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A midrash that appears a number of times in the mystical work known as the Zohar describes seven weeks of purification culminating in the union of all worlds–a holy marriage–consummated on Shavuot. The following article explores this mystical imagery as well as other connections among female symbolism, the counting of the omer, and Shavuot.
As a biblical festival, Shavuot marks an agriculturally based economy moving from the barley to wheat harvest. Rabbinic interpretation of Exodus 19:1–which announces the arrival of the children of Israel in the Sinai desert in the third month after going out of Egypt–establishes the primary liturgical function of Shavuot as a celebration of God’s giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.
By the medieval period, biblical narrative and law become fertile sources for kabbalistic (mystical) understandings of the nature of this reception of divine law, most particularly the feminine aspect of the counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot, or sefirat ha-omer. Each of the 49 days of the counting of the omer emerges not as part of a grid linking a shift in communal Temple practice, but as a metaphor for an incremental cycle moving toward unification of the male and female aspects in the godhead.
In the Zohar I:8a, the metaphor of mystical union finds expression in the beloved kabbalistic image of the divine wedding. Immersed in Torah at an all-night study session on the evening of Shavuot, students of Torah serve as the retinue for the bride, Shekhinah (the female aspect of the godhead Malkhut), as she prepares to meet her male counterpart, Tiferet. Likely the origin of the now widely observed custom of Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (staying up all night to learn Torah on the first night of the festival), the Zohar’s vision of ecstatic Torah study consummating the fusion of male and female divine energy marks the crest of the counting of the omer. Unification of the Shekhinah with its male counterpart via Torah study of mystical intent is particularly apt on Shavuot, a festival rooted in Temple sacrifice, because the female presence of the divine is often depicted as having a unique attachment to the Temple because, according to tradition, it sojourned only in the Temple
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