from the Mystical Classics - the Maharal of Prague
Counting Toward the Wedding Canopy
by Jonathan Udren
The Mitzvah of Counting
The first evening after the Passover seder, after we've eaten matzah
and maror, and recounted the story of our exodus, the Torah presents
us with the following mitzvah:
"You should count for yourselves from the day after Passover,
from the day that you will bring the barley offering (omer
in Hebrew), count seven complete weeks, until after the seventh week,
count fifty days" (Lev. 23:15).
From this passage we actually learn two separate mitzvot: the first
is the priestly obligation to bring a special barley offering in the
Temple each evening beginning from the sixteenth of the month of Nisan
for fifty consecutive days, until the holiday of Shavuot.
The second is a seemingly bizarre mitzvah, called Sefirat HaOmer,
or the Counting of the Barley Offering. Every Jew is told to count
each day that the barley offering is consumed on the altar in the
Temple. Even though we have no Temple offer sacrifices today, we still
perform this count at the end of the evening prayer service, along
with a special blessing made in conjunction with the counting, till
Shavuot fifty days later.
In order to explain this strange command, the Zohar, the fundamental
text of Jewish mysticism, speaks about Sefirat HaOmer in several
places. One particularly interesting comment that the Zohar makes
is as follows:
"The Days of Counting (the Omer) reflect an aspect of the counting
of the seven clean days before a woman and her husband can be intimate;
this occurs before the holiday of Shauvot, since it is likened to
As we will see, this cryptic statement in the Zohar contains two
fundamental understandings of the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer.
Longing for the Torah
Rav Daniel Frish, author of the noted commentary on the Zohar: Matok
Mi'dvash, quotes an interesting midrash in his book on Sefirat
HaOmer called U'Sefartem Lechem:
"When Moses told the Nation of Israel that they were going to
serve G-d on Mount Sinai, the Nation responded, 'Moses our Teacher,
when is this going to happen?' He answered them, 'Fifty days from
now.' Afterwards, each person counted the days to himself (until the
time of serving G-d at Mount Sinai). Therefore, the Sages set as a
custom that each Jew should count the fifty days for himself."
The midrash illustrates the great longing that the Nation
felt after being told of the opportunity to serve G-d. There was a
deep anticipation, almost an obsession, with Mount Sinai, so much
so that every day as the moment neared their anticipation grew stronger
and stronger. This is one facet that the above Zohar illuminates:
the lovesickness the nation felt as it approached the giving of the
Torah could only be compared to a bride counting the days until she
is united with her groom. In many other midrashic sources, the metaphor
of a wedding is used, in which the Jewish people are compared to the
bride, G-d as the groom, and Mount Sinai as the wedding canopy.
The seven clean days that the Zohar speaks about are a reference
to the laws of family purity. According to Jewish Law, when a married
woman begins to menstruate, she must separate physically from her
husband. After she completes her menstrual cycle, she then counts
"seven clean days," meaning seven days without seeing blood.
Only then can she immerse herself in the ritual bath, and afterward
be intimate with her husband.
Though the laws of family purity require a deeper explanation, one
simple understanding is that they assist in maintaining a healthy
sexual relationship between the couple, even after many years of marriage.
On the night when the woman immerses in the ritual bath, she is said
to be dear to her husband like a new bride. The short separation allows
for a deep emotional longing to build between the couple, and their
physical reunion allows them to recreate their first moment of intimacy.
The Zohar is purposefully using vivid imagery to illustrate the depth
of the emotional and spiritual longing Israel had for G-d leading
up to their encounter at Mount Sinai.
Counting Towards Character Refinement
There is another lens through which we can view the above Zohar based
on an article written by the great modern Chassidic master Rabbi Shalom
Noach Berzavsky, known as the Slonimer Rebbe, author of Netivot
He brings up an obvious difficulty with our Zohar: how can it compare
the seven clean days with the seven weeks of counting? If a parallel
truly existed, the Torah would have instructed that we count seven
days, not seven weeks!
