Judaism is great at giving significance and meaning to every little thing. Through ritual and intent, Judaism can take almost any seemingly small or mundane element of our lives and give it depth. Numbers are certainly no exception. Numbers that are represented in Jewish texts, laws, holidays and rituals have depth and symbolism. And, as we are about to celebrate Chanukah, I would like to take a look at the number eight.
The Maharal of Prague (16th century) explains the following. The natural world was created in a unit of seven days. Therefore, seven represents all that is included in the natural world. The number eight goes one step beyond that. Eight represents the spiritual level beyond nature. There are a couple of mitzvot that demonstrate this idea. One is Brit Milah. That mitzvah is performed on the eighth day since its purpose is spiritual. The essence of the mitzvah is not the change in the physical. Rather, the significance of the Brit Milah is the spiritual effect it has on the child, in joining the spiritual covenant of our nation. Another example is when a woman immerses in a mikveh. She counts seven clean days and then immerses on the eighth day. Here, too, the purpose is not a physical one but rather a spiritual one, changing her spiritual status to Te’horah. In both these cases the physical act performed on the eighth day creates profound change in the spiritual realm, a change of spiritual status that is carried by the person into their daily lives and relationships.
Following this explanation of the Maharal about the number eight, we can look at the holiday of Chanukah and understand why it is an eight-day holiday. What was the conflict in the Chanukah story? What was the challenge to the Jewish nation? As opposed to the story of Purim where there was the intent to annihilate the Jews physically, the challenge in this case was over the connection to religion and spirituality. Jewish ritual, the primary tool for fostering and expressing spirituality and our connection to God, was threatened. The Yevanim threatened our “eight”, they didn’t have a problem with our “seven”. They did not oppose us existing within the realm of nature, they opposed the parts of our reality that connected to the spiritual realm beyond. If we would have been willing to give up the “eight” – the spiritual elements of our heritage, tradition and Torah – presumably the conflict would have been resolved. The Yevanim believed in the natural world, elevated it, perhaps even worshipped the physical and natural world of man. The battle of Chanukah is called a battle of “Tum’ah versus Taharah.” This is a battle within the sphere of the eight. The sphere beyond the natural world of man.
I want to mention an interesting question that I saw discussed (Rabbi Yaakov Bieler – Rayanotyaakov.wordpress.com) about the halachot of lighting Chanukah candles. There is a halachik discussion in the sources whether, on Saturday night of Chanukah, one should first light the havdala candle or the Chanukah candles. What is the significance of the discussion? Why isn’t it unanimous that one should light the Chanukah candles first? After all, those candles represent a miracle that happened. That certainly doesn’t happen every day, so shouldn’t that be the obvious answer? Rabbi Bieler explains that at the heart of the discussion is the belief that it would be a grave mistake to forget the importance of our “regular” rituals and mitzvot. The actions and traditions that we uphold on a routine basis, which are rooted in the patterns of our lives within the natural world, are sacred. They provide the structure for meaning and connection in our lives.
Pulling our ideas together, perhaps we can even go so far as to say that one of the values of the “eight” – the spiritual realm beyond nature, the supernatural – is in its potential to strengthen our appreciation for the “seven” – the lives we lead within the natural world, the daily blessings and wonders – which we are used to and have come to expect.
This idea is manifested in one of the many answers given to a famous question about the miracle of the oil burning eight nights instead of one. If it was meant to burn one day naturally, why don’t we celebrate just the seven miraculous and unexpected days? Why celebrate all eight? One answer brought by Eliyahu Kitov in The Book of our Heritage is that the supernatural miracle served to remind the Jews that the things that happen around us according to the laws of nature are all happening by the hand of God. The fact that they were able to rededicate the Temple, the fact that they found that one flask of oil, or the fact that oil burns and makes heat and light at all… all those things are miracles. They are miracles within nature. They are the hand of God in our daily life.
This is why, in “Ma’oz Tzur” which we sing every night at candle lighting, it says “Bnei Bina” in reference to the Jews at that time. Bina is considered to be the ability to understand “davar mitoch davar”; to infer meaning or to see beyond the facts in front of you to a deeper level. This gift of “Bina” allowed the Jews to see the miracle of the oil which was beyond nature and understand the powerful reminder it held about nature itself being miraculous.
Returning for a moment to the idea of Mikveh, immersion in the mikveh is an act that creates a spiritual transition. It also involves quite a bit of physical detail and preparation, whether in the days leading up to immersion or in the preparation process immediately before immersion. I believe that all those details are meant to help connect us to our bodies. While the essence of Mikveh is a spiritual transition, we can use it to be aware of our bodies and any health issues that may need attention, we can use it to notice and be grateful for our health, our physical abilities in general and as women, we may take a moment to recognize and appreciate the relationship in our life which is impacted by our going to the Mikveh. We can use this moment that exists in the realm of the spiritual to notice, feel connected to and grateful for the natural realm.
Finally, connecting to the Covid pandemic that has been escorting us holiday by holiday through the Jewish calendar, I can speak for myself and say that there are many habits, rituals, activities and dynamics that I took for granted. My son recently had one hour of “in person” school after having only distance learning for weeks. I was so excited for him to have that one hour with his teacher and friends! Previously, one hour of school would have seemed relatively insignificant.
Now that we live by slightly different rules and considerations that accompany so many decisions, I have a greater appreciation for the blessing of our common daily miracles. I certainly have a renewed respect for the “regular”!
May we all be blessed to be aware and appreciative of the miracles surrounding us, in all their forms.
Wishing everyone a Chag Chanukah Sameach!
Other blogs by Chana Even Chen: