Thursday, April 16, 2015

Making it Count: Studying Sefirat Omer, Judaism’s Best Game

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Moonshine Iyar 2015 | Text and the City

“From the morrow of the Sabbath you’ll count fifty days,
And offer up a new offering to the Lord” (Leviticus 23)

Few things are sillier in Judaism than Sefirat haOmer, “counting the days” from Passover until Shavuot. This innocuous spring ritual consists of ritually reciting a number each night, then repeating the way that number divides into seven. Today is the Twelfth day, which is one week and five days to the Omer. Those who can count the correct number each night through forty nine, win a hefty portion of cheesecake on the fiftieth night. Undoubtedly, if it wasn’t for the brilliant game layerof Sefirat haOmer (forget one night, and you’re out…), this ritual would never have survived three thousand years of Jewish upheaval. Yet dig into the silliest rituals and you’ll find microcosms of the biggest questions.
This month’s Moonshine is an invitation to dig into Sefirat haOmer through three lenses: read the original verses in Leviticus, study Nehama Leibowitz’ exploration into the meaning of the original Omer ritual through traditional commentaries, or explore the Hasidic-psychological reinterpretation of the Omer in a delightful essay from the “Netivot Shalom” Rebbe of Slonim. You can even order a Sefirat haOmer spiritual workbook online. Sure, counting the Omer began a few weeks ago, but there are still five weeks left to make it count. Download one of these resources and study it before the fifty days are up.
A recap of some of these ideas and my own thoughts follows.
I love digging into the genealogy of Jewish rituals and uncovering their layers: the fossilized remains of ancient food, the lava-like polemics that have since frozen over, the small gems of interpretation that have crystallized amid the rocks. Studying the sources one finds that what at first seemed to be an empty shell of meaningless actions, held together by a sense of tradition, is actually a flourishing field. Feeding off the nutritious geological wonder hidden below it, it offers a fertile land for growth and rootedness today. Or something like that…
Such is the ritual of the counting of the Omer. At the bedrock level, it is an agricultural ritual of marking the grain harvest season, and counting from the very first crops to the peak of the harvest fifty days later, as described in Vayikra 23. It was a sanctification ritual of food and labor, recognizing the source of this goodness and zooming out to the larger purpose of our life’s work. In 16th century Tsfat, R. Moshe Alshikh described it as a corrective to affluence at the time of reaping profits:
“Affluence has the most pernicious effect on a person’s character, causing them to be haughty and arrogant… This can be avoided if a person acknowledges that Divine source of wealth instead of boasting that ‘my mighty hand has gotten me this wealth’ (Deut. 8:17). With the onset of the barley harvest, which is the earliest before beholding the abundant produce in the storehouses and on the field, man must recognize that his strength is illusory, for ‘all is vanity’ (Keheleth 3:19). Thus God has commanded us to offer up the earliest product of the harvest presenting the priest one omer as a token of gratitude… only after the omer has been offered up on the altar may Israeli enjoy the new produce of the year.”
