From Seven to Eight – From Sukkot to Shmini Atzeret

hero image

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center
In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Is ‘eight’ a magic number in Sefer Vayikra? Or, is it only coincidental that:

In last week’s shiur, we discussed how the seven days of Sukkot (and the seven weeks of Shavuot as well) relate to their celebration of the harvest at key times during the agricultural year. [Specifically ‘seven’ to emphasize that the creation of all nature – the cause of the agricultural cycle – was (and continues to be) a willful act of God.] This week, we return to Sefer Breishit in search of the biblical significance of the number ‘eight’.


From the above examples in Sefer Vayikra, eight appears to be significant simply because it follows seven:

Brit Milah, however, appears to be an exception. Although the mother happens to be “tamei” (unclean) for the first seven days after her son’s birth (12:2), there does not appear to be any logical connection between these seven days and the commandment to perform “milah’ on the eighth day. In fact, the original commandment to Avraham Avinu circumcise his offspring on the ‘eighth day’ (see Breishit 17:7-14) is not connected in any manner to the laws of “tumah” or “tahara”. In that parsha, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason why specifically the eighth day is chosen. However, a study of the parsha of “brit milah” in the wider context of Sefer Breishit suggests a very interesting relationship between “milah” on the ‘eighth day’ and the ‘seven days’ of Creation. To uncover that relationship, we must first conduct a quick review of the first seventeen chapters of Sefer Breishit.

In What ‘Name’ Does God Speak to Man?

Recall from our study of Sefer Breishit (see this week’s shiur Parsha shiur) that God’s creation of the universe is presented in Chumash from two perspectives:

  1. “b’shem ELOKIM” (1:1 -2:4) – which focused on God’s creation of NATURE, i.e. a structured universe, in SEVEN days [what we call ‘perek aleph’]; and
  2. “b’shem HAVAYA” (2:5-4:26) – which focused on God’s special relationship with Man, i.e. the creation of Gan Eden, and man’s banishment from that environment after he sinned [what we call ‘perek bet’].

Without going into the complex details of this ‘double presentation’, we will just posit that God’s relationship with man develops along the lines of each of these two perspectives. In other words, we will find that at times God may talk to man b’shem Elokim, while other times He may speak to him b’shem Havaya – each Name reflecting a different perspective of that developing relationship. For example, in perek aleph, God – b’shem Elokim – blesses man that he be fruitful & multiply, master the earth and rule over all other living creatures (see 1:26-28). In contrast to
this perspective of man as ruler, in perek bet – b’shem Havaya – man is created in order to become God’s servant, whose job is to tend and watch over His Garden (see 2:15-17). This double perspective continues in the Torah’s account of the Flood. Because of he sinful behavior of “dor ha’Mabul” (the generation of the Flood), God decides to destroy His creation, saving only Noach and his family. The explanation for this punishment is presented according to both of these perspectives:

  1. b’shem Elokim – see 6:9-6:22.
  2. b’shem Havaya – see 6:5-8 & 7:1-5.

Likewise, in the aftermath of the MABUL, God redefines His relationship with man, again from both perspectives:

  1. b’shem Elokim – see 9:1-17
  2. b’shem Havaya – see 8:18-21

After the flood, the children of Noach disperse into seventy nations (10:1-32). From that time onward, up until the story of “brit Milah” (i.e. chapters 11->16), the Torah describes any intervention by God exclusively from the perspective of “shem Havaya”. For example, God’s punishment of the builders of the Tower of Babel is described b’shem Havaya (see 11:1-10). Similarly, God’s choice of Avraham Avinu to become the forefather of His special nation is also described b’shem Havaya (see 12:1-16:16). In fact, God – b’shem Havaya – makes several promises to Avraham concerning the future of his offspring and the Promised Land (see chapter 13). This promise is formalized, again b’shem Havaya, at Brit Bein Ha’Btarim (see 15:1-20) – a covenant which not only foresees the conquest of the Land of Israel by Avraham’s offspring, but also foresees the forging of this nation through bondage in a foreign Land. Thus we find that from chapter 11 until chapter 16 in Sefer Breishit, God speaks to man exclusively b’shem Havaya. In chapter 17, when God commands Avraham to perform Brit Milah, this pattern suddenly changes! In this narrative, God first introduces Himself as “kel sha-dai” and then, for the FIRST time, He speaks to Avraham Avinu b’shem ELOKIM:

“When Avram was ninety-nine years, God [HAVAYA] appeared to Avram and said to him: “ANI KEL SHA-DAI”, walk before Me and be blameless. And I will establish My COVENANT between Me and you… Avram fell on his face, and God [ELOKIM] spoke to him saying… This is my COVENANT with you…” (17:1-4)

Note how in this covenant, given b’shem Elokim, God:

a) changes Avram’s name to Avraham;
b) blesses him that he will multiply [“pru u’rvu”];
c) promises that he will become a great nation;
d) promises him and his future generations Eretz Canaan;
e) promises to be his God [“l’hiyot l’cha l’ELOKIM”];
f) commands him to circumcise his male children, etc.

