Shmini: Why 8?

Nadav and Avihu offered their unauthorized fire with an amazing heart full of love of Hashem. What was so terribly wrong that they were both killed instantly? What is the critical message for our own mitzvah observance?

6 min

Rabbi Pinchas Winston

Posted on 22.05.24

Friday Night

One of the physical differences between humans and animals is what they are like from birth. When animals are born they already look like adult animals, just in miniature. That’s what makes them so cute. But human babies look very little like what they will look like as adults, because they will constantly develop and change.


The Kli Yakar points out in Parashat Emor that this is why the Torah has to tell us to wait seven days from the birth of animal before using it as a sacrifice on its eighth day. You might have thought, since it already looks like a regular animal, that it can be used as a sacrifice from birth. Therefore, the Torah tells us to wait seven days.


Why seven days? Because, the Kli Yakar explains, eight is a number that represents spiritual elevation, which is what happens spiritually to the animal on the eighth day to make it fitting as a sacrifice. Maybe this is also why Brit Milah (circumcision) takes place on the eighth day from birth, aside from the safety for the baby. Reaching the eighth day transforms the baby to a spiritual level fitting for a brit (covenant) with the Almighty.


This is also why Chanukah is eight days long. Yes, that is the amount of time it took to make new pure oil for the Menorah, but they could have found two or three jars of undefiled oil, whittling down the days of miracle from eight to five. It also would have made finding one jar of undefiled oil less miraculous, reducing the extent of the Chanukah miracle even more.


Rather, God wanted Chanukah to be eight days long. Chanukah emphasizes that even in times of hester panim (Hashem hiding Himself) it is possible to live above nature and experience miracles. Thus we see Tannaim, rabbis the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, performing significant miracles at will during times of tremendous hester panim.


This is also the meaning of shmini, the eighth day, in this week’s parsha. The inauguration of the Mishkan could have been on any number of days, but it was on the eighth day because that is when the Mishkan was elevated above nature, an essential step for becoming a “residence” for the Shechinah. The Jewish people did their part to build the elements of the Mishkan, Moshe did his in assembling it, and the eighth day did the rest to make it ready for Hashrat HaShechinah—Dwelling of the Divine Presence.


And the role of the number eight may also be a clue to what happened to Nadav and Avihu, why they did what they did and were punished as they were.


Shabbat Day

There is a disagreement in the Gemora and its commentaries about whether or not mitzvot will still be obligations in Yemot HaMashiach (Days of Mashiach – Messianic Era). On the one hand, the Gemora says that there will be no difference between the Messianic Era and today, other than the end of all oppression of nations and the death of the yetzer hara (evil inclination). Seemingly, mitzvot will still be in effect then as well.


Elsewhere however, the Gemora seems to say just the opposite, that mitzvot will no longer be obligatory after Mashiach has restored Godly order to the world. After all, what need will there be for them if sinning is no longer a possibility after the death of the yetzer hara?


There are many opinions in both directions, notably the Rambam holding that mitzvot will still be applicable in Yemot HaMashiach, and Rashi saying that they won’t be. According to those who hold like the Rambam, the purpose of mitzvot without the yetzer hara (and free will) will have to be explained. According to Rashi’s supporters, what happened to the eternal mitzvot?


As he often does, the Leshem finds away to turn both sides into a single opinion. He explains that yes, we won’t need to be commanded to perform mitzvot in Yemot HaMashiach without a yetzer hara, but also yes, we will still do them, albeit naturally, just like Rebbi Alexandri used to say:


Rebbi Alexandri, upon concluding his prayer (Shemonah Esrei), used to add the following: “Master of the Universe, it is fully known to You that our desire is to perform Your will. What prevents us? The ‘yeast in the dough’ and the oppression of nations. May it be Your will to save us from them in order to do the statutes of Your will with a complete heart.” (Brochot 17a)


This means that even according to the opinion that mitzvot will not be obligatory in Yemot HaMashiach, they will still be done. In pre-Messianic times, the intellectual confusion stemming from our yetzer hara necessitates that we be compelled to do the mitzvah in the form of a commandment. In Messianic times after God removes the yetzer hara and fills the “gap” with Godly knowledge, we will do the moral thing on our own.


