Numbers have power and significance. Some numbers have greater significance than others, often due to their properties as primes or unique, or their role in anchoring our numbering system. The number one is unique. It is the identity number. It is, by definition, singular. “Who Knows One?” goes the Passover song. “One is our G-d Who is in the Heavens and on Earth.” The number two defines the concept of evenness. Three, an ideal balance, whether in geometry or the world. Ten is the basis for our numbering system. These numbers resonate in our consciousness and our world but no number has the power and significance of the number seven.
It is the perfect number. More than that, it is Judaism’s most sacred number. Seven is completeness and wholesomeness. The Sabbath is the seventh day. Shemittah, the seventh year. Yovel, the culmination of seven cycles of seven years.
The seven branches of the Temple Menorah. The sprinkling of blood seven times in the Temple. The seven days of shiva. The seven days of celebration for chatan and kalah. Seven aliyot. Seven mitzvoth required on Sukkot. Seven major days of celebration in Jewish calendar. Seven days of nidah… and on and on.
Seven completes a cycle fully and wholly. Brit Milah, which lifts the newborn son from a mere physical existence into meaningful, goal-oriented Jewish life, takes place on the eighth day. Why eight days? Rav Hirsch explains that this is because the “young being must pass through a full period of seven days as a creature perfect in body; and only on the eighth day must the seal of Israel be impressed upon him.”
Rav Kook finds in Shemittah and Yovel a completeness of life’s spiritual qualities. Too soon, the fruit is not ripened. Too late, it is overripe and rotted. At its time… Without the fullness of “seven” there is an emptiness, an unripeness, still awaiting its time. “Quality of life can be improved through the affording of a breathing space from the bustle of everyday affairs… What the Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the Shemittah achieves with regard to the nation as a whole.” Shemittah and Yovel are not mere mechanisms of ensuring equality, freedom from poverty and slavery. More importantly, they are a means of attaining a fullness and wholeness, of attaining holiness complete.
In Nitzavim, the Parasha read on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah, the word shuv, “to turn or, to return” occurs seven times in various forms, all underlining the theme of repentance, of teshuva (itself, a form of shuv). This speaks to the deep relationship between the number seven, connoting completeness, to teshuva, repenting and returning.
The Torah source of teshuva, “You shall then return to G-d your Lord, and will obey Him,” is one of these seven verses.
Because man has free will and has the choice of attaining wholeness and completion or remaining incomplete, the Rambam writes, he “should strive to repent” of all sins, as well as investigate and repent of any evil disposition. “Great is repentance, for it brings man near, back to the Divine Presence.”
Teshuva turns back to completion, to a state of wholeness and completeness. To perform teshuva is to arrive at one’s full potential and real self. Without teshuva, one’s life is lived as a series of discrete moments, with good and evil, success and failure intimately related. Without teshuva, the week is seven days, not a grand march toward the glory of Shabbat.
Marriage is nothing but a cohabitative partnership without the fulfillment of the sheva (seven) brachot ideals. Faith, without the completeness of the seven mitzvoth enunciated in the Shema, an empty proclamation. Agriculture is backbreaking labor without the peace and tranquility of the Shemittah year.
The Zohar teaches that twenty six generations before the creation of the world, the twenty two letters of the alphabet descended from the Crown of G-d whereon they were engraved with a pen of flaming fire. They gathered around G-d and each entreated that the world be created through him. The resh was rejected, for it introduces the words ra and rasha –evil. The mem was rejected, for it is the first letter of mehuma, confusion. Each letter, in its turn, presented itself as the one worthy to be the vessel through which the world would come into being. All feel short until finally, the aleph was selected. Why? It modestly made no claims at all.
While zayin, numeric equivalent to seven, argued that it should have been chosen because it begins the verse [zachor] which ordains the observance of the Sabbath, G-d said, no. “You may not help me in the work of Creation, for zayin is the word for weapon.”
Seven. The perfect number. The most sacred number. Whole. Complete. The quality and value of seven is found in Shabbat, Shemittah, and Yovel. Seven. It calls us to holiness. Each one of us is endowed with the free will and inner strength to attain that completeness and holiness. But, like the letter zayin, we not only have the potential for holiness but also for evil. Each day, each moment, we do battle with the zayin weapon.
Our lifetime is made up of these battles. We fight with ourselves and with others. Even the seven Noachide laws no longer hold sway.
If we entered our battles with zayin only with our free will and animal strength, we would be crushed as the dust. But we are gifted with teshuva. Teshuva, called for seven times, so that each of us can find our path to “return to G-d… and obey Him.”
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.