Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk



            Who Knows One is, of course, a fun song from our Pesach Seder.  I enjoyed singing it this year at my Seder, when I substituted twelve are the tribes of Israel, with twelve are my grandchildren, who were all there. Well, the source for one of the numbers is found in this week's Torah reading.  Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days…And on the eighth day, he shall be circumcised (Leviticus 12:3-4).  This emphasis on the eighth day began back in Genesis when Avraham is circumcised at ninety-nine years of age, but is informed:  And at the age of eight days, every male shall be circumcised to you throughout your generations, one that is born in the house (Genesis 17:12).  So, the default position for britot is eight days old.  Let's look at the number eight and see what it symbolizes.  

Before we discuss the importance of the number eight in Jewish tradition, let's take a quick look at the number eight in other communities.  First of all the number eight is the symbol of harmony and balance.  I think that comes from its shape.  Eight symbolizes the ability to make decisions, and for that reason it was the number on those black Mystical Eight Balls which give answers to all questions.  Remember those?  It also symbolizes abundance and power.  The Pythagoreans, who were mystics as well as mathematicians, called the number eight "Ogdoad" and considered it the "little holy number".  In China, the number represents luck, success and wealth.  People pay obscene amounts to get phone numbers and license plates with the number eight.  When the Summer Olympics were in Beijing the opening ceremony was on 8/8/08 (August 8, 2008), and began at exactly eight minutes and eight seconds past eight PM local time.  In Buddhism the Golden Mean is called the Eightfold Path.  In ancient Babylon, the chief goddess, Ishtar (Esther), was represented by an eight pointed star (that word actually derives from the name Ishtar).  Cool stuff, but not inspiring, actually some of that is a bit weird.

            This brings us to Judaism.  We know that numbers have powerful symbolism and connotations in Judaism, especially amongst Kabballists.  But what is the significance of the number eight?  Normally we think of the number seven as representing the natural order of our world, as in days of the week, Creation and the Shmittah cycles in Israel.  Therefore, the number eight is often viewed as meta-natural.  The Chabad.org website expresses this popular opinion in the following way:  Eight, on the other hand, is symbolic of an entity that is one step above the natural order, higher than nature and its limitations. That's why Chanukah is eight days long—the greatly outnumbered Maccabees' resolve to battle the Greeks wasn't logical or natural… In a similar vein, we circumcise our children when they are eight-day old babies, because the brit milah symbolizes our nation's supernatural and logic-defying covenant with God.

            The end of that quote, of course, brings us to the issue raised in this week's Torah reading, namely why is circumcision performed on the eighth day?  The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh (Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar, 1696-1743) records a number of reasons for having the brit on the eighth day.  It is an act of kindness to wait until the eighth day so that the baby can gain strength (Midrash Raba Deuteronomy, chapter 86).  He also suggests that the baby should experience one Shabbat in peace, because we gain spiritual strength on Shabbat (Zohar, parshat Tazria, 44a).  Then he adds his own answer that the brit should only happen after the woman has passed seven days for her own ritual cleanliness, because she should experience the ceremony in purity as well.  That reason follows a logical reading of the verse.

            On the other hand, I think that the key to understanding the reason for brit on the eighth day can be understood from last week's parsha.  Last week we read the section called Shmini or eighth.  It describes how the dedication of the portable Temple was on a day described as the eighth.  This was the eighth day of Temple activities, because there were seven days of practice, but its date was the first of Nissan.  The Talmud suggests that this shows that God was as pleased as at the time of Creation (Megilla 10b).  There were seven days of Creation and this is the eighth day of continuation of that magnificent week   This is a compelling answer.  Our actions are a continuation of God's activities.  But I'd like to add to that answer.

            Eight is the new number one.  Seven in Jewish tradition represents the completion of a natural cycle.  Eight symbolizes the beginning of the next, new period.  This is seen in the mitzvah of Shmittah.  According to Jewish law we're not allowed to sow, reap or harvest in the seventh year, but we're told not to worry because God will provide enough for that year and the next.  However, the Torah calls that third year, the eighth year, not the first (Leviticus 25:22).  This is because we often see new beginnings as a continuation of what went before.  It's quite revolutionary and rare that we see new events which aren't understood in the context of the preceding era.  So, too, with a Brit Mila, this eight day old baby's brand new commitment to the covenantal community must be seen as a continuum from his parents and extending all the way back to Avraham, our patriarch.

            So, eight according to some might be lucky or balanced, and there are Jews who suggest it might be supernatural, but it is definitely the kind of new that we ageless Jews can identify with, namely a new resolve to keep our ancient religion alive and vibrant.      

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