“Waiting Until the Eighth Day”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The opening portion of parashat Emor highlights the rules governing the lifestyle and comportment of the Cohanim (priests). This is followed by a section dealing with safeguarding the sanctity of the offerings that the Cohanim bring.

After a series of verses concerning blemished animals, the Torah in Leviticus 22:27 states that G-d spoke to Moses saying: “Shohr oh cheh’sev oh ayz kee yee’vah’layd, v’ha’yah shiv’aht ya’meem tah’chaht ee’mo, oo’mee’yom ha’sh’mee’nee va’hahl’ah yay’rah’tzeh l’kahr’bahn ee’sheh la’Hashem,” When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall remain with its mother for seven days; and from the eighth day on, it is acceptable for a fire-offering to Hashem.

Continuing the theme of the preceding Torah portion, the concept of perfection in matters pertaining to Temple worship is once again emphasized. The Torah, therefore, forbids a calf that is less than eight days old to be brought as a sacrifice. Any such offering is unacceptable.

There is a rather lively discussion among the commentators regarding the reason for this “eight day” rule. The Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) notes that anyone undertaking a deed or action must execute it until completion. Even the preparatory phases of that deed are expected to be properly completed. Therefore, any offering brought to G-d must be of a complete nature. Thus, until the animal has lived at least eight days it has not fulfilled the requirement of basic “completeness.” It is, therefore, not fit to be given as a present or gift, or qualified to be used for barter.

The Ba’al HaTurim (c.1275-1340, Jacob ben Asher, Germany and Spain, famed halakhist, author of a comprehensive commentary on the Torah) offers an intriguing and original reason for disqualifying an animal before it completes a week of life. Comparing the first week of the animal’s life to the first seven days of creation, the Ba’al HaTurim suggests that had the animal been brought on the first day, it might have been regarded as symbolic of the creation of heaven and earth. Were it brought on the second day, it might have been seen as representing the firmament. The third day, it might have been regarded as an offering to the oceans and the dry land. On the fourth, it could be seen as a tribute to the sun or the moon. On the fifth day, it might be regarded as being dedicated to the animals. Finally, on the sixth it might be construed as a gift commemorating the creation of the human being. Therefore, suggests the Ba’al HaTurim, a full week needs to pass, including a Shabbat, so that all can recognize that the gift is being offered only to G-d, and not to anyone or anything else.

The Hizzekuni (Hezkiah ben Manoah, French exegete of the 13th century) suggests that a newly born animal emerges from its mother’s womb in a state of impurity. The young animal can not be brought to the Temple until after a period of seven days has elapsed, when it can be considered symbolically pure.

The Abarbanel (1437-1508, Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator) suggests simply that a newborn animal may not be viable. It needs its mother’s food, warmth and care in order to survive, and only acquires an independent existence on the eighth day of its life. Therefore, it is not appropriate to serve as an offering or a sacrifice before the eighth day.

The Kli Yakar (R’ Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz, c.1550-1619, Rosh Yeshiva of Lemberg and Rabbi of Prague, author of a popular bible commentary) notes that the number seven is a vital number in the Jewish religion–the Sabbath, the Sabbatical cycle, the Jubilee year are all based on the number seven. However, the number eight represents the beginning of a new cycle, as demonstrated by the day of circumcision. It was on the eighth day that Aaron and his sons were officially invested with priestly status. Similarly, the Torah states that the animal must be eight days old before it can be presented as an offering.

Maimonides (the Rambam, 1135-1204, great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician) suggests that any animal offered for a sacrifice must have a substantial value. A weak and helpless animal that is less than eight days old has no appreciable value since its survival is not yet regarded as certain.

Rabbi Berel Wein (popular contemporary author and teacher) writing recently about parashat Shemini, but his words could very well apply to our context, has suggested that “the term ‘eighth day’ means more than just the count of a number of days that elapsed…. It signifies the moment that euphoria ends and reality sets in. It signifies the beginning of facing problems and finding solutions for them. It also marks the hardships of life, its disappointments and tragedies.”

While we have no way of knowing which of the proposed reasons is the correct rationale for postponing the sacrifice until the eighth day, the fact that it is postponed, highlights the Torah’s built-in sense of compassion for animals, as well as the meaning and importance of the number eight in Jewish life. Although the context of animal sacrifice seems to be an unlikely source for teaching such principles and values, these teachings once again underscore that the nuances of Torah are as important as the clear, explicit and obvious lessons of the text.

May you be blessed.