Feminine Aspects of the Omer

In mystical terms, this is a period of time leading to the unification of the male and female aspects of the Divine.

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The Book of Ruth

The Book of Ruth, a narrative interwoven with both the practice and interpretation of Shavuot since the rabbinic period, deepens the relationship between feminine purity in the preparatory stage of the omer, reception and continuation of the Jewish national covenant, and earlier biblical manifestations of agricultural transition. Because it takes place during the shift from barley harvest to wheat (Ruth 2:23) in the chaotic days "when the judges rule" (Ruth 1:1), the narrative engages the same transitional moment as Shavuot. A nation moves from one staple crop to another, and, most importantly, from a form of tribal lawlessness towards kingship. In historical terms, The Book of Ruth offers the narrative link that allows for the Davidic line to persist, Ruth having descended from Peretz, one of the children of Yehudahh, and she and Boaz being the great-grandparents of David's father Jesse.

The character of Ruth, like the kabbalistic interpretation of sefirat ha-omer itself, embodies female emergence from impurity to purity. Ruth is a female descendant of Tamar, a figure symbolic of a reoccurring biblical motif of a woman (or man, described with distinctly feminine characteristics such as Joseph) charged with fulfilling Israelite destiny despite corrupting male challenges to her personhood. Deceived by Yehudah and disallowed her rightful opportunity to marry her husband's surviving brother, Tamar must resort to deception, dressing as a prostitute, sleeping with Yehudah himself, and conceiving twins, one of whom is Ruth's forebear Peretz.

Tamar's story is of a woman and her needs hidden, either ignored or unseen by the men who can redeem her. The sexual encounter of Yehudah and Tamar takes place at Petach Eynayim (Genesis 38: 14)--literally the Opening of Eyes--where she is forced by her male partner into a deceptive act bordering on impure due to his resistance and "closed eyes" to a feminine need for procreation that transcends sex. Unlike Yehudah, Boaz--literally translated from Hebrew as "in him is strength"--sees Ruth as unique and indispensable immediately, asking directly, "Whose maiden is this?" (Ruth 2:5) at their first meeting. He recognizes Ruth and assures her sustenance, allows for legal and public assessment of her marital status, and redeems her and ultimately all of Israel from a state of spiritual and historical limbo.

While the projection of female impurity, sexual union, and the holy feminine form redeemed only by the male seer results from both religious genius and male-dominated fantasy, the juxtaposition of the feminine aspect with sefirat ha-omer still offers a profound reading of the Jewish festival cycle. The Jewish people, in the role of a spiritually unredeemed woman much like Tamar or Ruth, emerge from Passover, a celebration of freedom profaned by the taint of death. The Israelites crossing the Red Sea are free but still impure with the blood of the dead Egyptian first born and the blood of the lambs marking every Israelite door. Forty-nine days in the desert replicating the "seven and seven" cycle ritualizing a woman's menstruation prepares Israel for their ecstatic encounter with Torah. The cycle of emergence from impurity to purity, wantonness to commitment, and spiritual desert to divine unity is to be relived in every liturgical calendar year.

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Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.