The Omer Period — Time As Text

Our changing observance of the period between Passover and Shavuot reflects our sensitivity to the realities of our history.

Commentary on Parashat Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23

In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we read about the Jewish calendar — the various holidays and their rituals. One of the periods of the year which we are commanded to pay special attention to is the one in which we currently find ourselves — the period of Sefirat Ha’Omer — the counting of the Omer. The Torah tells us that from the second day of Passover we are to begin counting seven weeks — 49 days. At the start of this period we bring a grain offering, consisting of a measure of barley, called an “omer.” Fifty days later, at the end of the period, on the holiday of Shavuot, we bring another grain offering, called the two loaves, made of wheat.

The bringing of the grain offerings and the counting of the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot clearly seem to be some sort of agricultural festival; a way of thanking God, during the period of the spring grain harvest, for the food he has given us.

Anticipation for the Harvest

The counting seems to correspond to a sense of anticipation, to our looking forward, from the beginning of this period, to a good harvest. The Torah seems to want us to not only relate to the grain, and the food we will produce from it, but to the time-frame in which this all happens — to count the days, thereby including the dimension of time itself in the experience of the harvest and the thanksgiving.

The Rabbis, however, overlaid this period with another meaning. If you count the 50 days from Passover — the Exodus from Egypt — you come to the day when the nation of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai. So, the Rabbis declared that that day, Shavuot, is not only a grain festival, and the 49-day Omer period is not only a period of agricultural anticipation and thanksgiving, but, in addition, this is the period in which the Jewish people, after leaving Egypt, looked forward with anticipation to arriving at Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah.

We, too, in the days between Passover and Shavuot, are meant to look forward to, and ready ourselves for, a receiving of the Torah, which we celebrate on Shavuot. Thus, the experience of these 50 days was altered, from one that was totally agricultural in nature to one that also focused on issues of the spirit — the divine revelation and the receiving of the law on Mount Sinai.

For centuries, this was the double nature of the Omer period — the agricultural aspect, as well as the connection to the receiving of the Torah. Then, in the year 135 C.E., some 65 years after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, the Romans crushed the rebellion led by Shimon bar Kochba.

During this period, the Talmud tells us, the students of Rabbi Akiva, one of Bar Kochba’s supporters, suffered from a plague, in which thousands died. The traditional reason given for the plague is that it was a divine punishment for the fact that the students did not show proper respect to one another. Some have speculated that the deaths were in fact connected to the Bar Kochba revolt. At any rate, this occurred during the Sefirat Ha’Omer period. As a result, the Jewish people again changed the nature of this period, and it became a time of mourning — no weddings, no parties, no haircuts — in memory of Rabbi Akiba’s students. The 33rd day of the Omer, known as Lag Ba’Omer — was celebrated as a minor holiday, as on that day the plague abated.

Subsequently, Lag Ba’Omer has evolved into a day when, in different Jewish communities around the world, the deaths of a number of tzaddikim (righteous men) are commemorated, in a festive fashion. The most well-known of these is Shimon bar Yochai, who, in modern Israel, is honored on Lag Ba’Omer in Meron, outside of Safed, with a Woodstock-like gathering of a few hundred thousand people every year. All over Israel, on Lag Ba’Omer eve, bonfires are lit — the kids in my neighborhood are already scouring the streets for unwanted (or sometimes “we assume this is probably not-too-wanted”) pieces of wood to be used on the night.

The Omer & Zionism

For almost two millennia, from the mid-second century on, this is the way the Omer period was experienced, as a sad season, during which joyful activities were curtailed, punctuated by the minor festival of Lag Ba’Omer. Then, on May 5, 1948, David Ben-Gurion announced that the Jewish nation in Israel accepted the United Nations’ partition plan, and declared a state. May 5th falls out during the Sefirat Ha’Omer period, which created a conundrum for religious Jews. Was Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), the day of Israel’s birth as a modern state, important enough, religious enough, to counteract the mourning customs of the Omer? In other words — could we celebrate Israeli Independence Day as a holiday, even though it falls during the mournful Omer period?

The answer to this question depends on what kind of Jew you are. Religious Zionists celebrate the day as a holiday, interrupting, for the day, the mourning customs of the Sefira (counting) period. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews ignore it, as they see the modern secular state of Israel as not worthy of religious recognition, or, even worse, a negative development. For them, the day is just one more mournful day of Sefirat Ha’Omer.

Nineteen years later, during the Six Day War, when Israeli troops attacked the Old City, in order to silence Jordanian guns which were shelling Jewish West Jerusalem, and liberated the Old City after nineteen years of oppressive Jordanian rule, another holiday — Yom Yerushalayim — Jerusalem Day, was created. Again this fell during the Omer period, creating for traditional Jews the same issues, and generating much the same response that Yom Ha’atzmaut did.

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.

Crucially, however, the Jewish people also never erased anything. The more recent events which occurred during the Omer period, and our responses to them, were never allowed to supercede the older ones; they live, like commentaries and addendum on a page of Talmud, side by side, together, vying perhaps for our attention, but all given equal time.

This openness to the realities of our history, this willingness to notice and respond communally to events as they occur in the real world, and not only to see the world through the prism of pre-ordained understandings is, I believe, a particularly Jewish genius. The way we relate to time is multi-layered. Our past, our present, our future, are all here, with us. Nothing old is forgotten; nothing new is ignored. New events, sometimes contradictory ones, are assimilated into our personal and communal consciousness, as we try to balance our mourning of old tragedies with our celebration of new triumphs.

I sometimes think that those elements of the Jewish community who remain, for whatever reasons, locked into old, narrow, unchanging views of Jewish history and Jewish life fail, in some profound way, to understand this message. For those of us who celebrate them, the holidays of Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim spice our memory of the failure of Rabbi Akiba and Bar Kochba to free themselves of Roman rule with the joy of the modern Jewish victory over a would-be oppressor, and the liberation of Jerusalem.

All of these events which occurred during the Sefirat Ha’omer period, along with everything else that we have gone through as a people, are remembered, commemorated, felt. They are, in fact, through our yearly experience of them, happening, again and again, in our memory and our imagination, as we continue to try to make sense of the unfolding text of Jewish history.

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

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