This week’s parashah describes what should be the most mundane of elements: the particulars of sacrificial ritual and the details of kosher animals and birds.
But the name of the parashah, Shemini, means “eighth,” and the events of the narrative occur on the eighth day of the priestly inauguration. The very mention of the number eight poises us for the unusual.
Within Judaism, unlike the number eight, the number seven is packed with meaning and symbolism. The universe was created in seven days, a bride and groom are blessed with seven blessings and there are seven levels to the soul. We understand the number seven, since we are surrounded by it and we organize our lives around it.
Seven represents completeness. Shabbat occurs on the seventh day and it completes the week. We bless a bride and groom with the number seven as symbolic of all the blessings in the universe. We strive for the number seven since it embodies shalem (wholeness), which shares a root with shalom (peace).
But the number eight is quite different. There was no eighth day of Creation. There is no eighth blessing.
In Jewish mysticism, the number eight moves us beyond nature and beyond the mundane. The high priest wore clothes that consisted of eight elements, since his role was to bring people to atonement – to spiritual places beyond where they normally dwell. The Midrash tells us that the instruments of the Temple played seven chords, the eighth chord being reserved for the Messianic Era. A baby boy enters the Jewish covenant with God on his eighth day, as the relationship with God moves us beyond where we could arrive on our own.
Yet every element in creation has its opposite. Though the number eight represents our ability to transcend, Parashat Shemini also depicts the worst and darkest moments of the number that has no place in nature, as Aaron loses his sons.