But that agricultural reality ended hundreds and hundreds of years ago – covered over by a layer of Roman war and destruction. But the keen geological eye also recognizes the remnants of a great Jewish war, a huge intellectual debate between Pharisees and Sadducees, repeating a few centuries later between Karaites and Rabbinites. The focus: the start day of the Omer, and thus the date in which Shavuot is celebrated. Is it fifty days after Passover, or fifty days after the Shabbat after Passover? How does this frozen over lava of a debate resonate today? I hear in it echoes of the question of the Enlightenment: is liberation an end in itself, or only in the sense that it lead to a greater good? Is the Passover Exodus a sufficient redemption, or does it only bear meaning in its connection to the the covenant at Sinai on Shavuot? In other words, are Independence and liberty a goal in itself (negative freedom), or do they only set the stage for the achievement of a larger vision of society (positive freedom).
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch in 19th century Germany claims that’s what the counting of the Omer is all about – creating a trajectory from liberation to construction, from exodus to obligation:
You have celebrated the Feast of your Liberation (Passover) and remembered before your God your independence, living in your land and eating its produce. You have therefore reached your freedom and the benefits of independence, the very goals all nations aspire to. You, however, are but on the threshold of your calling as a nation, and have started counting the days to the attainment of another goal. The Torah expresses the commandment of the Omer thus: “From the first time you put the sickle to reap the crops, you shall commence to count seven weeks” (Deut 16:9). When others cease to count, you being your counting.
Independence is amazing. It will be celebrated in Israel this week; will be reclaimed in every speech of an American presidential candidate in the coming 18 months; in the mouth of every graduating student this spring. But what is the goal of this independence? How does it tie into the achievement of a greater calling? It’s easy to agree about independence, but it’s what we do with it that matters. The counting begins now.
As one reaches the top of the Omer geological formation, a new layer appears. It is not about agricultural reality or national calling, but about personal journey. In the hands of Kabbalists and Hasidim, Counting the Omer becomes a psychological journey, an act of self-transformation, a tool of individual redemption. The grains of wheat turn into illuminations, the counting - a process of ethical and spiritual distillation. The Rebbe of Slonim articulates this best in his “Netivot Shalom”, then takes it in a surprising direction:
Counting (“sefartemספרתם) refers to the word sapir, meaning light, illumination. Thus “u’sefratem lachem” – ספרתם לכם – comes to mean “create for yourselves illuminations”. And these illuminations refer specifically to the elements of “on the morrow of the Sabbath”. The work of Sefirat haOmer should be specifically in the secular and concrete elements of life, those of the “morrow of the Sabbath”. Thus the seven weeks of the Omer are for finding elevation and holiness within that which is permitted, the bodily pleasures, the breadFor bread has two meanings in the Torah – actual bread, and sexual intercourse – food and sex. Distilling our relationship to these two elements is the new grain offering we are asked to offer at the end of the fifty days.
(A full translation of the Slonimer’sessay on Sefirat haOmer is attached here, in my humble translation. To explore the Omer as a journey of personal self transformation, I recommend Simon Jacobson’s delightful booklet: “A Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer”)