Seven, being the day in which God made the world and set the yetzer hara in motion, corresponds to pre-Messianic times. Eight therefore, is the world that follows, Yemot HaMashiach and the yetzer-hara-free world. Perhaps this is what gave Nadav and Avihu their green light, or so they had thought, to do things differently than the Torah had prescribed. They had been right that the Chanukat HaMishkan (inauguration of the Mishkan), the inaugurating the Mishkan, had reached the level of “eight” and of the Messianic Era. But they had been fatally mistaken that the mitzvot no longer applied.


Perhaps this is why their punishment was so specific. As Rashi points out, the fire that came from the Kadosh Kadoshim (Holy of Holies) to burn them up only burned them internally, on the level of their souls. The bodies and clothing had remained perfectly intact, which had to be measure for measure for something, a “something” in turns out that we all struggle with in one way or another.


Seudah Shlishit

There are some who get the mitzvah right, but not the spirit of the mitzvah. They go through all the proper motions of a mitzvah, but their hearts just aren’t in it, at least not completely. They figure God is happy enough with a technically-correct mitzvah,  and that having kavanah is just bonus points.


Others have the opposite problem. They put a lot of “spirit” into each mitzvah  but don’t take the time to learn how to do the mitzvah correctly technically. They figure that what God truly wants is their heart, and that He will forgive them for their halachic errors as long as their heart is in the right place.


Neither is correct, but which is better?


After this week’s parsha, it should not be an issue. Nadav and Avihu had had amazing heart when offering their unauthorized fire, which is why Moshe Rabbeinu was so impressed with their greatness despite what happened to them. But being outside the guidelines of Torah, their zealousness cost them their lives, and should be a wake-up call to anyone with the second approach to mitzvah performance.


It was their incredible heart to come close to God that had driven them, and earned them the adulation of Moshe Rabbeinu. They had been onto something, though it had been channeled in a halachically incorrect way. Just imagine what their praise would have been if they had applied the same spirit to the proper mitzvah performance!


Though it is true that God overlooks halachic errors that we cannot avoid, He is very particular about those errors that we can avoid. Likewise, though it is true that He is pleased when we make a point of getting the halachah right, but He is quite unimpressed if our correctness is robotic. Loyalty and obedience are top priority, but so is a loving relationship with God, especially when doing what He has commanded us to do.


This loving relationship does not only apply to the 613 mitzvot, but even to that which is not a mitzvah per se, like thinking of other people, for example. Any time you are about to do something that may have a negative consequence for another, ask yourself, “What would God prefer I do here?” This question not only makes you more sensitive to the needs of others, but it shows that you care about what God cares about, an important act of love of God.


One Erev Shabbat when I was already walking to Mincha, I passed a car that was parked over two parking spots. The rest of the parking area was already filled with properly parked cars, but this car was parked diagonally over two spots. It probably forced someone else arriving later that Erev Shabbat to park further away, and caused unnecessary stress and effort right before Shabbat.


I’m guessing that the person who parked the crooked car knew better and wouldn’t have parked like that, especially Erev Shabbat, had they not been in a rush themselves, and then forgot how they had parked. They had probably planned to drop things off and return to their car to re-park it correctly, but instead became distracted and forgetful.


It was a small error with large consequences. Nobody wants to be the cause of someone else’s agmat nefesh (anguish, distress). It may be small to us, but it is huge to God. The moment a person complains about being wronged, God’s attention is drawn to their suffering, and after that, their source of suffering. This only “invites” Divine judgment on the perpetrator, which you never really want to do. It can be quite costly when that happens.


This goes for everything else too. Just as people talk about the environmental impact of the actions of man, we have to consider the “environmental” impact on the spiritual world of our lack of spiritual sensitivity. So many people do things without thinking twice that are not in keeping with the spirit of Torah, and sometimes even the guidelines of Torah.


Just because a person doesn’t mean to be this way and are oblivious to it as well doesn’t mean they won’t be asked on their day of judgment, “Why didn’t you fix that in yourself?” Some people may have a limited spiritual capacity to be this sensitive and caring, but too many people have more capacity to be like this than they let on to themselves and others.



Pinchas Winston is the author of over 95 books on various topics that deal with current issues from a traditional Jewish perspective. He has also written on the weekly Torah reading since 1993, called Perceptions”, as well as on current topics and trends affecting Jewish history, past and present. One of his missions is to make the depth and beauty of the more mystical teachings of Torah understandable and accessible to those who can really benefit from them. Visit his website at

Tell us what you think!

Thank you for your comment!

It will be published after approval by the Editor.

Add a Comment