The opening events in the portion take place on the eighth and final day of the setting up of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), hence the name of the portion, Shemini (Eighth). The Mishkan resembled a giant tent, comprised of many parts that were fitted together, and it was designed to be assembled and taken apart for each of the journeys through the desert. As part of the inauguration process, Moshe was instructed by G-d to set up the Mishkan each morning for seven days, and dismantle it again each evening. The eighth and final day, when the Mishkan was finally erected and not dismantled, is the eighth day of our portion.
Elsewhere in the Torah however, the date given for the inaugural day of the Mishkan is the first of Nissan. The Midrash states that the first of Nissan of that year was ‘crowned’ with ten ‘firsts’. Why is this day of ‘firsts’ described to us now as the eighth day rather than the first day? And why did G-d require Moshe to spend the seven preceding days assembling and dismantling the Mishkan? Surely setting it up once should have been sufficient.
In fact, Rabbeinu Bachaya points out that the number eight was a dominant theme in the Mishkan and its utensils. The High Priest wore eight garments when performing the services, there were eight spices in the anointing oil and incense, and there were a total of eight carrying poles (two each in the Aron, the golden altar, the table and the earthen altar). The minimum age for an animal that could be sacrificed was eight days, and the Levites had eight different musical instruments to accompany the sacrifices.
What does the number eight represent? In the song that we sing at the conclusion of the Pesach Seder we state that eight are the days before the Brit (circumcision). This means that the deeper meaning of eight is contained within the concept of circumcision.
The commandment of circumcision was given by G-d to Avraham at the time that his name was changed from Avram (Genesis 17). The change of name signified that only now had he reached his full spiritual potential. It was also at this time that G-d told Avraham that he would have a son, Yitzchak, who would continue in his traditions of monotheism. Thus with the act of circumcision Avraham became spiritually complete. Before Avraham was circumcised he was unable to stand in the presence of G-d (Rashi ibid. 17; 3).
There is a blessing which women recite every morning, which men are unable to say. They thank G-d “She’Asani Kirtzono” who has created me according to His will. Men are formed spiritually imperfect, and only through circumcision do they conform to the Divine will.
The number seven always represents the natural, physical world. There were seven days of creation, and seven days in a week. There are seven colours in the spectrum, and seven notes in an octave. Seven symbolises the totality of the physical. There are also seven continents and seven heavens. Eight is the number of spiritual perfection. It denotes mastery not only over the physical realms, but also over the spiritual domain.
It is now clear why G-d commanded Moshe to set up the Mishkan for seven days, and only consecrate it on the eighth day. This was to show the world that its function was to complete the universe spiritually, and perfect the material world.