Tag Archives: Biblical Measurements

Log and Omer: Measuring Yourself

This Saturday night marks Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of the Sefirat haOmer counting period and a day to celebrate the mystical side of Judaism. The term omer is a Biblical unit of measure, a dry weight for sheaves of grain (equal to about one and a half kilograms). Recall that in Temple times, the kohanim would wave a sheaf of barley as an offering, and to signify the start of the new barley harvest. From that day forward, they would count each day. Then, on the fiftieth day—Shavuot—they would present a wheat offering of two omers.

The Sefirot of Mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the Middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

We find that all of these procedures seem to involve counting, numbering, and measuring. The deeper significance here is to teach us that each person needs to do a detailed “accounting” of their soul, of their deeds, and of their life—measure by measure, down to the last unit. Indeed, the Sefirat haOmer period has long been one of introspection and personal development. From a mystical perspective, we are meant to focus on each of the seven main qualities of a human, the middot, literally “measures”. In Biblical times, they would measure sheaves of grain and elevate them before God; today, we “measure” our own inner qualities and elevate ourselves.

While Shavuot is the conclusion of the counting period, the middle apex is Lag b’Omer. Interestingly, the term lag (ל״ג) is not just a number, but actually a word found in the Torah. In Leviticus 14, we find it mentioned five times as log (לֹג), another Biblical unit of measure! Unlike the dry omer, the log is a liquid measure (about half a litre). Thus, one could read the name of the holiday Lag b’Omer as “a liquid measure in a dry measure”. What might this signify? What is the symbolic difference between the two measures, and what exactly are we supposed to be “measuring” within us?

We find that the log was used in measuring oil volume during the spiritual purification of the metzora “leper”. In fact, the word log is used five times in the purification procedure of Leviticus 14, perhaps alluding to the five aspects of the soul (nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chaya, yechidah). The omer, meanwhile, was for measuring produce and sustenance. In addition to the omer sheaf in the Temple, the Israelites in the Wilderness received an omer of manna each day (Exodus 16:16). Plus, God commanded that one omer of manna be placed in a special jar to be put on display in the Mishkan as a souvenir for the future (16:33).

The Torah tells us that the manna began to fall about a month after the Exodus, when the Israelites ran out of provisions that they took with them out of Egypt. Thus, according to Rashi, the Israelites began receiving the manna on the 16th of Iyar (see his comments on Kiddushin 38a). Yet, there is another tradition (as cited by the Chatam Sofer in his responsa on Yoreh De’ah 233) that the Israelites actually went three days without food, before God produced a miracle for the starving nation on the 18th of Iyar. In other words, Lag b’Omer also commemorates the miraculous day when omers of manna first began to fall for Israel!

Spiritual and Physical Measures

Putting it all together, we can propose that the flowing liquid log measurement is to teach us to measure and refine ourselves spiritually during this period of time. The value of log (לג) is 33 to remind us of the 33 vertebrae that line the spinal cord at birth—representing our ascent from the animalistic base where waste is excreted, to the lofty brain capable of divine intellect. These 33 bones fuse into 26 vertebrae by adulthood, 26 being the numerical value of God’s Ineffable Name, reminding us of our goal in striving ever-higher towards Hashem. And 33 reminds us of King David’s words: gal einai (גל עיני), “Open my eyes so that I can see the wonders of your Torah!” (Psalms 119:18) Now is a time to be particularly focused on Torah and mitzvot, prayer and meditation, mystical pursuits and spiritual growth.

That said, as much as we are focusing on our spiritual side, we should not lose sight of the body, symbolized by the dry omer measure used for those sheaves of grain and the healthy omers of manna consumed by the Israelites. The omer reminds us that we must also refine ourselves physically, maintain good health and balanced diets; work productively, exercise, and strengthen our bodies. As explored in the past, it is unlikely that a weak body could contain a great soul. The state of the vessel is tremendously important, too.

Thus, hidden within the very name “Lag b’Omer” is a reminder of the two sides of personal development: spiritual and physical. We must never give so much attention to one that we neglect the other; both are needed in balance. This is the way to becoming a complete and wholesome human, as God intended. Such a person becomes like Moses, described as a “Godly man” and the greatest prophet (Psalm 90:1), but also as physically domineering and able to defeat the giant Og, with his bodily strength and vigour undiminished to his last days (Deuteronomy 34:7). It isn’t surprising that the value of “Moshe” (משה) is 345, exactly equal to “Lag b’Omer” (לג בעמר)! And it is further fitting that omer (עמר) is spelled without a vav in the Torah, making its value 310, reminding us of the 310 worlds awarded to the righteous in the World to Come (Uktzin 3:12). It takes lag b’omer to get there: a balance of one’s “liquid” and “dry” measures, of the spiritual and the physical, of both Heavenly ascent and Earthly strength. May Hashem guide each of us to achieve that level.

