Tag Archives: Rashi

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.

Can a Virgin Get Pregnant?

Kohanim and Kohen Gadol

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Emor, we learn of the various requirements and obligations placed upon the priestly class of kohanim. For the high priest in particular, he must marry only a virgin (Leviticus 21:13). The Talmud asks a perplexing question on this law: is a kohen gadol allowed to marry a virgin who is pregnant? (Chagigah 14b-15a) At first glance, the question seems silly and irrelevant, for how could a virgin ever be pregnant? However, when placed in context, the question has major theological significance.

The question of the pregnant virgin appears in the Talmud (Chagigah 14b-15a) immediately after the story of the four Sages who ascended to the Heavenly realms, Pardes. It was posed specifically to Shimon ben Zoma, one of those four mystics, upon his return. To understand it, we must remember that the Pardes event took place some time in the first third of the second century CE. This was an era when Christianity was already spreading rapidly and, as discussed in depth before, one of Ben Zoma’s contemporaries that went to Pardes with him, Elisha ben Avuya, subsequently became a Christian! Of the four that went up, Shimon ben Azzai never came back, Elisha ben Avuya became a Christian, while Rabbi Akiva became fiercely anti-Christian (as explored in the Apocrypha series of classes). So, the question of the pregnant virgin fittingly went to the neutral Ben Zoma—what did he think about the possibility of an “immaculate” conception? Continue reading

Rabbi Goren & the Threshing Floor of Thorns

In this week’s parasha, Vayechi, we read about the passing and burial of Jacob. We are told that all of Egypt mourned his death for seventy days, after which Joseph requested permission to take leave and bury his father in the Holy Land. The whole family went along for the journey (except the youngest infants), together with many high-ranking Egyptian officials and dignitaries (Genesis 50:7). Then the Torah tells us that

they came to Goren haAtad, which is beyond the Jordan, they held there a very great and solemn lamentation; and he observed a mourning period of seven days for his father. And when the Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw the mourning at Goren haAtad, they said, “This is a solemn mourning on the part of the Egyptians.” That is why it was named Avel-Mitzraim, which is beyond the Jordan. (50:10-11)

The commentators are puzzled by these perplexing verses. What is meant by Goren haAtad? Why did they bother traveling “beyond the Jordan” if they were coming up from Egypt? Why did the family mourn again, for another seven days (especially since Jacob had not even been buried yet)? Why did the Canaanites suddenly show up?

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) says goren means a “threshing floor” and atad means “thorns”. But why would anyone thresh thorns? Rashi explains that the Canaanites and Ishmaelites came to wage war when they saw the massive procession coming up out of Egypt. They then saw Jacob’s coffin, and Joseph’s crown resting atop, and each of their leaders came to pay their respects, too, and hung their own crowns around the coffin. The Talmud (Sotah 13a) that Rashi quotes from says that the leaders of Esau were there, too, and altogether there were 36 crowns hung around Jacob’s coffin. This gave the whole thing an appearance like a “threshing floor surrounded by thorns”.

If we look at the design of ancient threshing floors, we find a circular flat surface, usually surrounded by rocks or a low-lying fence. The outer barrier was probably to keep away wild animals from consuming the grain that was being threshed, or to keep the oxen doing the threshing from wandering away. Instead of rocks or a fence, one could plant thorny bushes around the threshing floor for the same reason. That might explain the appearance of Jacob’s coffin in the centre, surrounded by “thorny” crowns all around.

A threshing floor in Santorini, Greece

The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, 1550-1619) isn’t too happy with this explanation. He points out that if it was common to surround threshing floors with thorns back then, why is this particular one called “the threshing floor of thorns”? He provides some alternate explanations: one has to do with the death of Jacob bringing about another famine in Egypt, while the other sees “thorns” as symbolic of wicked people whose fate is to be “threshed” and destroyed. The Torah is indeed speaking about threshing thorns here! We know that every verse in the Torah is encoding much deeper information, mystical, prophetic, and relevant for all time. So, what is the Torah really trying to tell us here? What might the “threshing floor for thorns”, this Goren haAtad, really be? Continue reading