The Slonimer Rebbe begins by explaining that the seven days of repentance
between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are in relation to the seven
middot, otherwise known as the seven lower sefirot in
the language of the Kaballah. These are seven general attributes or
building blocks through which we understand G-d's interaction with
our world. For example, the first trait is called chesed, usually
translated as loving kindness, and the second is called gevurah,
Each of the seven days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known
as an auspicious time for internal work and character refinement,
mirror one of these seven characteristics. Each day during that week
is a concentrated period of time appropriate for deep personal cleansing
However, during the forty-nine days of counting of the omer, we have
seven times seven. The seven traits are manifest not in seven days,
but over seven weeks. Instead of one concentrated day for each middah,
each one is spread out over a week, allowing one to focus on a single
trait in a much deeper fashion.
The Slonimer Rebbe, according to the Zohar, is pointing out the spiritual
power contained during this period. Even more than the seven days
between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, the forty-nine days of Sefirat
HaOmer allow for internal work in comprehensive fashion found
no other time during the year. We each have the chance to look deep
into our character and fine tune ourselves in preparation for the
wedding at Mount Sinai on Shavuot, when we receiving the Torah anew.
This seemingly odd mitzvah of counting offers us a chance to recognize
the beauty and uniqueness of our relationship with G-d, and how we
are provided with incredible opportunities for personal growth. If
we view the Torah as a powerful tool for self-refinement, and for
cultivating our relationship with G-d, then we too can feel that yearning
for Sinai like a bride for her groom under the wedding canopy.
All medicines come from the earth. Therefore during the season when
the earth gives forth her bounty and puts strength into all the trees
and plants, i.e. during the month of Iyar when the fruits ripen, all
medicinal plants have greater power, because the earth then puts strength
into them. However at other times, even if one were to take exactly
the same medicines, they would not have the same power. This is why
people take medicines in the month of Iyar (approx. May).
Rabbi Nachman of Bretzlav (Likutey Moharan I, 277)
Preparation and Elevation
by Yehoshua Metzinger
Regarding the Counting of the Omer, the Torah says, "You
will count from the next day (i.e. after Pesach) which is Shabbat."
We are to understand that from the first day of bringing the Omer, there
are seven Shabbats that comprise the Omer period. The word "usfartem"
("and you shall count") also means "clarity" and
is also related to the word "sefirot".
Through these relationships, we can see that through counting
the Omer, the supernal sefirot, or aspects of G-dliness, are given clarity,
since it is during this time that they are revealed in the lower worlds.
From the time of Pesach, or the Exodus, we must count the Omer in order
to reveal G-dliness in the world and to refine ourselves to the extent
that we can receive the Torah on Shavuot.
In the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, there is a description of various
animals, or chayot, of G-d's "chariot". The Hebrew word for
animal, "chayot", also means "vitality", and the
animals are described as running back and forth. The Alter Rebbe of
Chabad explains that, in Kabbala, this image represents the G-dly vitality
that runs back and forth in and out of all the realms of Creation. This
motion includes two phases: razo, which is the "running out"
or the longing of creatures to be included within the infinite light,
and shov, which is the return to the lower worlds as the result of awe
and fear experienced during Supreme revelation.
On Shavuot, we return to our places and become humble
Pesach is characterized by the aspect of razo, because the Jewish People
were going beyond their boundaries and leaving Egypt in great haste.
On Shavuot, we return to our places and become humble as the result
of receiving the Torah as it was received on Sinai; this is the aspect
In our service to G-d, we experience razo as we meditate during the
Morning Prayer service from the Psukei D'zimra (Verses of Song) to the
Shema. We are going past the boundary that conceals G-d from us, and
as we progress to a higher level, we can meditate on how the countless
angels tremble before the throne of G-d. They serve him with total dedication
and are nullified to His essence, even though they comprehend only a
ray of it. G-d, however, is omniscient and unlimited. It is only through
razo, breaking the boundaries in our thinking, that we are able to reach
a level where we can begin to achieve an understanding of G-d's unity
and a love of G-d through meditation and prayer.
Sometimes, one may feel unable to awaken his natural love for G-d,
because he is overly preoccupied with worldly matters; the way to overcome
this insensitivity is to awaken one's mercy for his own soul, which
is locked in exile within the body. The ascension to this understanding
and the flight from the exile of the material world are aspects of razo.
We first elevate the food of the animal and, finally, the animal soul
The exodus from Egypt and the concept of "razo" reflect the
release of the G-dly soul from the confines of the animal soul which
wants to remain in the physical world and gratify its selfish desires.
To receive the Torah on Shavuot, the animal soul must first be tamed
and humbled; this is achieved through the Counting of the Omer, which
begins during the wheat harvest. The significance of the wheat is that
it is food for animals, and it provides the animal soul with its vitality.
By bringing the sacrifice of the Omer, we first elevate the food of
the animal and, finally, the animal soul itself.
The Omer period consists of seven complete Shabbats, and each of the
seven weeks corresponds to one of the seven middot, respectively: chesed,
gevura, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod and malchut. Just as there is a
week devoted to each of the middot, each day of the week is devoted
to a different sefira within that particular midda. For example, the
midda of the first week is chesed; the first day is characterized by
chesed within chesed, which is the trait of loving G-d "with all
your heart". The second day is devoted to gevura within chesed,
an aspect of gevura that doesn't exhibit only its own quality, but rather
a gevura that exists for the sake of chesed; for example, someone hates
the enemies of his friend because of the love for his friend, and not
for an independent reason.
Similarly, the other sefirot of the week are traits that are motivated
by chesed. Tiferet, on the third day, is the quality through which one
glorifies G-d. With netzach can achieve great victories for the sake
of G-d. Hod can lead one to fight against obstacles to G-dliness. Through
yesod, one can become more connected with G-d and reject irrelevant
pursuits. Malchut, the aspect of speech, can give one the words to express
love for G-d and to teach others to how to come closer to G-d. Through
counting the Omer and meditating on the sefirot for each day of the
week, the middot are refined, and the animal soul is elevated in preparation
for receiving the Torah.
Also, through the counting of the Omer we bring the encompassing light
into this world, because we transform the animal soul into a vessel
for this light when we count the Omer. Through this process, we begin
to experience razo as coming from below and moving to the higher realms.
This is different from the razo that occurs during the revelation on
Pesach, when the Supreme Chochma comes down to the souls and brings
them to a level where they are able to effect razo from below. Once
this level is achieved, the souls merit the Torah.
From Pesach to Shavuot our souls undergo three preparations for receiving
the Torah. During the revelation on Pesach, we break through our spiritual
boundaries and receive energy to purify ourselves. Through the Counting
of the Omer, we concentrate on refining our characters and on elevating
coarse physicality into holy vitality. On Shavuot, we are able to be
humble before the Torah, the words of G-d.
[Adapted from Likutei Torah by Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Chabad and
Sefer Mamaarim by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.]
Yehoshua Metzinger of Nahariya, a former counselor at Ascent, is
now married and living in Jerusalem.
Some Laws and Customs -
STUDYING THE ZOHAR AND OTHER TEACHINGS OF RABBI SHIMON BAR
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the most important sages in Jewish history,
lived over 1800 years ago. Teachings in his name abound throughout
the Mishnah, Gemorrah, and Midrashim, while the Zohar, the primary source
text of Kabbalah, is built around Rabbi Shimon's revelations to his inner
circle of disciples. During the hours before his passing, on Lag
b'Omer , he disclosed the "most sublime" secrets of Torah, in order
to ensure that the day would always be an occasion for great joy, untouched
by sadness because of the Omer period and mourning for him. The
seminal importance of the Zohar in Jewish thought and the annual
pilgrimage to Meron are testimonies to his success.
Chag Samayach - Have a joyous holiday!
last year's Lag
for more Kabbalah
insights on Counting the Omer