This week’s parasha, Korach, describes the rebellion of Korach and his followers. We read how “the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men that were with Korach” (Numbers 16:32). Evidently, Korach and his entire family perished. Yet, later on the Torah tells us: “And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korach… but the sons of Korach did not die.” (Numbers 26:10-11) Apparently, his sons actually survived! We know this must be the case because there are a number of Psalms (such as numbers 42 to 49) which begin with a byline saying they were written by the “sons of Korach”. How is this possible?
The festival of Shavuot commemorates the Divine Revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah. There is a well-known custom to eat dairy foods on the holiday. Although it isn’t clear exactly where this custom came from, there are many beautiful explanations for it. Below are some of them.
Cheese & Coffee
The classic and most oft-cited answer for eating dairy on Shavuot is as follows: Since the Jewish people received the Torah on Shavuot, they were now bound by the laws of kashrut. This meant that whatever meat they had available was not kosher. Therefore, they had to consume dairy products. The consensus among the Talmudic sages is that the Torah was given on Shabbat, which means the people would not have been able to shecht fresh meat (Shabbat 88a). So, they ate dairy.
This standard explanation is actually problematic, for it is also forbidden to milk a cow on Shabbat or to make cheese (Shabbat 95a). Although the Israelites could have had cheese from before, making cheese requires rennet which, to be kosher, must be extracted from a kosherly-slaughtered cow. Whatever cheese they had would not have been kosher either! Perhaps they ruled that since only very little rennet is required—certainly less than 1/60th of the cheese’s total mass, although it is a davar hamaamid, a vital ingredient—and that they had produced that cheese inadvertently—not being bound by kosher law at the time—it would be okay.
Or, perhaps they reasoned like Rabbeinu Tam (Rabbi Yakov ben Meir, 1100-1171) who held that rennet was not the issue with non-kosher cheese. He argued that in our day and age all cheese is pretty much kosher, even that made by gentiles, though it is certainly better to be stringent and avoid those made with non-kosher rennet (see Tosfot on Avodah Zarah 35a). It should be noted that the halacha today is not in accordance with Rabbeinu Tam’s lenient position. Although over 90% of the cheese on the market is made from artificial rennet anyway, Jewish communities long ago accepted the prohibition of gevinat akum, not to consume any cheese not made or supervised by Jews.
Of course, it is possible that the Israelites at Sinai didn’t eat cheese at all, but had other dairy products such as butter, which would have been made before Shabbat, and would have been fine to consume. Today, on our fixed Jewish calendar, Shavuot can never coincide with Shabbat (at least not the first day of Shavuot). Because of this, as with other yom tovs, it is common to have a barbeque since cooking on a holiday, unlike on Shabbat, is permitted. Now, most people who had stayed up all night studying (as is customary on Shavuot) are unlikely to start grilling in the wee hours of the morning, nor could they stomach a heavy meat meal. In many synagogues, after staying up in study all night, the community then prays at the earliest possible hour, has a quick breakfast Kiddush—breakfast generally being a dairy meal—and then everyone is off to get some sleep. This is the simplest and most practical reason for the custom of a dairy meal on Shavuot.
Alternatively, others have the custom to have a dairy meal in the evening, before the all-night study session. This is because eating a heavy meat meal will make it hard to stay awake all night. It is better to have a light dairy meal, probably with a strong coffee. Jewish historian and scholar Elliot Horowitz presented a fascinating theory that the practice of staying up all night on Shavuot (as well as Hoshanah Rabbah) only became popular starting in the 16th century because it was in this century that coffee was introduced to the Ottoman Empire! Similarly, among Ashkenazis the practice didn’t take hold until decades later, when coffee was first brought to Europe. (See Horowitz’s 1989 paper, “Coffee, Coffee Houses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry.”)
Mountain of Cheese
In Psalm 68, which is recited on Shavuot, we read:
When God scattered kings therein, it snowed in Tzalmon. A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan; a mountain of peaks [har gavnunim] is the mountain of Bashan. Why do you look askance, you mountains of peaks? The mountain which God has desired for His abode? God will dwell therein forever. The chariots of God are myriads, even thousands upon thousands; God is among them, as in Sinai, in holiness.
