Sefirat Ha-Omer--Time As Text
Our changing observance of the period between Passover and Shavuot reflects our sensitivity to the realities of our history.
I would like to make an analogy, in order to get at something important that I think is going on here. Jewish texts, like all texts, are subject to corruption. Scribes and copyists make errors, typos and misprints occur, the physical quality of the manuscript or book deteriorates.
Often, when one is studying a text, especially an old one, one comes across what seems to be one of these mistakes. Now, the reader can choose to be conservative, and submit to the force and authority of the received word. He can ignore his own assessment of the text's meaning, bow to the earlier tradition, and accept it as true, even if, to him, it looks like a mistake. Alternatively, one could be radical, innovative, and simply erase, or cross out, the offending word or phrase, and substitute for it what he or she feels to be the correct one.
The Jewish custom is to embrace neither of these extremes. We do not privilege the canonized text above our own sense and understanding, and allow what seem to be mistakes to remain intact, nor do we erase, obliterate, or expunge the traditional version, privileging our understanding of what does or does not make sense.
What we do is this: we leave the text as it is, and, on the side of the page, or as a footnote on the bottom, make the suggested correction. This way, nothing is lost. Who knows? What looks like a mistake, a misprint, a scribe's error, to us, may be, in fact, correct, or at least interesting, and should be preserved.
This is one of the reasons why so many Jewish books look so complicated, with addenda and notes all around the central text; we never erase anything. We never censor, and on those few historical occasions when we have tried to, we have either been vetoed by the larger Jewish community, or have ourselves lived to regret it. We respect all of the versions that have come down to us. However, we do not leave them unexamined, untouched by our experience and sensibility. We comment on them, argue with them, make fun of them, but we do not erase them.
The Sefirat Ha'Omer period seems to me to possess a similar dynamic. On the one hand, one could easily imagine a people deciding that, once their tradition had defined this period of time as having a certain character, that would be that. That would remain the immutable nature of the way we experience those 50 days. After all, the Torah is clear about the content of the Omer period--it is agricultural.
And yet, the Jewish people realized that other events, and our responses to them, cannot be legislated out of our lives by this fact. So, when it was realized that this same time period also contains within it another dimension, another reality, that of the receiving of the Torah, the Rabbis did not hesitate to incorporate that into the way this period of time is experienced. Centuries later, when tragedy befell the students of Rabbi Akiba, the Rabbis again did not hesitate to respond to that reality, and change the nature of the way we experience the Sefira period.
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