Seven Weeks of Counting Omer 5778


Holiday #10 (236)
Sefirat HaOmer 5778
March 31(night) - May 19
From The Mystical Classics From the Kabbalists From the Chasidic Masters Laws & Customs
 

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This year's Lag b'Omer Chassidic Stories.

 

from the Mystical Classics - the Maharal of Prague

Counting Toward the Wedding Canopy
by Jonathan Udren

The Mitzvah of Counting

The first evening after the Passover seder, after we've eaten matzah and maror, and recounted the story of our exodus, the Torah presents us with the following mitzvah:

"You should count for yourselves from the day after Passover, from the day that you will bring the barley offering (omer in Hebrew), count seven complete weeks, until after the seventh week, count fifty days" (Lev. 23:15).

From this passage we actually learn two separate mitzvot: the first is the priestly obligation to bring a special barley offering in the Temple each evening beginning from the sixteenth of the month of Nisan for fifty consecutive days, until the holiday of Shavuot.

The second is a seemingly bizarre mitzvah, called Sefirat HaOmer, or the Counting of the Barley Offering. Every Jew is told to count each day that the barley offering is consumed on the altar in the Temple. Even though we have no Temple offer sacrifices today, we still perform this count at the end of the evening prayer service, along with a special blessing made in conjunction with the counting, till Shavuot fifty days later.

In order to explain this strange command, the Zohar, the fundamental text of Jewish mysticism, speaks about Sefirat HaOmer in several places. One particularly interesting comment that the Zohar makes is as follows:

"The Days of Counting (the Omer) reflect an aspect of the counting of the seven clean days before a woman and her husband can be intimate; this occurs before the holiday of Shauvot, since it is likened to a marriage."

As we will see, this cryptic statement in the Zohar contains two fundamental understandings of the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer.

Longing for the Torah

Rav Daniel Frish, author of the noted commentary on the Zohar: Matok Mi'dvash, quotes an interesting midrash in his book on Sefirat HaOmer called U'Sefartem Lechem:

"When Moses told the Nation of Israel that they were going to serve G-d on Mount Sinai, the Nation responded, 'Moses our Teacher, when is this going to happen?' He answered them, 'Fifty days from now.' Afterwards, each person counted the days to himself (until the time of serving G-d at Mount Sinai). Therefore, the Sages set as a custom that each Jew should count the fifty days for himself."

The midrash illustrates the great longing that the Nation felt after being told of the opportunity to serve G-d. There was a deep anticipation, almost an obsession, with Mount Sinai, so much so that every day as the moment neared their anticipation grew stronger and stronger. This is one facet that the above Zohar illuminates: the lovesickness the nation felt as it approached the giving of the Torah could only be compared to a bride counting the days until she is united with her groom. In many other midrashic sources, the metaphor of a wedding is used, in which the Jewish people are compared to the bride, G-d as the groom, and Mount Sinai as the wedding canopy.

The seven clean days that the Zohar speaks about are a reference to the laws of family purity. According to Jewish Law, when a married woman begins to menstruate, she must separate physically from her husband. After she completes her menstrual cycle, she then counts "seven clean days," meaning seven days without seeing blood. Only then can she immerse herself in the ritual bath, and afterward be intimate with her husband.

Though the laws of family purity require a deeper explanation, one simple understanding is that they assist in maintaining a healthy sexual relationship between the couple, even after many years of marriage. On the night when the woman immerses in the ritual bath, she is said to be dear to her husband like a new bride. The short separation allows for a deep emotional longing to build between the couple, and their physical reunion allows them to recreate their first moment of intimacy. The Zohar is purposefully using vivid imagery to illustrate the depth of the emotional and spiritual longing Israel had for G-d leading up to their encounter at Mount Sinai.

Counting Towards Character Refinement

There is another lens through which we can view the above Zohar based on an article written by the great modern Chassidic master Rabbi Shalom Noach Berzavsky, known as the Slonimer Rebbe, author of Netivot Shalom.