Suddenly we are back in the world of actual grain, the Omer is about how we deal with “Bread”. Yet as the Slonimer notes, it is no longer about us as producers of grain, but as its consumers. This is where we need the work of refinement and distillation. Its not an easy process – and it requires disciplined daily work in order to be met.
Anthropologists have notes that good ritual is one which offers a very specific container yet leaves a lot of room for varied interpretation. Add onto it the game layer of the Omer, and you have the trappings of some excellent ritual. Life – at its base - is counting the time go by. Lets make that counting count.
Happy counting,


Netivot Shalom on Sefirat haOmer | A New Grain Offering Translation

Sharing an abridged and "fast and loose" translation of my favorite modern Hassidic text...

“And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Sabbath, from the day of bringing the Omer sheaf, seven whole weeks, until the morrow of the seventh Sabbath you shall count fifty days – and then bring a new offering of grain to the Lord: Two loaves of bread…” (Leviticus 23:15-17)
We must understand the significance of this “new offering of grain”; and why the Torah doesn’t give a specific date for Shavuot, only naming it the fiftieth day; and why we count forty nine days when it says to count fifty. And through these questions we can understand the deeper purpose of the Counting of the Omer.
For the entire period from Passover until Shavuot is one unit, in which the Exodus out of Egypt is completed. For the entire purpose of Passover is that it is “the time of our freedom”, in other words to exit into freedom from the enslavement to Pharaoh in Egypt – meaning the enslavement to the klipa, the external shell of Egypt. But this liberation is not completed until Shavuot, for “you do not have anyone as free as one who busies themselves with Torah”, and as it says “When you liberate the people out of Egypt – you shall come and worship me on this mountain” – meaning that the liberation from Egypt is only complete when you have worshipped Me at Sinai. For the Exodus and the Receiving of the Torah are one thing and stand on a continuum. For until a Jew goes through the period of cleansing and arrives so at the Receiving of the Torah – there is no complete “time of our freedom”.
Thus the period of Sefirat haOmer includes two aspects. The first is the completion of the Exodus, as it says in the “Divrei Moshe”:
 […] Just as the Exodus is mentioned in the Torah in regard to the commandments fifty times – so there are fifty aspects of leaving Egypt. And even after having left Egypt in one aspect – there are still many more aspects to be liberated from, up to fifty times. And in these fifty are included all the personal traits and attributes. For in each of them there is an aspect of Exodus. As the midrash states on the word “hamushim - armed did Israel leave Egypt”, to read “hamushim - only one in fifty left Egypt” that on the first day of Passover they were liberated from only one portion in fifty out of Egypt, and they were liberated in only one aspect of the 50 required for completion. And they had to go through another forty-nine days until they could leave out of all 50 aspects of the exodus.
Thus the goal of Sefirat haOmer is being a continuation of the “time of our freedom”: that in every day we have an exodus out of one more element of Egypt, until we reach the telos of the Exodus – which is the receiving of the Torah. And this is the point of the 49 days of the counting – to purify us from our shells and impurities – in other words to be liberated and redeemed from all fifty aspects of the impurity of Egypt.
Based on this we can understand why it says “you shall count fifty days”, for the number fifty includes also the first day of Passover, during which we are liberated from the first part of fifty of the Exodus, and then during the other days we leave the other 49 aspects. Now we can understand the need for the counting to be complete, such that if one missed one day of the counting – they can only count without saying the blessing. For every day of the Omer has an aspect of the Exodus, and if you missed one – you have not fully left Egypt.
Moreover, the counting must be continuous from the first day of Passover. Because all of the energy of the days of the counting come from the illumination of the first day of Passover. As the Rabbi Moshe of Koznitz says:
The first night of passover has an aspect of expansive mind (gadlut mohin) – for the light comes directly from the Creator unnaturally and suddenly – and then this expansiveness disappears and the person falls into smallness of mind (katnut) and a person must then collect the holy lights gradually one after the other in the days of the Counting (Sefirah), to elevate from one aspect (sefirah) to the next and to elevate themselves each time more and more until the holy day of Shavuot arrives, the day of the Receiving of our Torah, to arrive at that point to the essence of that first illumination from the first day of Passover – for that illumination gives power to the person to return to their initial strength. And all this is possible thanks to the light revealed on the first day of Passover, and even though that light disappears – there is still the trace of it (reshimu) from which one can get the power needed later in the days of Counting to strengthen and climb from one aspect to the next, each day a little more, until they arrive at Shavuot to that same initial illumination.