To better appreciate the significance of this special covenant of “brit milah”, we must compare it to the two earlier instances in Chumash where God spoke to man b’shem Elokim:

(I) After the creation of man on the sixth day (1:27-30);
(II) After the Flood (9:1-17).

I) On the sixth day, when man is created b’tzelem ELOKIM, God (b’shem ELOKIM) blesses him that he should:

a) be fruitful and multiply [“pru u’rvu”];
b) be master and ruler of the living kingdom;
c) eat from the plants and fruit of the trees.

II) Some ten generations later, after the Flood, God (b’shem ELOKIM) blesses Noach and his children in a very similar fashion (9:1-7), including:

a) to be fruitful and multiply [“pru u’rvu”];
b) to be master of the living kingdom;
c) permission to eat living creatures [not only plants];

This divine blessing is followed by a special covenant, also given b’shem Elokim. This covenant, better known as “brit ha’keshet” (the rainbow covenant), reflects the establishment of a special relationship between God and mankind, i.e. God’s promise that He will never again bring about the total destruction of His creation (see 9:11-15). [See Ramban on 6:18, especially his final explanation of the word “brit”, based on the word “briya”!]

As we explained above, the next time that God speaks to man b’shem Elokim is only some ten generations later – at Brit Milah! Once again we find that God speaks to man in order to establish
a special covenant. Note the striking textual similarities between this covenant – “brit Milah” and the earlier covenant – “brit ha’keshet”:

a) to be fruitful and multiply 9:1 / 17:2,6;
b) “va’ani hi’nei… briti itach(em)…” 9:9 / 17:4;
c) “v’hakimoti et briti…” 9:11 / 17:7;
d) “ha’aterz” // “eretz canaan” 9:13,16,17 / 17:8
e) “ot brit”: “ha’milah // ha’keshet” 9:13,17/ 17:12;

However, in addition to these similarities, in “brit Milah” we find an important promise – “l’hiyot lachem l’Elokim” [to be a God to you”] – which reflects a much closer relationship. In fact, this key phrase is repeated twice, for it emphasizes and defines the purpose of Brit Milah (read 17:7-8 carefully!).

One Step ‘Above’ Nature

This background can help us understand the commandment that “brit milah” be performed specifically on the eighth day. Note the progression of God’s relationship with man from the
perspective of ‘shem Elokim’:

  1. The Creation of NATURE in SEVEN days (1:1-2:4);
  2. The covenant with Noach after the Flood (9:1-17);
  3. The “Brit Milah” covenant with Avraham Avinu to be performed on the EIGHTH day (17:1-14).

One could suggest that circumcision on the EIGHTH day relates to this elevation of man’s spiritual level, ONE step above the level of his original creation in SEVEN days. Let’s explain this statement, based on these three stages of this progression b’shem Elokim:

  1. During the first seven days, God brought the universe to a stage of development where it appears to ‘take care of itself’. Be it vegetation, animal, or man, all species of life secure their existence by their ability to reproduce; they become fruitful and multiply [e.g. “zo’ray’ah zerah”, “zachar u’nekeyvah”, “pru u’rvu”, etc.]. Man’s mastery of this creation, his desire to conquer and his ability to harness it, are all part of this phenomenon which we call NATURE. The first chapter of Breishit teaches us that, what we call nature, is not simply an act of chance, rather a willful act of God. [By resting on Shabbat, once every seven days, we remind ourselves of this point.]
  2. After the “mabul”, God (b’shem Elokim) ‘starts over’ by re-establishing His relationship with mankind in a covenant with Noach, known as “brit hakeshet”. This covenant reflects a relationship very similar to that in God’s original creation in seven days, with some ‘minor’ changes: Man remains master of His universe (9:2), with a ‘small change’ in his diet (9:3-5), and a commandment that it is forbidden to murder a fellow human (9:6-7). However, the basic laws of nature remain the same (see 9:8).
  3. Up until Brit Milah, man’s relationship with God b’shem Elokim remained distant. Although Man was the pinnacle of God’s creation with certain minimal expectations of moral behavior, he was basically just part of nature. Man was given power; he acted LIKE God [b’tzelem Elokim], but was not CLOSE to Him. At Brit Milah, Avraham is raised to a higher level. He and his offspring are chosen to represent God as His special nation, and towards that purpose, they are awarded a special relationship -“li’hiyot lachem l’Elokim”. As an “ot”, a sign, of this relationship, they are commanded to circumcise their children on the ‘eighth day’.

