Tag Archives: Sefirat HaOmer

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!

The Mysterious Custom of Upsherin

In this week’s double Torah portion (Acharei-Kedoshim) we read that “when you will have planted all manner of trees for food, its fruit shall be forbidden; three years shall it be forbidden to you, it shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23) This refers to the mitzvah of orlah, where a newly-planted tree must be left unharvested for its first three years. Seemingly based on this, a custom has developed to leave the hair of newborn boys uncut until age three. On or around the boy’s third birthday, a special celebration is held (called upsherin or halakeh), often with family and friends taking turns to cut a bit of the boy’s hair. Henceforth, the boy is encouraged to wear a kippah and tzitzit, and his formal Jewish education will begin. It is said that just as a tree needs the first three years to establish itself firmly in the ground before it can flourish and its fruit be used in divine service, so too does a child.

Lag B’Omer 1970 in Meron. Photo from Israel’s National Photo Collection

Indeed, the Torah makes a comparison between trees and humans in other places. Most famously, Deuteronomy 20:19 states that fruit trees should not be harmed during battle, “for is the tree of the field a man?” The tree is not an enemy combatant, so it should be left alone. Although the plain meaning of the verse is that the tree is not a man, an alternate way of reading it is that “man is a tree of the field”. Elsewhere, God compares the righteous man to a tree firmly rooted in the ground (Jeremiah 17:8), and in another place compares the entire Jewish nation to a tree (Isaiah 65:22).

Having said that, the custom of upsherin is essentially unknown in ancient Jewish sources. It is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, nor in any early halachic codes, including the authoritative Shulchan Arukh of the 16th century. Where did this very recent practice originate?

Lag b’Omer and the Arizal

The first Jews to take up this custom were those living in Israel and surrounding lands under Arab Muslim dominion in the Middle Ages. We see that Sephardic Jews in Spain and Morocco did not have such a custom, nor did the Yemenite Jews. In fact, Rav David Bar-Hayim points out that Yemenite Jews did not even have a custom to abstain from haircuts during Sefirat HaOmer at all. This is particularly relevant because the upsherin ceremony is often connected with the Sefirat HaOmer period, with many waiting until Lag b’Omer for their child’s first haircut, and taking the boy to the grave of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) in Meron for the special ceremony.

It appears that the earliest textual reference to upsherin is from Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the primary disciple of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). Because of this, many believe that upsherin is a proper Kabbalistic custom that was instituted by, or at least sanctioned by, the great Arizal. In reality, the text in question says no such thing. The passage (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan HaPesach, Derush 12) states the following:

ענין מנהג שנהגו ישראל ללכת ביום ל”ג לעומר על קברי רשב”י ור”א בנו אשר קבורים בעיר מירון כנודע ואוכלים ושותי’ ושמחים שם אני ראיתי למוז”ל שהלך לשם פ”א ביום ל”ג לעומר הוא וכל אנשי ביתו וישב שם שלשה ימים ראשו’ של השבוע ההו’ וזה היה פעם הא’ שבא ממצרים אבל אין אני יודע אם אז היה בקי ויודע בחכמה הזו הנפלאה שהשיג אח”כ. והה”ר יונתן שאגי”ש העיד לי שבשנה הא’ קודם שהלכתי אני אצלו ללמוד עם מוז”ל שהוליך את בנו הקטן שם עם כל אנשי ביתו ושם גילחו את ראשו כמנהג הידוע ועשה שם יום משתה ושמחה

On the custom of Israel going on Lag b’Omer to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar his son (who are buried in the town of Meron as is known) and to eat and drink and rejoice there—I saw that my teacher, of blessed memory [the Arizal], that he went there once on Lag b’Omer with his whole family and remained there for three days, until the start of the sixth week [of the Omer]. And this was that one time, when he came from Egypt, but I do not know if he was then knowledgeable in this wisdom that he would later attain. And Rav Yonatan Sagis related to me that in the first year before I went to him to learn with my teacher of blessed memory, he took his small son with his whole family and there they cut his hair according to the known custom, and he held a feast and celebration there.

First, what we see in this passage is that the Arizal apparently only visited Meron on Lag b’Omer once, when he just made aliyah from Egypt, and before he had become the pre-eminent Kabbalist in Tzfat. (Some say this was actually before he made aliyah, and was simply on a trip to Israel.) Lag b’Omer is the 5th day of the 5th week of the Omer, and the Arizal stayed there for the remainder of the fifth week. Rav Chaim Vital wonders whether the Arizal was already an expert mystic at the time or not. Once he became the leader of the Tzfat Kabbalists, the Arizal apparently never made it a point to pilgrimage to Meron on Lag b’Omer. Rabbi Vital notes just that one time in the past, and it almost seems like once the Arizal was a master mystic, he understood there was nothing particularly mystical about it. In any case, nothing is said here of cutting hair.

