Tag Archives: Lashon Hara

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 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!

Was Joseph Really Sold By His Brothers?

‘Joseph Sold by His Brethren’ by Gustave Doré

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, describes the infamous sale of Joseph into slavery by his very own brothers. At least, this is the commonly-held view of what had transpired. A closer examination reveals that the story is a little more complex than that, and the brothers are not as guilty as they may seem at first glance.

First, the background: The parasha begins by telling us “These are the geneologies of Jacob…” (Genesis 37:2) and then only mentioning Joseph. What about all of Jacob’s other children? They are not mentioned, and the text continues to describe how Joseph was the favourite of his father. It’s as if Jacob didn’t even pay attention to any of his other children. He knits a special garment just for Joseph, and spends most of his time with this son, while the others are off shepherding in faraway pastures. Not surprisingly, this caused some tension among the sons.

The tension was further exacerbated by the fact that Joseph would apparently “snitch” on his brothers. Though the commentaries suggest that this was done with positive intentions, with the hopes of improving his brothers’ conduct, nonetheless it may have been misinterpreted as a form of lashon hara – evil speech. On top of this, Joseph had a number of dreams where he saw himself dominating over his family, with the others bowing down to him. He proudly shared these stories with his siblings. Naturally, the brothers thought that he was some kind of megalomaniac who wished to rule over them. They soon began thinking of a way to get rid of him.

Many question how it was possible for such great people, the sons of Israel, and the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes, to even think of such actions. However, there is quite a bit of logic in their plans. The brothers knew that essentially every preceding generation in their family line had at least one wayward son who was wicked. In their father Jacob’s time, it was their uncle Esau, and in their grandfather Isaac’s time, it was his half-brother Ishmael. Even before this, Abraham had Haran, the sons of Noah had Ham, and all the way back to Eden where Abel had Cain. There was a clear pattern of one child doing more harm than good. The sons of Israel thought that Joseph played that role in their generation. Their intention was to get him out of the way before he could do some serious damage. But how?

Putting Joseph to the Test

Led by Shimon, the brothers said, “And now, let us kill him, and we will send him into one of the pits, and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him,’ and we will see what will become of his dreams.” (v. 20) Rashi draws from the Midrash when commenting on this verse, pointing out an apparent inconsistency: why would the brothers say “we will see what will become of his dreams” if they were going to kill him? Obviously, if they were going to kill him, his dreams would not materialize!

What Rashi is telling us here is that the brothers essentially put Joseph to a test. If he was indeed the wicked one, as they believed, then he deserved to die, and they would succeed in killing him, proving that his dreams were nothing more than crazy fantasies. On the other hand, if the dreams were truly prophetic, and Joseph was really the greatest among them, then they could never succeed in killing him anyway, and his dreams would materialize after all.

The brothers agreed that this is the best course of action, but Reuben protested. “And Reuben said to them, ‘Do not shed blood! Send him into this pit, which is in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand upon him’” (v. 22). Reuben agreed that Joseph should be put to the test, but they should certainly not be trying to kill him. Instead, they should just leave him in a pit in the wilderness. If he were to be saved from such an ordeal, it would be proof enough.

At the same time, Reuben intended to return to the pit and save Joseph himself. Reuben, the elder of the brothers, understood that the others had taken their understanding of God’s ways in the wrong direction. They thought that God would save Joseph if He so wished. Reuben understood that the world didn’t necessarily work that way. At the end of the day, God gave man the gift of free will. People can use this gift for the good, or for the bad, and God rarely intervenes. If the brothers tried to kill Joseph, he could indeed die, despite his greatness and prophetic dreams. (An analogy to this twisted logic may be one where a murderer says that since he succeeded in killing another, God must have wanted it that way, and he should be exonerated! Of course, this is completely false.) Reuben recognized his brothers’ flawed logic, and convinced them not to kill Joseph. Nonetheless, they would still throw him into the pit.

After they did so, they sat down for a meal and spotted a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants passing by on their way to Egypt. Yehuda got an idea: “Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh” (v. 27). Instead of killing Joseph, Yehuda proposed selling him into slavery. Why would he suggest such a thing? Did the brothers really need twenty pieces of silver? We have already read previously how wealthy the family was; it is unthinkable that the ten of them would sell their brother for just two silver coins each. No, Yehuda’s suggestion had far more meaning. Joseph had dreamt and told his brothers that he would one day rule over them. So, what could be better to test Joseph than to sell him into slavery, the very opposite of what he dreamt? Can it ever be possible for a slave to rise to the level of royalty, especially in a foreign land? If this could happen, it would indeed be miraculous, and no better proof would be necessary. The brothers would sell Joseph into slavery. But somebody beat them to it.


This is an excerpt from Garments of Light – 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion & Holidays.