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Throughout the month of May until its culmination on the evening of the 25th with the festival of Shavuot, we will be continuing the counting of the Omer every day as we have since the second day of Passover. In addition to its historical purpose of commemorating freedom from Egyptian slavery, Passover is a spring festival linked to the beginning of the spring harvest season. The agricultural aspect of the holiday began on the second day of Passover and the ritual of the omer, the offering of a sheaf of barley, the earliest of the new cereal crops, marked the harvest season. The grain ripened 50 days later, which began the harvest marked by Shavuot with the offering of first fruits. This concluded the celebration of the grain harvest.
The Omer (“sheaf” of barley) was a harvest offering brought to the Temple on the second day of Passover. There is a further command that, from the day when the Omer was brought, seven weeks were to be counted, and on the 50th day a festival was to be celebrated. This festival was later called Shavuot, “the Feast of Weeks” because it falls on the day after the seven weeks have been counted.
In the Rabbinic tradition, even after the destruction of the Temple and the omer of grain could not be brought, each individual should actually count these days. Among the many interpretations given to counting the Omer is that Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah while Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt. The freed person reminds themselves of the bondage in Egypt and counts upwards each day towards the elevated freedom of those who live by the Torah.
As a biblical festival, Shavuot marks an agriculturally based economy moving from the barley to wheat harvest. Rabbinic interpretation of Exodus 19:1, which relates the arrival of the children of Israel in the Sinai desert in the third month after leaving Egypt, establishes the liturgical function of Shavuot as a celebration of God’s giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.
By the medieval period, the kabbalistic (mystical) understandings of the process of giving of Torah law, imagined the feminine aspect of the counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot. Each of the 49 days of the counting of the omer arises not as part of a grid linking a shift in communal Temple practice, but as a metaphor for a cumulative moving toward the union of the male and female aspects of God.
In the Zohar I:8a, the image of spiritual union finds manifestation in the kabbalistic metaphor of a divine wedding. Immersed in Torah at an all-night study session on the evening of Shavuot, students of Torah serve as the attendants for the bride, Shekhinah (the female aspect of God), as she prepares to meet her male equivalent, Tiferet. This is probably the origin of the widely observed custom May 2023 PO Box 915756 CBA Newsletter 2-5 Longwood, FL 32791-5756 of Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (staying up all night to learn Torah on the first night of Shavuot), the Zohar’s vision of blissful Torah study consummating the fusion of male and female divine energy marks the peak of the counting of the omer. Union of the Shekhinah with its male counterpart via Torah study of mystical intent is particularly appropriate on Shavuot, a festival rooted in Temple sacrifice, because the female presence of the divine, according to tradition resided only in the Temple and the Tabernacle before it.
From the Sea of Reeds we journeyed seven weeks through the wilderness still drunk and bewildered with a newfound freedom. But much like the weeks following the end of a school year, the freedom without direction and purpose can become a recipe for confusion, despondency, and depression if there is nothing to look forward to. Counting down from 49 leaves us with a finality. A count to zero. Counting up leaves the promise of an open future. An aspiration. This wedding of human need for direction and divine law given in love is the metaphor the kabbalists are hinting at.
Let us all use our counting as the kabbalists intended. A preparation for the wedding day of Shavuot; when we prepare ourselves to be worthy of God’s love embodied in the words of Torah. What a spiritually fulfilling day that would be if we only aspire to its promise of a life of purpose and meaning.
With peace and song,
Cantor Doug Ramsay
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