The next part of the passage is more problematic. To start, it is unclear whether Rabbi Vital means that he and the Arizal went to study with Rav Yonatan Sagis, or that he and Rav Sagis went to study with the Arizal. We know that Rabbis Sagis and Vital were later both students of the Ari. However, when the Ari first came to Tzfat he was essentially unknown, and was briefly a disciple of other Kabbalists, namely the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570). In fact, the Arizal only spent a couple of years in Tzfat before suddenly passing away at a very young age. Whatever the case, it is unclear from the passage whether it was the Arizal or Rav Sagis who was the one to take his son for a haircut on Lag b’Omer. Based on the context, it would appear that it was Rav Sagis who did so, not the Arizal, since we already learned that the Arizal did not make it a point to pilgrimage to Meron.

The nail on the coffin may come from an earlier passage in the same section of Sha’ar HaKavanot, where we read:

ענין הגילוח במ”ט ימים אלו לא היה מוז”ל מגלח ראשו אלא בערב פסח ובערב חג השבועות ולא היה מגלח לא ביום ר”ח אייר ולא ביום ל”ג לעומר בשום אופן

On the matter of shaving during these forty-nine days [of the Omer], my teacher of blessed memory did not shave his head [hair], except for the evening of Passover and the evening of Shavuot, and would not shave his hair at all [in between], not on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and not on Lag b’Omer.

According to the Arizal, one should not shave at all during the entire Omer period, including Lag b’Omer! If that’s the case, then the Ari certainly wouldn’t take his child to Meron for a haircutting on Lag b’Omer. It must be that the previous passage is referring to Rav Sagis. Nowhere else in the vast teachings of the Arizal is the custom of waiting until a boy’s third birthday (whether on Lag b’Omer or not) mentioned. Thus, the Arizal was not the custom’s originator, did not expound upon it, and most likely did not even observe it.

So where did it come from?

A Far-Eastern Custom

While no ancient Jewish mystical or halachic text before the 17th century appears to mention upsherin, a similar custom is discussed in much older non-Jewish sources. The Kalpa Sutras of the ancient Hindu Vedic schools speak of a ceremony called Chudakarana or Mundana, literally “haircutting”. It is supposed to be done before a child turns three, usually at a Hindu temple. It is explained that the hair a child is born with it connected to their past life, and all the negative things which that may entail. Removing this hair is symbolic of leaving the past life behind and starting anew. Interestingly, a small lock of hair is usually left behind, called a sikha, “flame” or “ray of light”, as a sign of devotion to the divine. This is surprisingly similar to the Chassidic custom of leaving behind the long peyos at the upsherin.

Hindu Sikha and Chassidic Peyos

From India, the custom seemingly moved across Asia to Arabia. One Muslim tradition called Aqiqah requires shaving the head of a newborn. Of this practice, Muhammad had apparently stated that “sacrifice is made for him on the seventh day, his head is shaved, and a name is given him.” An alternate practice had Muslims take their boys to the graves of various holy people for their first haircut. The Arabic for “haircut” is halaqah, which is precisely what the Sephardic Jews of Israel called upsherin. Thus, it appears that Jews in Muslim lands adopted the custom from their neighbours. However, many of them waited not until the child is three, but five, which is when the Mishnah (Avot 5:22) says a child must start learning Torah. (In this case, the practice has nothing to do with the mitzvah of orlah or any connection to a sapling.)

In the early 19th century, Rabbi Yehudah Leibush Horenstein made aliyah to Israel and first encountered this practice of “the Sephardim in Jerusalem… something unknown to the Jews in Europe.” He was a Chassid, and in that time period many more Chassidim were migrating to Israel—a trend instigated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788), the foremost student of the Maggid of Mezeritch (Rabbi Dov Ber, d. 1772), who in turn was the foremost student of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) the founder of Chassidism. These Chassidim in Israel adopted the practice from the local Sephardim, and spread it to the rest of the Chassidic world over the past century and a half.

While it has become more popular in recent decades, and has been adopted by other streams within Orthodoxy, and even many secular Israelis and Jews, upsherin is far from universally accepted. The Steipler (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, 1899-1985) was particularly upset about this practice (see Orchos Rabbeinu, Vol. I, pg. 233). When a child was brought before Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk (1886-1959) for an upsherin, he frustratingly replied: “I am not a barber.” Other than the fact that it is not an established or widespread Jewish custom, there is a serious issue of it being in the category of darkei Emori, referring to various non-Jewish (and potentially idolatrous) practices.