The Spiritual Significance of Sefirat haOmer

The Torah commands that each day between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot be verbally counted (Leviticus 23:15). Along with this counting, a bundle of barley was brought as an offering in the Holy Temple. The barley was measured in units of omer, with one omer being equal to approximately 3 litres. Today, we no longer have a Temple or barley offerings, but the mitzvah of counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot remains, and is referred to as Sefirat HaOmer, “the Counting of the Omer”. Since there are exactly seven weeks between the two holidays, there are 49 days which need to be counted. What is the deeper meaning behind this seemingly mundane practice?

The Fifty Levels

There are a number of spiritual explanations for Sefirat haOmer. Perhaps the most popular is the idea that in Egypt, the Jews were so deeply mired in the immoral and idolatrous Egyptian society that they had descended all the way down to the 49th level of impurity.

It is said that there are 50 levels of impurity, rooted in (or at least suggested by) the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “impure” (tam’e, טמא) which has a gematria of 50. The Jews had stooped down to the 49th level, and had they reached the 50th, there would have been no hope of salvation for them. Thus, God cut short the 400 year period of slavery that was decreed upon them, and immediately took the Jews out of Egypt before they could fall any further.

Corresponding to these, the Jewish mystics teach that there are 50 levels of constriction in the world. Egypt represented these 50 constrictions. Again, this can be illustrated through Hebrew and gematria: Egypt is Mitzrayim (מצרים), the root of which is tzar (צר, meaning “constrict” or “narrow”) and the suffix of which is ים, numerically equalling 50. Egypt is the land of 50 constrictions.

Following the Exodus, the task of the Jews was to cleanse themselves of the 49 levels of impurity which they had acquired, and to break free from all those constrictions that were imposed upon them. This is why they needed a 49-day period – one for each impurity and constriction – before they were ready for the Divine Revelation and reception of the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot.

The Tree of Life

The Passover Haggadah reminds us that each Jew must envision themselves as personally coming out of Egypt. Though we are thankfully no longer literally slaves, the truth is that each of us is still mired in some kind of constriction, be it a constriction to time or work, money or health, stress, fears, and all those others things that “narrow” our lives and confine us into various forms of spiritual slavery. The Torah commands each of us to break free, to remove all of those impurities and boundaries, and to elevate ourselves over this special period of 49 days. Each day is associated with a unique energy to help us in this path.

The 49 energies stem from the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”. This Tree is composed of ten Sefirot (a term not coincidentally related to Sefirat HaOmer). These Ten Sefirot are regarded as the spiritual building blocks with which God created the universe (together with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet). It is said that all things in existence are permeated with these ten energies, and all things that are “ten” in the Torah correspond to the ten sefirot: the Ten Divine Utterances of Creation, the Ten Trials of Abraham, the Ten Plagues, the Ten Commandments, etc.

The top three sefirot are called the Mochin – the mental or intellectual faculties. The bottom seven are referred to as the Middot – the emotional and practical elements. During the time of the Omer, we are meant to focus on the purification of the bottom seven sefirot. Meanwhile, on Shavuot – having received the Torah – we are then able to rise further to the upper three mental sefirot and focus on intellectual development.

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”, Showing the 10 Sefirot and the 22 Lines that Unite Them (Corresponding to the Hebrew Alphabet), as Depicted by the Arizal

Therefore, each of the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot is associated with one of the seven Middot. The first week of the Omer corresponds to the sefirah of Chessed – kindness. The second to the sefirah of Gevurah – restraint and self-control. The third to Tiferet – balance (also called Emet – truth). The fourth is Netzach – “victory”, or persistence (often associated with faith). The fifth, Hod – gratitude, and the sixth, Yesod – literally “foundation”, referring to sexual purity. Lastly there’s Malkhut, “kingdom”, which is associated with the faculty of speech.

Each of the seven days of the week is further associated with one of these seven sefirot. So, the first day of each week corresponds to Chessed, and the second day of each week to Gevurah, and so on. This gives each of the 49 days a totally unique quality which one should be meditating on, and more importantly, attempting to rectify.

For example, tonight we will count the third day, with the corresponding sefirah of Tiferet sh’b’Chessed, “Balance (or Truth) in Kindness”. This suggests developing a harmonious approach to kindness: being a more giving person; charitable, helpful, sympathetic, but also making sure not to be taken advantage of or tricked into false kindness. Unfortunately, misplaced kindness has become a staple of Western society. (How often do we see well-meaning liberals supporting the “poor and disadvantaged” terrorists?) Tonight’s sefirah might be summarized well by the old Midrashic teaching that “those who are kind to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the kind.”

Similarly, each of the remaining 49 days has a powerful message to teach us, hence the tremendous importance of Sefirat HaOmer – counting and meditating upon each and every one of these very special days.

The article above is adapted from Garments of Light – 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!