He brings up an obvious difficulty with our Zohar: how can it compare the seven clean days with the seven weeks of counting? If a parallel truly existed, the Torah would have instructed that we count seven days, not seven weeks!

The Slonimer Rebbe begins by explaining that the seven days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are in relation to the seven middot, otherwise known as the seven lower sefirot in the language of the Kaballah. These are seven general attributes or building blocks through which we understand G-d's interaction with our world. For example, the first trait is called chesed, usually translated as loving kindness, and the second is called gevurah, or judgment.

Each of the seven days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as an auspicious time for internal work and character refinement, mirror one of these seven characteristics. Each day during that week is a concentrated period of time appropriate for deep personal cleansing and growth.

However, during the forty-nine days of counting of the omer, we have seven times seven. The seven traits are manifest not in seven days, but over seven weeks. Instead of one concentrated day for each middah, each one is spread out over a week, allowing one to focus on a single trait in a much deeper fashion.

The Slonimer Rebbe, according to the Zohar, is pointing out the spiritual power contained during this period. Even more than the seven days between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, the forty-nine days of Sefirat HaOmer allow for internal work in comprehensive fashion found no other time during the year. We each have the chance to look deep into our character and fine tune ourselves in preparation for the wedding at Mount Sinai on Shavuot, when we receiving the Torah anew.

This seemingly odd mitzvah of counting offers us a chance to recognize the beauty and uniqueness of our relationship with G-d, and how we are provided with incredible opportunities for personal growth. If we view the Torah as a powerful tool for self-refinement, and for cultivating our relationship with G-d, then we too can feel that yearning for Sinai like a bride for her groom under the wedding canopy.


 



From Kabbalah

Iyar

All medicines come from the earth. Therefore during the season when the earth gives forth her bounty and puts strength into all the trees and plants, i.e. during the month of Iyar when the fruits ripen, all medicinal plants have greater power, because the earth then puts strength into them. However at other times, even if one were to take exactly the same medicines, they would not have the same power. This is why people take medicines in the month of Iyar (approx. May).

Rabbi Nachman of Bretzlav (Likutey Moharan I, 277)

 


Preparation and Elevation

by Yehoshua Metzinger

 

Regarding the Counting of the Omer, the Torah says, "You will count from the next day (i.e. after Pesach) which is Shabbat." We are to understand that from the first day of bringing the Omer, there are seven Shabbats that comprise the Omer period. The word "usfartem" ("and you shall count") also means "clarity" and is also related to the word "sefirot".

Through these relationships, we can see that through counting the Omer, the supernal sefirot, or aspects of G-dliness, are given clarity, since it is during this time that they are revealed in the lower worlds. From the time of Pesach, or the Exodus, we must count the Omer in order to reveal G-dliness in the world and to refine ourselves to the extent that we can receive the Torah on Shavuot.


In the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, there is a description of various animals, or chayot, of G-d's "chariot". The Hebrew word for animal, "chayot", also means "vitality", and the animals are described as running back and forth. The Alter Rebbe of Chabad explains that, in Kabbala, this image represents the G-dly vitality that runs back and forth in and out of all the realms of Creation. This motion includes two phases: razo, which is the "running out" or the longing of creatures to be included within the infinite light, and shov, which is the return to the lower worlds as the result of awe and fear experienced during Supreme revelation.

On Shavuot, we return to our places and become humble…

Pesach is characterized by the aspect of razo, because the Jewish People were going beyond their boundaries and leaving Egypt in great haste. On Shavuot, we return to our places and become humble as the result of receiving the Torah as it was received on Sinai; this is the aspect of shov.


In our service to G-d, we experience razo as we meditate during the Morning Prayer service from the Psukei D'zimra (Verses of Song) to the Shema. We are going past the boundary that conceals G-d from us, and as we progress to a higher level, we can meditate on how the countless angels tremble before the throne of G-d. They serve him with total dedication and are nullified to His essence, even though they comprehend only a ray of it. G-d, however, is omniscient and unlimited. It is only through razo, breaking the boundaries in our thinking, that we are able to reach a level where we can begin to achieve an understanding of G-d's unity and a love of G-d through meditation and prayer.

Sometimes, one may feel unable to awaken his natural love for G-d, because he is overly preoccupied with worldly matters; the way to overcome this insensitivity is to awaken one's mercy for his own soul, which is locked in exile within the body. The ascension to this understanding and the flight from the exile of the material world are aspects of razo.

We first elevate the food of the animal and, finally, the animal soul itself…

The exodus from Egypt and the concept of "razo" reflect the release of the G-dly soul from the confines of the animal soul which wants to remain in the physical world and gratify its selfish desires. To receive the Torah on Shavuot, the animal soul must first be tamed and humbled; this is achieved through the Counting of the Omer, which begins during the wheat harvest. The significance of the wheat is that it is food for animals, and it provides the animal soul with its vitality. By bringing the sacrifice of the Omer, we first elevate the food of the animal and, finally, the animal soul itself.

The Omer period consists of seven complete Shabbats, and each of the seven weeks corresponds to one of the seven middot, respectively: chesed, gevura, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod and malchut. Just as there is a week devoted to each of the middot, each day of the week is devoted to a different sefira within that particular midda. For example, the midda of the first week is chesed; the first day is characterized by chesed within chesed, which is the trait of loving G-d "with all your heart". The second day is devoted to gevura within chesed, an aspect of gevura that doesn't exhibit only its own quality, but rather a gevura that exists for the sake of chesed; for example, someone hates the enemies of his friend because of the love for his friend, and not for an independent reason.

Similarly, the other sefirot of the week are traits that are motivated by chesed. Tiferet, on the third day, is the quality through which one glorifies G-d. With netzach can achieve great victories for the sake of G-d. Hod can lead one to fight against obstacles to G-dliness. Through yesod, one can become more connected with G-d and reject irrelevant pursuits. Malchut, the aspect of speech, can give one the words to express love for G-d and to teach others to how to come closer to G-d. Through counting the Omer and meditating on the sefirot for each day of the week, the middot are refined, and the animal soul is elevated in preparation for receiving the Torah.

Also, through the counting of the Omer we bring the encompassing light into this world, because we transform the animal soul into a vessel for this light when we count the Omer. Through this process, we begin to experience razo as coming from below and moving to the higher realms. This is different from the razo that occurs during the revelation on Pesach, when the Supreme Chochma comes down to the souls and brings them to a level where they are able to effect razo from below. Once this level is achieved, the souls merit the Torah.
From Pesach to Shavuot our souls undergo three preparations for receiving the Torah. During the revelation on Pesach, we break through our spiritual boundaries and receive energy to purify ourselves. Through the Counting of the Omer, we concentrate on refining our characters and on elevating coarse physicality into holy vitality. On Shavuot, we are able to be humble before the Torah, the words of G-d.

 

[Adapted from Likutei Torah by Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Chabad and Sefer Mamaarim by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.]

 

Yehoshua Metzinger of Nahariya, a former counselor at Ascent, is now married and living in Jerusalem.



Some Laws and Customs -

Counting Omer

STUDYING THE ZOHAR AND OTHER TEACHINGS OF RABBI SHIMON BAR YOCHAI
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the most important sages in Jewish history, lived over 1800 years ago.  Teachings in his name abound throughout the Mishnah, Gemorrah, and Midrashim, while the Zohar, the primary source text of Kabbalah, is built around Rabbi Shimon's revelations to his inner circle of disciples.  During the hours before his passing, on Lag b'Omer [], he disclosed the "most sublime" secrets of Torah, in order to ensure that the day would always be an occasion for great joy, untouched by sadness because of the Omer period and mourning for him.  The seminal importance of the Zohar in Jewish thought and the annual pilgrimage to Meron are testimonies to his success.
 


Chag Samayach - Have a joyous holiday!

The ASCENT staff

 

last year's Lag b'Omer page

for more Kabbalah insights on Counting the Omer

 


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