In this passage, we see how God’s chosen mountain, Sinai, is called by other names. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:4) elaborates:
[Mt. Sinai] has five names: Har HaElohim, Har Bashan, Har Gavnunim, Har Horev, Har Sinai. “Har HaElohim” because there Israel accepted Hashem as their God. “Har Bashan”, since everything a person eats with their teeth [b’shinav] comes from the merit of the Torah, which was given on this mountain… “Har Gavnunim” because it is pure like cheese [gevinah], free of all blemishes. “Har Horev” since here the Sanhedrin was given the authority to pronounce the death penalty [harev]… “Har Sinai” since henceforth there was hatred [sinah] for idol worshippers [who did not accept the Torah].
We see that one of the names for Sinai is “mountain of cheese”, which is another reason to consume dairy products on Shavuot. Better yet, the gematria of cheese (גבינה) is 70, alluding to the “seventy faces” of Torah, as well as the seventy names for God, and the seventy names for Israel—all revealed at Sinai.
Interestingly, in the Talmud, Rav Kahana adds that Sinai comes from the word nes, “miracle”, since the Jewish people witnessed the greatest miracle there (Shabbat 89a). The Sages countered his point by saying: Then it should’ve been called Har Nisai! Another Midrash adds that Sinai comes from the word sneh, the burning bush through which Moses first encountered God on that mountain (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 41).
We read in the Torah that when Moses was born, his mother hid him from the Egyptians for three months (Exodus 2:2). Since we know that Moses’ birthday was the 7th of Adar, three months later would be the 7th of Sivan. According to one opinion in the Talmud, the Torah was actually given on the 7th of Sivan, even though today we celebrate Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan (Shabbat 88a). Whatever the case, Shavuot is the day when Moses was placed into the River and discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter.
We then read in the Torah that Moses’ sister, Miriam, who was a servant of Pharaoh’s daughter, told her: “Shall I go and call you a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?” (Exodus 2:7) Miriam brought Yocheved, and Moses was nursed by his own mother despite being raised in the Egyptian palace (Sotah 12b). So, another reason to eat dairy on Shavuot is in commemoration of baby Moses being reunited with his mother and continuing to nurse from her. In fact, the entire nation standing on Mt. Sinai on Shavuot is likened to a newborn baby, for this is the officially birthday of the Jewish people. At that moment, the Jewish people “nursed” directly from God. And there is an allusion to this in Psalm 68, cited above.
There, the first verse refers to God coming upon Mt. Sinai using the Name Shaddai. The first time this Name appears in the Torah is when God reveals Himself to Abraham: “…I am El Shaddai, walk before me, and be pure, and I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” (Genesis 17:1-2) Later we read how Isaac blesses Jacob and says: “May El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of peoples.” (Genesis 28:3) Finally, Jacob invokes the Name Shaddai when he blesses his own children: “…And by Shaddai you will be blessed, with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches beneath, blessings of the breasts [shaddaim], and of the womb.” (Genesis 49:25)
In all of these cases, we see that El Shaddai is associated with blessings of fertility and reproduction. The last verse in particular makes this explicit, connecting Shaddai with shaddaim, “breasts”. In fact, later in the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:13), God states that He “suckles” us with sweet honey, and the Name used is once again Shaddai (though it should be mentioned that it is typically read as saddai, “My field”). In short, El Shaddai is a Name of fertility and reproduction, and symbolic of the Jewish people—children of God—“suckling” and sustaining ourselves from God’s blessings. The association with milk is quite clear.
Better yet, the Torah itself is compared to nourishing milk (Song of Songs 4:11). And, fittingly, the gematria of “milk”, halav (חלב) is 40, alluding to the 40 days and nights that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to bring down the Torah. Forty is the value of the letter mem, which is unique in that it has an “open” (מ) and “closed” (ם) form. The open mem is incomplete, searching for meaning and for its purpose, while the closed mem is complete, a full circle (or square). The open mem’s value is only 40, while the closed mem is 600. The difference between them is 560, the value of parpar (פרפר), “butterfly”, the ultimate symbol of transformation and metamorphosis. All of this alludes to a person’s own growth, transformation, and completion through Torah.
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.
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.
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.
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.