On the Weekly Torah Portion of Tazria

The grave of the Maharal of Prag

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, tazria, we are told this regarding a new baby boy:

וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ:
On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (Leviticus 12:3)

Is there a significance to this number eight, to doing this on the eighth day? It turns out there is. According to the great 16th century rabbi Yehudah Livai of Prag (the Maharal of Prag), everything that pertains to the supernatural intervention of the divine in the world is associated with the number eight.

Just look at last week’s Torah portion, shemini. The word shemini means “eighth”, and the portion is called thus because it opens with the words:

וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי
It was on the eighth day (Leviticus 9:1).

The eight day of what? It was the eighth day of the consecration of the mishkan, the tabernacle. it was only on that day that God’s presence, the shekhinah, finally entered the mishkan and the purpose for which it was created could be served.

The miraculous nature of eight is also highlighted in the story of Hanukah. Eight days was the time needed before the new oil could arrive to enable the inauguration of the temple, and a very small amount of oil that was found in the temple itself miraculously lasted until the new oil arrived.

Incidentally, the Hebrew word for oil, shemen (שמן), comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for eight, shmone (שמנה). Indeed, oil is used throughout the Bible to signify the miraculous world of the eighth day. In fact, the word Massiah (משיח), the one who brings about the new world of perfection, means “the one anointed with oil.”

This connection between oil and eight is also alluded to with regards to Jacob’s eighth son, Asher. When Jacob blesses his sons before his death, here is what he says to Asher:

מֵאָשֵׁר שְׁמֵנָה לַחְמוֹ וְהוּא יִתֵּן מַעֲדַנֵּי מֶלֶךְ:
Asher’s bread shall be rich with oil and he shall yield royal dainties. (Genesis 49:20).

Similarly, before Moses parts from the people of Israel, here is how he blesses the tribe of Asher:

וּלְאָשֵׁר אָמַר בָּרוּךְ מִבָּנִים אָשֵׁר יְהִי רְצוּי אֶחָיו וְטֹבֵל בַּשֶּׁמֶן רַגְלוֹ:
And of Asher he said: Most blessed of sons be Asher, may he be the favorite of his brothers, may he dip his foot in oil. (Deuteronomy 33:24)

But the Messiah is connected to the eighth day more directly. The Babylonian Talmud tells us that the Messiah will come after the seventh day—i.e., on the eighth day.* It is not surprising that this symbolism did not escape the Christians, as the gospel tells us that Jesus’ resurrection occurred on Sunday, a day after the seventh day.

The symbolism of “beyond seven” as the emergence of the new world also has to do with the number fifty. For example, later in the book of Leviticus, we will read of the command to celebrate the 50th year, the yovel (the source of the English word Jubilee), which is a year in which everything is started anew. Here is how it is described:

וְסָפַרְתָּ לְךָ, שֶׁבַע שַׁבְּתֹת שָׁנִים–שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים; וְהָיוּ לְךָ, יְמֵי שֶׁבַע שַׁבְּתֹת הַשָּׁנִים, תֵּשַׁע וְאַרְבָּעִים, שָׁנָה…. וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם, אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה, וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ, לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ; יוֹבֵל הִוא, תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם, וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל-אֲחֻזָּתוֹ, וְאִישׁ אֶל-מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁבוּ.
You shall count off seven weeks of years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years… and you shall hollow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. (Leviticus 25:8,100)

Notice also the symbolism of Pentecost, the holiday in which the Torah was given out. The people of Israel spent seven weeks, or 49 days, in the desert, and on the 50th day, the first day of the 8th week, they received the Torah, an event which is celebrated by the Jewish holiday of Shavu’ot, or pentacost.

Interestingly, Moses’ successor, Joshua, who is the one who actually took the people of Israel from the desert into the world of the Holy Land, is called “Ben Nun”, the son of Nun (pronounced “noon”). Nun is also the name of the 14th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which has the numerical value of 50. Thus, it is the son of 50 who ushers in the new world.

Readers of this blog will remember that when writing about the weekly portion of mishpatim, I focused on the symbolism of forty. The number forty (forty years or forty days) is used in the Torah to designate a period of time that precedes an event of monumental importance (e.g., the forty days of the flood, or Moses’ ascent to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah).

It took forty years to sojourn through the desert; now it is up to the son of fifty, Joshua Ben Nun, to accomplish the purpose for which the forty years were a prelude to.

And here we see another relationship between 50 and 8. The book of Joshua tells us, that only those who left Egypt were circumcised, but during the sojourn in the desert, nobody was circumcised. After crossing the Jordan, Joshua, the son of fifty, is commanded to administer the circumcision of all the people under his command, that which normally takes place on the eighth day of a boy’s life.

Thus we are brought full circle to the beginning of this Torah portion, with its commandments on circumcision.

* * *

But what about the number seven, the Shabbat? The seventh day symbolism seems to be different. It stands for completion, for fulfillment, for rest, for unity. It stands as the culmination of diversity and activity. However, it is still part of the cyclical nature of time. Six days, followed by the seventh; and another cycle of six days, followed by the seventh.

The world of the seventh day is the world of rest, of not doing any work, not moving and not fixing anything, in contrast to the world of the six days which is the world of action. But the world of the eighth day is the world that is more than the sum of all the parts, a new emergence that transcends and includes the world of the seven. In this world, the separation between that which is holy and that which is not holy no longer applies. As Isaiah put it:

כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ דֵּעָה אֶת יְהוָה כַּמַּיִם לַיָּם מְכַסִּים.
For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of Y-H-V-H as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9)

* * *

And there is a practical takeaway. Note that the name for the eighth son, Asher, shares the same root with, and is spelled identical to, the Hebrew word osher (אשר), which means “bliss” or “happiness”. Notice also that the Hebrew word to anoint (למשח) is very close etymologically to the Hebrew root to be happy (לשמח).

We are being told something important here. Yearning for the Messiah is not fulfilled by passive waiting, but by embracing happiness. Not the frivolous, intoxicated, wild happiness that depends on things outside ourselves, but on the joy that is our very nature, the bliss of being grounded within ourselves. It is the joy that deeply knows that however challenging and imperfect the world is, all is well as wisely put. That we always have the choice to embrace the higher, most enlightened perspective.

As we are commanded—

וְהָיִיתָ אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ:
And you shall be always only happy. (Deuteronomy 16:15)

Here is a very active, practical, and direct way of ushering in the world of the eighth day.


*Tractate Sanhedrin 97a; tractate Megilah 17b

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)