restricted, and we are afforded precious time with our loved ones. We have all day Sunday before we begin the new week. But of course, the two-day weekend is a luxury that we are not all able to enjoy. And those of us who have spent time in Israel have experienced the sharp transition from the restfulness of Shabbat to the back-to-work grind of Sunday morning. The redemption of the eighth day, the hope articulated by Hirsch, is that the eighth day is not a descent into the grind, but an ascent to an even higher level, a new octave. And it so happened on the eighth day that Moses called upon Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel.