Counting Omer by Days, Weeks, and Divinity: Emor 5774

Omer CounterA favorite heirloom from my teacher and mother Phyllis Nevins z”l is an olive wood Omer counter that she bought in Israel. Each night we twist a little wood peg to advance the scroll to announce the new day in handsome STaM letters. Today is the seventeenth day of counting Omer, which is two weeks and three days in our passage from Passover to Shavuot. In Parashat Emor, the great list of festivals includes the commandment “to count for yourselves seven perfect weeks…you shall count fifty days.” (Lev. 23:15-16) In Deuteronomy (16:9) the commandment is repeated, “seven weeks you shall count for yourself.” Noting the dual emphasis on counting days and weeks, the Talmudic sage Abaye teaches that it is a mitzvah to count both by days and by weeks (b. Rosh HaShanah 5a; Hagigah 17b; Menahot 66a). This teaching is recorded as normative practice in the Mishneh Torah and Shulhan Arukh, and it is now standard practice wherever the Omer is counted.

However, in addition to the normative counting by days and weeks, there is a mystical progression that is counted of the seven lower aspects or “sefirot” of Kabbalah, from Hesed to Malkhut. Each week is associated with a different aspect of the divine personality, and so too is each day, so that you get interesting combinations of qualities. The general motion is from top down, so that one imagines drawing divine energies from heaven into the world, until God’s unity is manifest on earth. Once each week there is a doubling of sefirot, as the weekly and daily sefirot come into alignment. Today, for example, is both the week and the day of “Tiferet,” the glorious balancing of compassion and judgment that functions as the centerpiece of the entire Sefirotic system. Tiferet is also known as the Holy Blessed One (הקב״ה) and the broader drama of the season of counting is to reunite the divine qualities of Tiferet and Malkhut, which is also the mystical project of each Shabbat. The climax of the Sefirotic count comes on the fiftieth day, or Shavuot, which the kabbalists teach us to view as the marriage of Tifereth and Malkhut. As the Zohar says, “After seven weeks elapse, the Holy King comes to couple with Assembly of Israel, and Torah is given. Then the King is adorned with complete union, and oneness prevails above and below.” (Zohar III: 96b; p.120 in volume 8 of Daniel Matt’s edition).

What are we to make of this medieval Jewish mythology? Is it meaningful and productive for us to think of our own religious practice as some sort of normative theurgy, where the people of Israel is responsible for reuniting a fractured God so that blessing can flow into the world? What are we to make of the gendered and frankly sexual aspects of this mythology? While reading the Torah as an esoteric text about this divine drama can be fascinating, what does it mean for us? When we do mitzvot, are we really functioning as some sort of aphrodisiac for divine coupling? Isn’t this perspective deeply patriarchical and, for that matter, heteronormative? What place does it have in our own religious life? 

I enjoy reading mystical texts because of how deeply responsive they are not only to the Biblical sources, but also to the prior millennium of rabbinic interpretation. To enter this world is to open one’s eyes to a dense thicket of associations, and to feel that a life of Torah study and mitzvah practice is pulsating with cosmic energy. That certainly beats habit as a justification for religious observance. Moreover, when we look again at these texts, we realize that many of their binaries are illusory. For example, God is not a being in heaven, far from the people Israel. In a very immediate sense, God is part of Israel כנסת ישראל, and Israel is part of God. It is not that I, in counting the Omer, am trying to influence the divine realm, wherever that might be. THIS is the divine realm, right here, and every action that you and I take here either enhances or diminishes the presence of God. While the sefirot all have gender identities (male Tiferet, female Malkhut, male Hokhmah, female Binah etc.), the deeper sense is that God is both masculine and feminine, and so too is Israel. The Zohar this week describes the people of Israel in both masculine and feminine aspects, and it imagines the blood of circumcision and the blood of menstruation as signifiers of dynamics in the cosmic realm. Male and female are both aspects of God, and are likewise aspects of each person.

When I read these texts, I realize that the polarities between male and female, and between human and divine, are not essential truths, but something more akin to various roles played by a single actor. One role may dominate, but there are always other roles that are also significant. There is only one reality, and the many different presentations of identity are in the end illusions; all is one. As Deuteronomy puts it (4:35), there is nothing other than God. With this in mind, the counting of the Omer is a time to appreciate each aspect of our personal and religious experience, savoring the particularities of each day, and then releasing them as we embrace a unity that suffuses all being.

 ויקרא פרק כג

)טו( וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה: )טז( עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַידֹוָד:

דברים פרק טז פסוק ט

שִׁבְעָה שָׁבֻעֹת תִּסְפָּר לָךְ מֵהָחֵל חֶרְמֵשׁ בַּקָּמָה תָּחֵל לִסְפֹּר שִׁבְעָה שָׁבֻעוֹת:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת חגיגה דף יז עמוד ב

והאמר אביי: מצוה למימני יומי דכתיב )ויקרא כג( תספרו חמשים יום, ומצוה למימני שבועי דכתיב )דברים טז( שבעה שבעת תספר לך.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מנחות דף סו עמוד

דאמר אביי: מצוה למימני יומי ומצוה למימני שבועי

רמבם הלכות תמידין ומוספין פרק ז הלכה כב

מצות עשה לספור שבע שבתות תמימות מיום הבאת העומר שנאמר וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת שבע שבתות, ומצוה למנות הימים עם השבועות שנאמר תספרו חמשים יום, ומתחילת היום מונין לפיכך מונה בלילה מליל ששה עשר בניסן.

שולחן ערוך אורח חיים סימן תפט סעיף א

בליל שני אחר תפלת ערבית מתחילין לספור העומר, ואם שכח לספור בתחלת הלילה הולך וסופר כל הלילה. ומצוה על כל אחד לספור לעצמו. וצריך לספור מעומד ולברך תחלה. וסופר הימים והשבועות. כיצד, ביום הראשון אומר: היום יום אחד )בעומר(, עד שמגיע לשבעה ימים ואז יאמר: היום שבעה ימים שהם שבוע אחד )בעומר(, וביום שמיני יאמר: היום שמונה ימים שהם שבוע אחד ויום אחד )בעומר(, וכן עד שיגיע לארבעה עשר יאמר: היום ארבעה עשר ימים שהם שני שבועות )בעומר(, ועל דרך זה מונה והולך עד מט יום.

זוהר כרך ג )ויקרא( פרשת אמור דף צו עמוד ב

ודא שבע שבתות תמימות לבתר דסלקין שבע שבתות אלין אתא מלכא קדישא לאזדווגא בה בכנסת ישראל ואורייתא אתיהיבת וכדין אתעטר מלכא ביחודא שלים ואשתכח אחד לעילא ותתא