The second aspect to the Counting of the Omer is in its being a preparation for Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah. This aspect is rooted in what Rabbi Hayim Vital says: that the purification of one’s personal traits, the work of the midot, is in itself the creation of a chair and carrier in which to receive the Torah. For as long as a Jew does not purify their traits, they cannot receive the Torah, and the Torah cannot reside in them. Therefore as a preparation for receiving the Torah God gave us these days of Counting – during which the work is to purify our traits so that we will be worthy of receiving the Torah.
And they say in the holy books that the 49 days of Counting equal in gimatriya Lev Tov לב טוב – a good heart, which alludes to all the traits relating to interpersonal behavior, bein adam lehavero. As it says in Pirkei Avot: “Rabbi Yohhana ben Zakkai had five students and asked them: “Go and find what is the best trait a person can seek for themselves… and Rabbi Elzazar ben Arakh said: Lev Tov, a good heart; and R. Yohnan ben Zakai said: I see the words of Ben Arakh for his trait includes all of yours.” For the heart is the source and root of all personal traits.
And furthermore 49 in gimatriya is El Hai אל חי – Living God. As the AR”I, R. Isaac Luria, says is the name of the sefirah of Yesod, that when one purifies themselves in this sefirah they can feel the beating pulse of Divinity.
So the role of the days of the Sefirah is to purify and distill all the traits, both those relating to interpersonal behavior, seeking to achieve a Good Heart - Lev Tov, and those relating to one’s relationship to God – to achieve the experience of Living God, El Hai. For this is the true preparation needed in order to receive the Torah on Shavuot -  dependent on the work of distillation which takes place on the days of the Omer.
And as the Maharal of Prague wrote, that the true wholeness in a person requires three elements: Whole with the creator, whole with their companions, whole with themselves. And it is this type of wholeness which a person must strive for during this period, so that they will be worthy of the Torah residing within them. Thus the days of the Counting are a period of purification of our personal traits in order to receive the Torah. […]
And from this we can understand what the Torah means when it says “you shall count fifty days, and offer up and new grain offering to the Lord” (Lev. 23) – for this is the purpose of the days of Counting, that once a Jew has purified themselves and distilled their traits during seven whole weeks, then they will attain on Shavuot to “offer a new offering to God” in receiving the Torah. As it says in the Kli Yakar that the “new offering” refers to the Torah, as the Rabbis say “ every day the words of the Torah should appear to you as new” and each and every year these is a new receiving of the Torah. And this is why no exact date is given for Shavuot in the Torah – because the receiving of the Torah is dependent on the continuum which begins with the first day of Passover, and all the days from Passover, through the counting, until Shavuot – are all one continuous unit. And the more one invests in the work of purifying their traits and the work of interpersonal relations – so do they achieve a higher aspect of the Torah on Shavuot.
For the continuum works thus: The initial illumination which God shines on from high is an awakening from above (it’aruta d’leila) – for such is the “passing over” of Passover – and it all but disappears. Yet it leaves a trace throughout the 49 days which allows the Jewish person to slog and toil in refining their traits – creating an awakening from below (it’aruta d’letata). And it is based on this toil that the Jewish person creates the ingredients from which to offer a “new offering” on Shavuot, and arrive ready to receive the elevated illuminations of Shavuot and the Torah.
And my grandfather, in the Beit Avraham, says on the verse “and you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Sabbath” – counting (“sefartemספרתם) refers to the word sapir, illumination, in other words “sefratem lachem” - create for yourselves illuminations. And these illuminations refer specifically to the elements of “on the morrow of the Sabbath” – that the work of Sefirat haOmer should be specifically in the “secular” and concrete elements of life, those of the “morrow of the Sabbath”. […] For the seven days of Teshuva between Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur are for transgressing the forbidden, for correcting outright sins, but the seven weeks of the Omer are for finding elevation and holiness within that which is permitted, the bodily pleasures. […]
And thus we can explain why on Shavuot the offering in the temple was of two loaves of bread. For bread has two meanings in the Torah – actual bread, and sexual intercourse (as it says in relation to Joseph and Potiphar - “he allowed him all but the bread which he eats”). And this is the new grain offering we are asked to offer at the end of the fifty days.
This explains the contradiction regarding Hametz on Passover and Shavuot. For during Passover one must annihilate all hametz, implying that one must distance themselves from hametz in totality, and yet during Shavuot the Torah commands us to bring an offering of two loaves that are specifically made of hametz.
And we can explain this by relating to the two aspects which are called “bread”. That indeed before one purifies themselves in those two elements – food and sex, which are called bread – one must treat them like hametz, like something which is totally unnecessary. For while one is stuck in the 49 aspects of impurity, one cannot offer up an offering to God from among that which is impure. But once one has gone through the process of purification of the 49 days of counting, once they have purified themselves in those elements of “the morrow of the Sabbath”, then they can offer a new offering to God, even one that is from Hametz.

[1] Translation Rabbi Mishael Zion, fast and loose.