Parshat Emor 2019
We are in the period called “counting the omer”, the 7 weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, and today we read the verses that command us to do the counting. And quite amazingly, there is no mention there of no weddings, no haircuts, no listening to music, no happy celebrations. All we have is the commandment to bring an omer – a measure of barley to the cohen on the second day of Pesach and then count 50 days. That would bring us to Shavuot and the wheat harvest.
Seems pretty happy. Agricultural and happy. And sure enough, that’s the thrust of the omer period. If we view our 3 main festivals as basically agricultural in nature, the counting of the omer was a way to connect the historical Pesach to the ambiguous holiday of Shavuot, a mere 50 days after Pesach.
In other words, Pesach was being reinforced agriculturally beyond its historical-spiritual baggage. Now it was also the holiday of spring as reflected in the barley harvest. But that still left Shavuot as a totally agricultural holiday.
Not to worry. The rabbis in their wisdom counted days and found that 50 days was about the time needed for the Israelites to have arrived at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. And so Shavuot, the agricultural festival of the wheat harvest, now took on the trappings of a spiritual-historical event: the giving of the Torah.
Homiletically, the rabbis compared the two types of grain offered at either end of the counting period to the process of spiritual growth. In ancient times, barley was simpler food while wheat was a more luxurious food. At Pesach, when the Israelites were raised out of Egyptian exile, their exodus was a gift from God, like the food of simple creatures that have not developed their spiritual potential. Receiving the Torah created spiritual elevation and active cooperation. Thus the Shavuot offering of wheat was “people food” indicating expectations of greater growth.
But what about the counting of the omer? True, it was a period of agricultural anticipation for the wheat harvest and by analogy of spiritual growth marked by the addition of the giving of the Torah. But was there any historical importance? We skip a few years to 135CE, after the Romans have destroyed the second Temple. Rabbi Akiva has placed his religious reputation on the line by backing the charismatic Bar Kochva in a revolt against the Romans.
Bad move. During the revolt, during the period of the omer, a plague breaks out and 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students die (whether because they were disrespectful to one another, as the rabbis contend, or because they were killed by the Romans). Afterwards, the rabbis declared that the period of counting the omer would henceforth be a period of mourning, for the deceased Torah students.
Thus the happy period of counting the omer became a period of mourning with religious overtones. On Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day, the plague stopped and no students died, which is why we can celebrate on that day.
What makes this more interesting is what it shows about our traditions. Rabbi Shimon Felix points out that when traditions are added, we do not remove the old ones. We just add new layers, levels or meanings. Thus Pesach, the omer period and Shavuot all took on additional meanings without losing any of their old ones.
This means that when circumstances arise that demand some change, changes can be made. After Lag Ba’Omer, we’re supposed to return to the limitations of the pre-Lag Ba’Omer days. Yet in 1948, Israel declared its independence during the omer period.
What to do? Ignore it because of the omer? But it was almost a miracle. So Yom Haatzmaut was added to the days when you could suspend the omer restrictions and be happy.
And then in 1967, again during the omer period, Jerusalem was once again brought into Jewish hands. What – you can’t celebrate such a world-shaking event? You bet you can! And so Yom Yerushalaim was added to the days of joy within the mourning period of the omer
What it shows is that we have a process for assimilating change that maintains or at least recalls the original meanings or interpretations that were given to a specific event or text. Look at the Gemara, with a window of text surrounded by dozens of different commentaries expressing ideas that may differ dramatically. It’s all there. It all remains. Would that rabbis would do that today.
Here is another quite logical take on why the omer period is one of semi-mourning. I heard this from Prof. Avigdor Shinan of Hebrew University.
The period from the beginning of Adar to Pesach is about 40 days. The period from Pesach to Shavuot is 50 days. When Christianity became dominant in Rome, Easter was preceded by the period called lent – a sad time of about 40 days. The period from Easter to Pentecost is 50 days and is one of joy.
Whatever one religion does, a similar religion must be different so that no one can accuse a person of identifying with the wrong religion. Compare: lent is sad, so Purim to Pesach is happy. Easter to Pentecost is happy, so Pesach to Shavuot (the omer) is sad.
So that’s another interpretation you can take or leave.