“The Meaning of 7” by Lauren Shaps


Hey to the Chevra,

Seven is a very cool number. We see it throughout the natural world. For example there are seven notes on the musical scale, seven colours in a rainbow, seven continents and seven seas. Jewish life is also full of sevens: seven holidays in the Jewish year, seven blessings recited at a Jewish wedding, seven immediate relatives for whom a person sits shiva, the 7-day mourning period, seven weeks of seven days we count during the Omer period from Passover until Shavuot, and so many more. (For more sevens see this article.) 

Our Rabbis explain that G-d embedded the number seven within nature to teach us to look beyond the physical world. The Maharal (Rabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague, 1520-1609), whose writings reveal the secret riches of the Torah, explains that the number seven gives us a deeper understanding of how spirituality is contained within the physical. Envision a cube, which has a front and a back, right and left sides, and a top and a bottom, so too the three-dimensional world is made up of six sides. Within the cube is the seventh, or inner, dimension. It is there but intangible. This, the seventh dimension, represents the spiritual dimension within the natural order, the sacred hidden within the structure of our world. When we see a seven we know to delve deeper, that there is much more than just what meets the eye.

One of the best-known examples of seven is Shabbat, the seventh day. The Torah tells us the world was created in six days. On the seventh day, G-d refrained from creation. We too spend six days each week in creative effort making our impact on the world. On the seventh day, Shabbat, we take a break from productive labour in order to make space in our lives for the inner, spiritual dimension contained within the material world.

Just as we work six days and refrain on the seventh, so too the Torah instructs Jews living in the land of Israel to work the land for six years and to allow it to rest on the seventh. This unique legislation called Shmitta, or the Sabbatical year, is mentioned in this week’s Parsha, Pashat Behar, where we are told:

And G-d spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai saying: ‘Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them, when you enter the land which I am giving to you, the land shall be at rest – a Shabbat unto the Lord. For six years, you shall plant your field and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and you shall harvest its produce. But the seventh year shall be a Shabbat of rest for the land – a Shabbat for the Lord. (Vayikra, Leviticus 25:1-4)

This mitzvah reminds us that we may think we are land owners but in reality the whole earth belongs to G-d. We should view ourselves as caretakers who may be enriched by owning land but are also charged with the responsibility to use the gifts given to us by G-d for a greater good. During the Shmitta year farmers in Israel are to let their land lie fallow. Anything that does grow can be taken by anyone or given to the poor. Hebrew slaves, who were more like indentured servants, were given their freedom every seventh year. The arrival of the Shmittayear also brings with it a release from debts unless a special contract has been written.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out an interesting dichotomy when it comes to freedom and equality. Judaism values both and tries to guard against either in the extreme. In a strictly free-market, capitalist society, there is freedom, but ever-increasing gaps between rich and poor. In a Communist or Socialist society, there is equality enforced by laws that preclude freedom. Rabbi Sacks writes that the laws of Shmitta balance liberty with equality by introducing periodic corrections every seventh year. In this way, we end up with an economic system containing a moral framework that guards the right to basic human dignity. “Wealth and power are not privileges but responsibilities,” Rabbi Sacks writes. “And we are summoned to become G-d’s partners in building a world less random and capricious, more equitable and humane…. Mankind was not created to serve markets. Markets were made to serve the image of G-d that is mankind” (Covenant and Conversation, Leviticus, page 394).

Today there are interesting movements that encourage us to take a day to unplug, a week or more to detox, a Sabbatical to detach and disengage in order to recharge. We understand that our relationship with our stuff can become unhealthy, that riches can lead to arrogance, and that we who have so much often have difficulty when it comes to giving and sharing. The Torah builds in a system that corrects this imbalance on both a weekly basis and a 7-year cycle. It gives us the opportunity to regain our balance, to bring harmony into our relationship with ourselves, with G-d, and with others. These deep and beautiful lessons are contained within that mystical, sacred, spiritual inner dimension and they are brought to you by the number seven.

Shabbat Shalom,



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