Thus, the EIGHTH day represents yet one more level of progression in the creation process, which first took place in SEVEN days. [What the Maharal calls “m’al ha’teva – above nature!] Just as there is a progression within the first seven days of creation b’shem Elokim, from “domem” [inanimate / “shmayim v’aretz”], to “tzomayach” (vegetation), to “chai” [animal kingdom], to “adam” [man], so too on the ‘eighth day’. The offspring of Avraham has been chosen to take God’s creation and elevate it to a higher level.

This interpretation could reflect a statement made by Reish Lakish, explaining the meaning of God’s name “kel sha-dai” which is first introduced at Brit Milah( 17:1-2): What’s the meaning of “ani kel-sha’dai”? God said: I am the One who said to the world “dai” – [enough, or stop].” (Yalkut Shimoni siman 81, Chagiga 12a) [See also the pirush of the “Torah Tmima” on this pasuk.]

This explanation may help us understand the complex opening of the Brit Milah narrative: God, b’shem Havaya – the Name of God which Avraham is familiar with up until this point – informs Avraham that He is “kel sha-dai”, the God who had ‘stopped’ His process of creation after seven days (17:1-2). Now, b’shem Elokim, the Name of God that orchestrated the creation in seven days, intervenes yet one more time. He establishes a covenant with Avraham, to command him with the mitzvah of “brit milah”, to raise him ONE level higher, i.e. closer to God.. Thus, God’s commandment that we perform Brit Milah on the eighth day is not incidental. Rather, it reflects the very nature of our special relationship with God.

Back to Vayikra

Milah on the eighth day was only one example of this ‘7/8’ relationship in Sefer Vayikra. Based on our shiur, we can now explain the other examples:

Seven Days “Miluim” / “Yom Hashemini”:

As explained in last week’s shiur, the seven days necessary to dedicate the Mishkan reflects the parallel between our construction of the Mishkan to serve God, to God’s creation of nature in seven days, to serve Him. [See Tehillim 104 – “borchi nafshi…”!] On the ‘eighth day’, the “shechina” descends upon the Mishkan, allowing it to become the focal point for the development of the special relationship between God and Bnei Yisrael.

Seven Days “Tahara” / Eighth Day “Korbanot” [Metzora, Zav, Zava]:

Different types of “tumah” are caused by some abnormal behavior of the body. Seven days of “tahara” are required to return the “tamei” person back to the ‘camp’ – to his normal existence, his natural habitat. Then on the eighth day, he must bring a special korban to allow his entry into the Mishkan. [Note the parallel between this process, and its korbanot, to that of the kohanim during the seven day miluim and Yom haShmini.]

Seven Days of Sukkot / Shmini Atzeret:

As agriculture and nature go hand in hand, all of the agricultural holidays follow cycles of seven (see Vayikra chapter 23). In the spring [chag ha’aviv], as the grain harvest begins, we bring “korban ha’omer” and celebrate chag ha’matzot for SEVEN days. Then we count SEVEN WEEKS until the completion of the wheat harvest, bring “korban shtei ha’lechem”, and celebrate chag ha’SHAVUOT. On Sukkot, “chag ha’asif”, at the at the end of the agricultural year [“b’tzeit ha’shana /see Shmot 23:16], we thank God for our fruit harvest by celebrating for seven days and bringing the “arba minim” to the Mikdash. At the very end of this cycle of agricultural holidays, we add SHMINI ATZERET, a special gathering with no special agricultural mitzvah. It is simply a time to stop and reflect on the holiday season and year that has passed. On this ‘eighth day’, we focus on the special relationship between God and Bnei Yisrael. This special relationship between God and Bnei Yisrael which begins with Brit Milah, reaches its fullest expression with Matan Torah at Brit Har Sinai. Based on this interpretation, it is understandable why Chazal chose this holiday to celebrate as SIMCHAT TORAH, and to conclude on this day the yearly ‘cycle’ of reading the Torah.