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Parshat Shemini – When Seven Becomes Eight


This week’s parsha begins, “and it was, on the eighth day…” (Leviticus 9:1). It was the first day of the operation of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), on the first day of Nissan, after a period of seven days during which the kohanim (priests) were trained in the Divine Service (Rashi, loc.cit.). The problem here is that the natural world is defined by cycles of seven. Seven days in a week; seven weeks in the cycle of Sefirat Ha’Omer; seven years in a shemitta (Sabbatical year) cycle; seven shemitta-cycles in a yovel (Jubilee year). There is no eight, unless the Torah is referring to something above nature. Which it is.

When the Children of Israel sinned with the Golden Calf, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is said to have left the world but was brought back down as it were by Moses. The Mishkan and the Shechinah both share the same Hebrew root letters shin-chaf-nun, which relate to the concept of dwelling. As we saw in Parshat Terumah, the Children of Israel were commanded to build a holy place for G-d to dwell, here in this world. G-d’s Divine Presence elevates the world beyond its natural state. Hence, the day that the kohanim began to serve officially in the Mishkan was the “eighth day”, an event beyond time, beyond the chronological restrictions of the natural world.

And like the eighth day transcended the natural cycle of time, the Mishkan was an “eight”, a place beyond the parameters of space. In the midrash (Vayikra Rabba 11:1), this first verse, and the whole concept of the Mishkan, is compared to the verse, “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars”. Rabbi Yirmiya bar Ila’i explains there that this verse describes the creation of the world. Time and space begin with Creation. “Wisdom” refers to G-d, who created the “house”, the world, with chochma (wisdom; see Sanhedrin 38a). The seven pillars refer to the seven days of creation—six days of active creating, plus a seventh day of rest that was blessed by G-d (see Genesis 2:2). Tosafot (Sanhedrin, loc. cit.) note that the one element missing from the creation after the six days was rest. When G-d created Shabbat, the seventh day, the essence of calm was introduced into the creation.

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823-1900), in his sefer Pri Tzaddik, explains that G-d initially created the world with he sustaining power to last for six days. Once Shabbat was created, sanctified by G-d, and observed by Adam, it became a source of life, extending the existence of the world another six days. And the cycle of existence continues this way. When the verse tells us that G-d blessed the seventh day, it is akin to the blessing He gave to Adam and Eve, saying “be fruitful and multiply”. “Blessing” implies “increase”. Shabbat contains the world’s capacity to perpetuate itself. It too, is an “eight”, transcending the natural order.

According to the Ohr Ha’Chayim (Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, 1696-1743), this is true as long as Shabbat is observed. Throughout history there have been people who have kept Shabbat, from Adam to Abraham, as we read in the Talmud (Yoma 28b), that the Patriarchs observed all of the laws of the Torah, including Shabbat. But this poses a problem: in Sanhedrin 58b, we find that, “a Ben Noach who observes Shabbat is liable to the death penalty”. How were the Patriarchs allowed to do this? The Ran explains (Nedarim 31a), that because Abraham lived a life at a very high level of holiness, he and his descendants were in a category by themselves.

We are still left with a problem: what about the time before Abraham? Noah himself was commanded, “day and night, they shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22), and therefore certainly did not observe Shabbat. But, if the world’s existence is only sustained through the observance of Shabbat, and Bnei Noach are forbidden to observe it, how did the world continue to exist before the Bnei Yisrael were given the commandment? The Ohr Ha’Chayim answers as follows: the essential aim of Shabbat observance is the recognition of G-d’s Kingship, His Divine Attribute of Malchut.  This acknowledgement is what keeps the world going. Therefore, he says, anyone who is a tzaddik (a righteous person) and recognizes G-d Kingship—even if he does not observe the Shabbat, because he has been commanded not to do so—is assisting in the sustaining of the world. This is because it is G-d’s Attribute of Malchut that sustains all existence. For this reason, we find in the Talmud (Chagiga 12b), “the world stands on one pillar and its name is “tzaddik”, as the verse states, “the tzaddik is the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25).

Bnei Noach give Shabbat its “soul”, not through the observance of the technical laws of Shabbat, but by utilizing it as a springboard for the awareness of G-d’s Kingship and in that way, Shabbat is actually a unique opportunity to come closer to G-d for Bnei Noach. And with the investment of this “soul”, Shabbat becomes the source of blessing, giving abundance to the week ahead, and making the world a mishkan, a dwelling place for us to be with Him. May we be blessed to take part in the revelation of His Kingship.


By Rabbi Tani Burton

(Based on a teaching in Pri Tzaddik, by R. Tzadok HaKohen זצ”ל)

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