Tag Archives: Emor

The 24 Ornaments of a Bride and Tikkun Leil Shavuot

In this week’s parasha, Emor, we read the command to count the days between Pesach and Shavuot. The Torah doesn’t explicitly say why we should do this. The Zohar (III, 97b) comments on the parasha that when the Torah says to count sheva shabbatot temimot (“seven complete [or pure] weeks”) there is a hint in there that we are supposed to become tamim, “pure”.  The point is to purify ourselves over these seven weeks in preparation for the great revelation at Sinai which took place on Shavuot. The Sages always describe the Sinai Revelation as a wedding between God and His people. In fact, the Zohar compares the counting of the seven weeks to a woman’s counting of seven “clean days” following menstruation and before immersing in the mikveh, after which she can reunite with her husband.

On the next page, the Zohar goes on to describe the “wedding”, where God is the “groom” and the Jewish people are the “bride”. The Zohar alludes to an ancient teaching that a bride should be adorned with 24 ornaments on her wedding day. This actually goes back to the Garden of Eden, where God made Eve and adorned her with 24 ornaments before her marriage to Adam. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 18:1) brings Scriptural proof for this, citing Ezekiel 28:13, which says:

You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering: the ruby [odem], the topaz [pitdah], and the diamond [yahalom], the beryl [tarshish], the onyx [shoham], and the jasper [yashfe], the sapphire [sapir], the carbuncle [nofech], and the emerald [varkat or bareket], and gold [zahav]; the workmanship of your settings and of your sockets was in you, in the day that you were created they were prepared.

If we count the precious stones and metals in the verse, we find only ten, not 24. However, one of the minor principles of Torah interpretation is when a general statement is introduced followed by a specific list, the general statement both includes the specific list, and adds to it (כְּלַל וּפְרַט, עָשָׂה אֶת הַכְּלַל מוֹסֶפֶת לַפְּרַט). So, since the verse begins with a general statement (“every precious stone”) and then goes on to list ten precious materials, we actually learn from this that there was a total of twenty precious materials. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish held that one should also add “every precious stone” as a special stone of its own, meaning there were eleven stones, and since we double that, we have a total of 22. Plus, the verse goes on to speak of “your settings and your sockets”, bringing us to a total of 24 ornaments!

Alternatively, there is another Scriptural verse which brings us the 24 ornaments more simply and directly (though without mentioning Eden), listing explicitly what each specific piece of jewellery was. This is Isaiah 3:17-23, which says how the daughters of Zion were adorned with

…the anklets [‘achasim], and the ribbons [shvisim], and the crescents [saharonim]; the pendants [netifot], and the bracelets [sheyrot], and the veils [ra’alot]; the headdresses [pe’erim], and the armlets [tza’adot], and the sashes [kishurim], and the corselettes [batei hanefesh], and the amulets [lehashim]; the rings [taba’ot], and the nose-rings [nizmei ha’af]; the aprons [mahalatzot], and the shawls [ma’atafot], and the hair-coverings [mitpachot], and the girdles [charitim]; and the robes [gilyonim], and the fine linen [sadinim], and the headscarves [tzenifot], and the mantles [redimim]…

A count of these brings us 21. In addition, the verse that follows speaks of perfume [bosem], a belt [chagorah], and hair curls [petigil], giving us a total of 24 ornaments.

Elijah confronts the priests on Mount Carmel

Kabbalistically, these 24 ornaments have tremendous meaning. The sefirah of Chessed, which represents love and kindness, has three inner states, each of which is made up of 24 parts. (The gematria of Chessed [חסד] is 72, and dividing that number by three gives us 24.) This is why Eliyahu poured an extra three measures of water (water being Chessed) on his altar when he went head-to-head with the idolatrous priests (see I Kings 18). The altar which he built was actually made up of precious stones, too (I Kings 18:31-32), and then he had water poured from a jug called a kad (18:34). The gematria of kad (כד) is, as we might expect, 24.

That word is the exact same used when the Torah introduces Rebecca: “And it came to pass, before [Eliezer] had done speaking, that, behold, Rebecca came out… with her jug [kadah] upon her shoulder.” (Genesis 24:15). Kabbalistically, Rebecca is the embodiment of Chessed (see Zohar I, 137a) and she graciously provides water for Eliezer and all of his camels. Eliezer realizes that she is the perfect one for Isaac, and immediately proceeds to adorn her with all kinds of jewellery: “And it came to pass, as the camels had done drinking, that the man took a golden nose-ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands, of ten shekels weight of gold…” (Genesis 24:22) After the marriage was arranged, Eliezer gave the soon-to-be bride even more jewellery: “And the servant brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebecca…”

If one looks carefully at these verses in Genesis 24 (not a coincidental number), and applies the classic rules of interpretation, they will find that Eliezer also brought for Rebecca 24 ornaments in preparation for her wedding! Rebecca went on to marry Isaac, and they had the purest love of all the forefathers and figures in the Torah. In fact, the first time that the Torah describes a husband loving his wife is with Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 24:67). This is one reason why there was an old custom to adorn a Jewish bride with 24 ornaments. Alternatively, a husband may fulfil this special segulah by purchasing 24 adornments or pieces of jewellery for his wife—not necessarily all at once! (It is especially good to get white gold, since it is symbolic of Chessed, while yellow gold is the opposite, Gevurah.)

24 Ornaments of the Jewish People

If a bride is adorned with 24 ornaments, and the Jewish people were God’s “bride” at Sinai on Shavuot, what were our 24 ornaments? The Kabbalists teach us that these are the 24 books of the Tanakh! The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343, on Exodus 31:18) comments that every Torah scholar is adorned with these 24 books just as a bride is adorned with 24 ornaments. And this is why, the Zohar states, one should stay up all night on Shavuot and study Torah, especially the 24 books of the Tanakh (Zohar I, 8a; though in Zohar III, 98a there is an alternate suggestion to study the Oral Torah at night and the Tanakh in the day). In so doing, one is spiritually adorning himself in preparation for the wedding (as well as adorning the Shekhinah herself).

Today, it has become the norm in all synagogues and yeshivas around the world for everyone to stay up all night and learn Torah, as the Zohar instructs. This practice was initially popularized by the kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century. The earliest reference to a tikkun leil Shavuot, a fixed text of study for the night of Shavuot, comes from a letter of Rabbi Shlomo HaLevy Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576), most famous for composing Lecha Dodi. He was born to a Sephardic family in Thessaloniki, or Salonica (then in the Ottoman Empire, now the second largest city in Greece).

In 1533, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) settled in Salonica (he was born in Toledo, Spain before the Expulsion), and the two became close. One Shavuot night, they stayed up together studying Torah as the Zohar states. (In addition to Tanakh, they learned a little bit of Mishnah). Suddenly, the Shekhinah filled Rabbi Karo and spoke out of his mouth! Such revelations would continue for most of his life, and are recorded in his book, Maggid Mesharim. On that Shavuot night, the Shekhinah revealed many secrets and instructions. Among other things, She instructed the pair to move to Israel. In 1535, they did so and settled in Tzfat, the centre of Jewish mysticism.

In Tzfat, the pair would meet the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570), who later married the sister of Rabbi Alkabetz. When he was twenty years old, the Ramak heard a Heavenly Voice instructing him to seek out Rabbi Alkabetz and learn Kabbalah with him. He did so, and went on to become the preeminent Kabbalist of Tzfat. He was succeeded in the position by the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572).

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) went on to publish the Shulchan Arukh, still the central code of Jewish Law. Interestingly, he did not write anything about a tikkun leil Shavuot in the Code. He believed that it was a practice for Jewish mystics, not for the average Jew. Nonetheless, the custom spread very quickly, first in Tzfat, then across all of Israel. When the Shelah HaKadosh (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, 1555-1630), who was born in Prague, moved to Israel in 1626 he wrote how all the Jews living in the Holy Land stay up all night on Shavuot. The Shelah put together a text of study of his own for the night of Shavuot. In addition to portions from the 24 books of the Tanakh, he added the first and last verse of every Mishnaic tractate, and the first and last verse of Sefer Yetzirah, along with the Zohar passage from this week’s parasha with which we began, and a recitation of the 613 mitzvot.

In the ensuing centuries, the custom spread further across the entire Jewish world. Various other tikkun texts have arisen over that time. Today, it is normal for many synagogues not to follow any tikkun at all, but simply to have lectures on different topics by multiple speakers, or to learn whatever Torah text people wish, and this is appropriate as well. Having said that, the original Kabbalistic way—as suggested in the Zohar, practiced by the early Tzfat mystics, and affixed by the Arizal—is to study specific portions from the 24 books of the Tanakh, together with mystical commentaries on them. (This is the version we used in our Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which has the proper text of study in both Hebrew and English, along with commentaries from the Zohar and Arizal.)

Rectifying Sinai and Purifying Our Souls

On a simple level, the word tikkun may refer to a “fixed” text of Torah, such as that which a ba’al kore uses to study the weekly parasha before reading it publicly in the synagogue. On a mystical level, “tikkun” refers to a spiritual rectification. When it comes to tikkun leil Shavuot, it is commonly taught that staying up all night in study is a spiritual rectification for what happened at Sinai over three millennia ago. At that time, the people had fallen asleep before God’s great revelation. Though some say they slept so that they would have energy to witness the tremendous event, others state that they were wrong to fall asleep so casually the night before the biggest day of their lives. Would a bride sleep so soundly the night before her wedding? Therefore, when we stay up all night on Shavuot, we are spiritually rectifying the mistake that the Jewish people made.

If we delve a little deeper, we might find an even greater tikkun on the night of Shavuot. The Talmud (Shabbat 146a) tells us: “When the Serpent came upon Eve, it infused in her a spiritual contamination [zuhama]. When Israel stood at Mount Sinai, the zuhama was removed.” Eve was the first to be decorated with 24 ornaments in the Garden of Eden, but then fell from grace and was spiritually contaminated. In a cosmic rectification, the Jewish people were “decorated” with 24 books of the Tanakh on Shavuot, and that impurity was removed. Each year since, we have a tremendous opportunity to cleanse ourselves of our own spiritual impurities on this special night, by immersing ourselves in the purifying words of our holy books.

The Mystical Purpose of the Omer

“Bringing the Omer to the Kohen” by Ahuva Klein

In this week’s parasha, Emor, we read of the commandment to count the Omer. Each of the forty-nine days between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot must be enumerated. In Temple times, this went along with a special “wave-offering” consisting of sheaves (omer in Hebrew) of barley. The Torah doesn’t clearly spell out why this must be done. However, a big clue is given from the conspicuous interplay between the words Emor (the name of the parasha) and Omer (the mitzvah commanded in this parasha).

The difference between Emor (אמר) and Omer (עמר) is just a single letter: an aleph replaced with an ayin. Our Sages point out that when two words differ in such a way, there is a special connection between them. The letter aleph is the first in the alphabet, with a value of one, representing the One God. (In fact, an aleph is composed of two yuds joined by a vav, the sum of which is 26, equal to God’s Ineffable Name, Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei). Each Hebrew letter is also a word with its own meaning. “Aleph” means “master” or “chief”, once more hinting to God being the Master of the Universe. Ayin, meanwhile, means “eye”. The eyes are the tools with which we see this physical world. Because of this, the eyes mislead us, distracting us from the truth that everything is truly One. Indeed, the Shema that we recite twice daily cautions not to follow “after your eyes”. The aleph therefore represents spirituality, while the ayin represents physicality.

The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) suggests that Israel represents the unique, spiritual nation among the seventy root nations of the world that are trapped in physicality, the value of ayin being 70. Here (Pardes Rimonim 13:3), he gives the most famous example of the interplay between aleph and ayin: The Sages state that Adam and Eve were initially created as beings of light (אור). Only after consuming the Forbidden Fruit did their light disappear, replaced with fragile skin (עור). Other examples of such parallel terms described in mystical texts include “me” (אני) and “poor” (עני), “nothingness” (אין) and “eye” (עין), and the words in question: “emor” (אמר) and “omer” (עמר).

“Emor” means to speak. It is one of three major roots for “speaking” in Hebrew. The Zohar (I, 234b) explains that ledaber (לדבר) refers to simple, day-to-day speech; le’emor (לאמר) is to speak from the heart; and lehagid (להגיד) is to speak from the soul. For more practical examples, a simple, everyday Torah insight is called a dvar (דבר), while a long and in-depth discourse is a ma’amar (מאמר), and on Pesach we have a particularly special text that comes straight from the soul called the haggadah (הגדה). The form of speech we are interested in here is emor—speech of the heart.

What is the connection between this type of speech and the Omer?

32 Paths of Wisdom

Sefer Yetzirah, perhaps the oldest Jewish mystical text, explains how God brought about the universe. It begins by stating that God created through 32 Paths of Wisdom. These 32 paths are the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 10 Sefirot (as explained here). Sefer Yetzirah tells us that the first letters God forged were aleph, mem, and shin, which brought about the three primordial elements: air (avir or ruach), water (mayim), and fire (esh). These central letters therefore stand at the three horizontal axes of the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”. The Arizal elaborates (Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, drush 2) that God then brought about the substances of the first day of Creation: light, water, and space, ie. or (אור), mayim (מים), and rakia (רקיע). As we read in the Torah, these were the only things in existence at the end of Day One.

The three horizontal lines of the Tree of Life correspond to the paths of the letters Aleph, Mem, and Shin.

You may have already noticed that the initials of these three things make aleph-mem-reish (אמר), “emor”. Amazingly, it is exclusively this verb of speech that the Torah uses in describing God’s creation: v’yomer, God spoke (ויאמר), and everything came to be. It is this form of speech that contains within it the very power of Creation.

Even more amazingly, the Zohar we saw above states that this is speech from the heart. The heart is a special organ for, unlike any other organ, it literally intertwines with every single living cell in the human body, ensuring that the tiniest bodily component receives oxygen and nutrients. So, too, does God permeate the entire universe, and is intertwined with even the tiniest bit of matter, ensuring its continual existence. In Hebrew, “heart” is lev (לב), which has a value of 32, once more alluding to those 32 paths of Creation.

Better yet, the 32 paths correspond to the 32 times that God (Elohim) is mentioned in the account of Creation. It is only after the account of Creation ends, at the 33rd instance, that the Torah introduces us to God’s Ineffable Name. So, too, during the Sefirat haOmer period, we have 32 days before we reach the climax of the whole Omer period, the 33rd day, the holiday of Lag b’Omer. Of course, man is a microcosm of the universe, so it is only fitting that the human body has a spinal cord, with an additional 31 pairs of nerves emerging out of it, sitting beneath the all-important 33rd component, the brain.

With this in mind, we can understand the connection between Emor and Omer.

Rectifying Speech

The Sefirat haOmer period is meant to be one of rectification and purification. Upon the Exodus, the Israelites spent these 49 days preparing to receive the Torah at Sinai. We relive this experience each year, and likewise work on ourselves in these seven weeks. When we count the Omer each night, we quote from the verse in this week’s parasha: “And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving [omer hatenufah]; seven weeks shall there be complete; until the morrow after the seventh week shall you count fifty days…” (Leviticus 23:15-16) and then we add, in many versions of the prayer, “in order to purify the souls of Your people Israel from their impurity.” The very purpose of the Omer is personal development and purification. How do we purify ourselves?

The greatest sin that needs to be atoned for is improper speech. The Talmud (Yoma 44a) states that it was for this sin in particular that the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies just once a year, on Yom Kippur. Conversely, as we saw above, proper speech has the power to create worlds. Impure speech can be immensely destructive while pure speech can rectify anything. King Solomon similarly wrote that “death and life are in the hand of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). It is through the mouth that we speak, and the tongue is its primary organ. Beautifully, the mouth, too, contains 32 teeth to parallel the 32 paths of Creation, with the central 33rd component being the tongue.

More than anything else, the purpose of the Omer (עמר) is to allow us to rectify our speech (אמר). The Torah itself hints to this in the verse above, calling the special offering of these 49 days the omer hatenufah, where the latter word can be split (תנו פה) to mean “give mouth”, or “teach the mouth”. Each of the seven weeks that the Torah prescribes correspond to one of the seven mystical middot of the Tree of Life. In the Omer period, we are meant to rectify these seven “lower” Sefirot (hinted in the term Sefirat HaOmer). We do not mention the three “higher” sefirot above. We can understand why this is so, for the Sages say the upper sefirot are the mochin of the mind, while the lower seven are the middot of the heart—and as we saw above, it is the speech of the heart that we are particularly focusing on. The final Sefirah is called Malkhut, “Kingdom”, which Patach Eliyahu (Tikkunei Zohar 17a) says is פה, the mouth. The very culmination of the Sefirat HaOmer period is the purification of speech.

The mochin above (in blue) and the middot below (in red).

Rabbi Akiva’s Students

The Sefirat HaOmer period overlaps with the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. As is well-known, the students died because they lacked respect for one another. How exactly did they disrespect each other? Although we have discussed in the past that they were probably killed by the Romans during the Bar Kochva Revolt, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) cryptically states that they died of a disease called croup. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Sotah 35a) suggests that croup is the standard Heavenly punishment for a person who commits slander. We may learn from this that Rabbi Akiva’s students spoke negatively about each other, and thus deserved their cruel death penalty.

Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased to die on the 33rd of the Omer, as if God was hinting at their misuse of the tremendous powers of speech. One of Rabbi Akiva’s surviving students, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, himself had to hide from the Romans for 13 years because he spoke negatively about the authorities. It was he who ultimately fixed the 33rd of the Omer as a holiday. Although this was the day of his death, it was also the day he revealed the depths of Kabbalah, and the teachings that would eventually be compiled into the Zohar. Lag b’Omer is a celebration of this mystical wisdom, much of which is focused on the powers of divine speech.

To bring it all together, we find that the term “lag” (לג) actually appears in the Torah. It is found only in one passage, Leviticus 14, where it refers to a measure of oil, log hashamen. This was a special oil used in the purification procedure for a metzora, loosely translated as a “leper”. The Sages teach that a person would be afflicted with this illness if they spoke negatively about another, motzi shem ra, hence the term “metzora”. Like the Omer, the log hashamen was also a “wave-offering”, a tenufah. Afterwards, the oil was sprinkled and poured upon the leper in order to purify them. If “log” (לג) hints to the oil used to purify improper speech, and Omer (עומר) is the inverse of emor, itself alluding to impure speech, then Lag b’Omer (לג בעומר) takes on an entirely new meaning.

Chag sameach!

Secrets of the Menorah Psalm and the Jewish Holidays

This week’s Torah portion is Emor. It begins with a set of priestly laws before delving into a long exposition about the Jewish holidays. The Torah lists a total of seven holidays, starting with Shabbat, then Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. Other holidays like Chanukah and Purim were instituted by the Sages, based on later historical events and references in the Tanakh.

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”, showing the upper sefirot (Keter/Da’at, Chokhmah, and Binah, known as the Mochin), and the seven lower sefirot that follow.

The Torah’s arrangement of holidays, and their meanings, immediately call to mind the seven lower mystical sefirot, or middot. Pesach is all about God’s salvation and the liberation of the Jewish people, tying into the first sefirah, Chessed, or “kindness”. This sefirah is associated with water, and the Pesach narrative both begins and ends with the theme of water: the Israelite newborns in the Nile, and the Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea, with the Israelites themselves passing through the raging waters unharmed.

Six months later, opposite Pesach, is the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. While the former marks the start of spring, the latter ushers in the time of autumn. Whereas Pesach is about freedom and kindness, Rosh Hashanah is about judgement and repentance. Not surprisingly, Rosh Hashanah corresponds to the sefirah opposite Chessed, called Gevurah, or “restraint”, and more commonly referred to as Din, “judgement”. This sefirah is associated with fire, like the purifying flames of God’s crucible evoked during this time.

The third sefirah is Tiferet, “beauty” or balance, and is commonly referred to as Emet, “truth”. This corresponds to the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the revelation of truth and the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) famously states that God gave a three-part Torah to a three-part people (Israel, Levi, Kohen), through the third (Moses, a third-born child), on the third day (meaning either on a Tuesday, or after the required three days of purification) of the third month (Sivan). A mystical reading of the Talmud might add: corresponding to the third sefirah (Tiferet). Tiferet is associated with wind, or spirit (the Hebrew terms for “wind” and “spirit” are the same), referring to the divine spirit that rested upon the entire nation at Sinai.

The fourth and fifth sefirot, Netzach (“Victory” or persistence) and Hod (“Splendour” or gratitude), are always discussed together. The Kabbalists use these energies as symbols representing twin pairs such as a pair of legs, kidneys, or even testes and ovaries. They represent the twin forces of light and electricity, highly interrelated from a scientific perspective, and both traveling at the same incredible speed (300,000 km/s). When it comes to the holidays, Netzach and Hod are the two interrelated holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.

Then comes Yesod, “foundation”, referring to righteousness and in particular, sexual purity. This is undoubtedly Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and purification. Lastly, the seventh sefirah, Malkhut or “kingdom”, is the holiday that we have every seventh day. Shabbat is referred to as the Sabbath “Queen”—fitting for a sefirah representing kingdom. Malkhut symbolizes fulfilment and completion, and as we read every Friday night, Shabbat is the day that God completed His creation, and in which we, like God, find fulfilment.

The Menorah Psalm

A replica of the Temple Menorah, made by the Temple Institute

Right after the holiday passage, the parasha records God’s instructions for lighting the Temple Menorah. The Menorah had seven branches, once again corresponding to the seven lower sefirot. Elsewhere, the Torah tells us in detail the design of the Menorah, and we see that it was composed of 22 cups shaped like almond flowers, with 11 knobs for buds and 9 flower blossom ornaments. Together with the seven lamps, that makes a total of 49 components.

The 49 components of the seven branches of the Menorah correspond to the 49 words in the seven verses of Psalm 67 (not counting the introductory verse common to most psalms). For this reason, Psalm 67 is often written in the form of a menorah:

Meanwhile, each of the seven sefirot is itself further composed of seven inner sefirot, making a total of 49 parts. These correspond to the 49-day counting of the Omer, with each of the seven weeks representing a sefirah, and each of the seven days of each week representing one sefirah within a sefirah. Because of this, it is customary to read Psalm 67 after reciting the counting of the Omer each night.

This psalm in particular is said to have immense spiritual power. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806), better known as the Chida, wrote in his book Midbar Kedumot that God revealed the words of this psalm to King David in the shape of a menorah, emblazoned upon a golden shield. David engraved the image upon his own shield, causing his enemies to fall before him.

The psalm itself requests that people will grow to know God, thank Him, and walk in His ways, and that in turn, God will bless us and shine His countenance upon us. Ultimately, this is the purpose of the Sefirat haOmer period. It is a time of refinement, growth, and personal development.

The Menorah is therefore a most appropriate image, as its seven branches are said to represent the seven orifices of the face (eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth), and the seven major parts of the body (arms, legs, head, torso, and reproductive organ). Our task is to purify all of these aspects of ourselves, so that our bodies become holy and our souls shine forth like the radiant light of the Menorah.


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.

The Hidden History of Lag B’Omer

This week’s Torah reading is Emor, which begins with a continuation of various priestly and Temple-related laws. The parasha then lists all of the Biblical holidays, starting with the weekly Sabbath, then Passover, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. The holidays of Chanukah and Purim are Rabbinically-instituted, having occurred long after the events of the Torah were complete (although it is important to note that the Torah does hint to those future events, too).

It is here in this week’s parasha that we are also commanded to count the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot, the period known as Sefirat HaOmer (the meaning of which we have explored in the past; see ‘The Spiritual Significance of Sefirat HaOmer’ in Garments of Light). There are a number of important dates that fall during the Sefirat HaOmer period. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Lag B’Omer, which literally means “the 33rd day of the Omer” (Lag, ל”ג is the Hebrew designation for the number 33), celebrated this past Wednesday evening and Thursday. This festive holiday is marked with lighting bonfires, playing with bows and arrows, and taking a break from the usual mourning customs of the Omer period.Bonfire

The basic story of Lag B’Omer is that during the first 32 days of the Omer Period nearly two thousand years ago, a plague decimated Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. All of his students died, hence the mourning customs still observed today to commemorate that tragic event. The plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer, which is why the mourning rituals are now lifted.

The big question is: why were Rabbi Akiva’s students punished with a plague? What had they done to deserve this? The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) says that apparently these 24,000 students failed to love and respect one another. However, this immediately begs a whole bunch of other questions.

First of all, it was Rabbi Akiva who taught that the greatest principle of Torah is to love your fellow (TY Nedarim 9:4). Could it really be that Rabbi Akiva’s own students failed to uphold their master’s central teaching? And if it really was the case that these students didn’t love or respect each other, then they really weren’t very righteous people, so why are we so fervently mourning their deaths? Throughout history, there have been much greater numbers of much greater people who have perished, yet we do not mourn for such a lengthy period of time for any of them!

What’s Really Going On?

The Talmud (TY Ta’anit 24b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva was a central supporter of Shimon Bar Kochva during the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-136 CE), also known as the Third Roman-Jewish War. Bar Kochva was initially very successful against the Romans, and it seemed like the Jews would be able to throw off the yoke of the Roman authorities, and rebuild the Temple (after it was destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE). Not surprisingly, Rabbi Akiva went so far as to declare Bar Kochva as the Messiah! After all, the major role of Mashiach is to secure Israel’s borders, end the exile, and rebuild the Temple – which Bar Kochva seemed to be doing. Rabbi Pinchas Stolper has written that Bar Kochva’s army may have reconquered Jerusalem on Lag B’Omer itself (hence the holiday), and began the reconstruction of the Temple on that day. In fact, the Third Temple was nearing completion when Rabbi Akiva announced the messiahship of Bar Kochva.

Unfortunately, Bar Kochva’s power got to his head, and it seems that he became a violent dictator, even killing his own uncle, Rabbi Eleazar haModa’i. Soon, his armies fell to the Romans, who brutally quashed the rebellion. The Romans went on a killing spree, massacring countless people in Judea. One of their victims was Rabbi Akiva himself, who was tortured to death with iron combs (Berachot 61b).

It isn’t hard to imagine that Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed in a similar fashion, during this tragic time period. The “plague” that took their lives was the Romans, and the war ended on Lag B’Omer. Indeed, one explanation for why we light bonfires on Lag B’Omer is to commemorate the Bar Kochva war, when the Jewish guerilla warriors would light signal fires to each other. It may also explain why there is a custom to this day to play with bows and arrows – implements of war.

So why would Jewish texts say that Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a plague? It wasn’t uncommon in those days for the secular authorities to censor various texts. Perhaps the Romans, in a propaganda effort, forbid the Jews from publicly speaking about the real reasons for the deaths of the 24,000. Others suggest that it was the Sassanians, under whose domain the Talmud was completed, that censored the text to discourage Jews from rebelling against Sassanian authority (as they had rebelled against Rome so many times and so devastatingly). The Rabbis therefore had to encode the real history of Lag B’Omer through indirect means, like bonfires and bows and arrows. Maybe this is why they said that Rabbi Akiva’s students died out of failure to respect one another. They knew that such a statement would immediately set off alarm bells, for this is probably the last thing Rabbi Akiva’s students would fail in.

Many scholars of the past, both religious and secular, have explored this possibility in depth, including Rav Sherira Gaon, Nachman Krochmal, Eliezer Levi, and Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum, as well as Rabbi David Bar-Hayim and others in modern times.

Rashbi and Kabbalah

Ultimately, the story ends with a small number of Rabbi Akiva’s students – some say five, others a little more – surviving “the plague”, and going on to re-establish Judaism, saving it from extinction. One of those students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (also known as Rashbi). The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) is explicit in telling us that he hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, together with his son, surviving off of a carob tree. This is yet another piece of evidence suggesting Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by the Romans, and not in a plague.

It was Rabbi Shimon who was first to publicly reveal the mystical teachings of Kabbalah. It is said that he did this to his own students on the day of his death – which was the 18th of the month of Iyar, and the 33rd day of the Omer. The central book of Kabbalah, The Zohar, which was first published sometime in the 13th century, is believed to have originated with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and is directly based on those teachings that he revealed. According to tradition, those Kabbalistic teachings were so holy and powerful that when Rabbi Shimon expounded on them on that day of his death, the very house in which he and his students were in appeared to be engulfed in flames. This is cited as another reason for lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer.

Rabbi Shimon told his students not to mourn his death, for it was a happy occasion: the deepest of spiritual and mystical secrets were now revealed, and would help to preserve the Jewish religion and nation for centuries to come.