Not So Fast

While there is no mention of the upsherin that we know today in ancient Jewish mystical or halachic texts, there is mention of something very much related. In one of his responsa, the great Radbaz (Rabbi David ibn Zimra, c. 1479-1573) speaks of a practice where some people take upon themselves a “vow to shave their son in the resting place of Samuel the Prophet” (see She’elot v’Teshuvot haRadbaz, siman 608).

Recall that Samuel was born after the heartfelt prayer of his mother Hannah who was barren for many years. She came to the Holy Tabernacle in Shiloh and vowed that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to divine service from his very birth, and he would be a nazir his entire life (I Samuel 1:11). This means that he would never be allowed to shave or trim the hair of his head, just as the Torah instructs for anyone taking on a nazirite vow. There is something particularly holy about this, and we see earlier in Scripture how an angel comes to declare the birth of the judge Samson and instructs the parents to ensure he would be a nazirite for life, and that no blade ever come upon his head (Judges 13:5).

The Tanakh goes on to state that once Samuel was weaned, Hannah took him to the Tabernacle and left him in the care of the holy priests so that he could serve God his entire life. How old was he when he was weaned? While it doesn’t say so here, there is an earlier case where the Torah speaks of a child being weaned. This is in Genesis 21:8, where we read how Abraham through a great feast upon the weaning of his son Isaac. Rashi comments here (drawing from the Midrash and Talmud) that Isaac was two years old at the time. For this reason, many Chassidic groups actually perform the upsherin at age two, not three.

Back to the Radbaz, he was born in Spain but was exiled with his family in the Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Tzfat, where the Radbaz was tutored by Rabbi Yosef Saragossi, the holy “White Saint” credited with transforming Tzfat from a small town of 300 unlearned Jews to a holy Jewish metropolis and the capital of Kabbalistic learning. In adulthood, the Radbaz settled in Fes, Egypt and his fame as a tremendous scholar and posek spread quickly. In 1517, he moved to Cairo and was appointed Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt. There, he founded a world-class yeshiva that attracted many scholars. Coming full circle, it was here in the yeshiva of the Radbaz that the Arizal began his scholarly career. In the last years of his life, the Radbaz wished to return to the Holy Land, and made his way back to Tzfat. It is possible that the Arizal left Egypt for Tzfat in the footsteps of his former rosh yeshiva. Ironically, the Radbaz (who lived to age 94, or even 110 according to some sources) would outlive the Arizal (who died at just 38 years of age).

While neither the Arizal nor his old teacher the Radbaz discuss cutting a three-year-old’s hair in particular (or doing it at the tomb of Rashbi), the Radbaz does speak of a personal vow that one may take to cut their child’s hair at the tomb of Samuel the Prophet. This practice comes from emulating Hannah, who took a vow with regards to her son Samuel. Samuel went on to be compared in Scripture to Moses and Aaron (and the Sages say Moses and Aaron combined!) Of course, Hannah never cut her child’s hair at all, but perhaps there is something spiritual in treating the child like a nazirite until the child is “weaned”.

In any case, the question that the Radbaz was addressing is what one must do if they took up such a haircutting vow but are unable to fulfil it because the authorities prohibit Jews from going to the grave sites of their ancestors. From here, some scholars conclude that the Ottoman authorities at the time really must have prohibited Jews from going to the grave of Samuel, near Jerusalem. Thus, it is possible that those Jerusalem Jews who had a custom of going to Samuel’s grave decided to journey to another famous grave instead. Perhaps it was in these years of the early 16th century that the custom to go to Rashbi in Meron (instead of Shmuel near Jerusalem) evolved.

So, there may be something to the upsherin custom after all. Of course, we still don’t know when the practice of going to Samuel’s grave emerged. That appears to have been a local custom (or possibly not a custom at all, but a personal vow) of Jerusalem’s medieval Jewish community. It, too, may have been influenced by neighbouring Muslims who went to the graves of their saints to cut their children’s hair.

Whatever the case, we see that foundations of upsherin are not so clear-cut. Contrary to popular belief, it is neither a universally accepted Jewish custom, nor a mandatory halachic requirement. It did not originate with the Arizal either, although we do see some basis for it in the writings of the Radbaz. For those who wish to uphold this custom, they have upon whom to rely, and should meditate foremost upon the holy figures of Hannah and Samuel, who appear to be the spiritual originators of this mysterious practice.

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 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 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.