Tag Archives: Sefirat HaOmer

10 New Things in the Messianic Age

For Jews in Israel, Pesach will end this Friday, and on Shabbat the Torah reading will be the next parasha, Acharei. For us in the diaspora, Pesach will extend an extra day to Shabbat, meaning we will be reading more holiday-related passages, and continue with Acharei the following Shabbat. It will take quite a while until the Torah readings in Israel and in the diaspora will re-synchronize (at parashat Massei)!

Here outside of Israel, we get to read a special Haftarah for the eighth day of Pesach which centres on Isaiah 11. Fittingly, it is all about the coming Final Redemption and end of the exile, which we in the diaspora are particularly eager for. We read about the miraculous Messianic Age, when “the wolf will dwell with the lamb… the cow and the bear shall graze, with their young lying down together…” Some of our Sages understood this verse metaphorically, symbolizing a time of great peace, and a return to an ecological balance. Others took it literally, that even carnivorous animals will become vegan, and there shall be no death of any kind anymore. One Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 15:21) takes the latter approach, and enumerates this miracle as one of ten “new” things that God will do in the Messianic Age. This comes as a response to Kohelet who had stated that there is currently “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The first of the ten is that the world will be newly illuminated, as it is written: “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moon for radiance [by night]; for God shall be your light everlasting, your God shall be your glory.” (Isaiah 60:19) It is interesting to note that if we take this verse literally, it has already come true that we no longer need the sun and moon for light, thanks to electricity! Of course, the verse is primarily metaphorical, saying that God will be our light. The Midrash asks how this is possible, since we know man is incapable of gazing at God. It answers based on Isaiah 30:26, that “The light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, while the light of the sun will be sevenfold, like the light of the seven days [of Creation].” The verse continues to suggest that this special light will have healing properties. The Midrash adds a quote from Malachi (3:20) that “for you who revere My name a sun of victory shall rise to bring healing…”

Intriguingly, the Midrash says that this new light will shine with 49 parts (based on the seven-by-seven wording of the Isaiah verse). That number always alludes to the 49 aspects of the lower Sefirot, particularly relevant to us now during Sefirat HaOmer when we count the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. As is well-known (and recorded in most siddurim), each day corresponds to a particular quality tied to the Sefirot. In turn, these relate to the Nun Sha’arei Binah, the “Fifty Gates of Understanding”. The 50th gate is far too lofty, and even Moses was unable to attain it, though he did grasp all the remaining 49, as we hope to do, too (see Rosh Hashanah 21b). Perhaps the Midrash is teaching us in that in the Messianic Age we will finally be able to grasp the 49 levels, and make full use of light’s mysteries to repair the world.

We might see something of an analogy to this in the fact that the world is turning to more and more solar power for our energy needs, which has the potential to significantly improve the health of our planet. While water- and wind-powered machines have been around for centuries (in various mills, for instance), solar power really is a new phenomenon. The sun bathes us with essentially unlimited energy, and can easily satisfy all of the world’s energy needs many times over. The clunky and rudimentary stuff we have today is only just the beginning. There are some truly incredible solar-based and light-based technologies in the works, including artificial photosynthesis and lightning-fast, radiation-free “Li-Fi” internet. And who knows what other secrets are contained within light, of which we still have quite a minimal understanding.

The second new development in the Messianic Age is that healing waters shall go forth from Jerusalem, as prophesied in places like Zechariah 14:8. The Midrash specifically cites Ezekiel: “Every living creature that swarms will be able to go to the streams and be revived…” (47:9) These waters will heal all illnesses. A few verses later, Ezekiel says that “All kinds of trees for food will grow on both banks of the stream… they will yield new fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the Temple. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” This is the third miracle of the Messianic Age: special Jerusalem trees that will perpetually give healing produce every month. (On another related scientific note, researchers have already been able to genetically engineer certain medicines directly into fruits and plants!)

Canada-based SemBioSys developed a safflower plant that can produce human insulin for diabetics, while back in 1996 scientists had already begun work on a banana carrying an edible Hepatitis B vaccine. These technologies never broke into the commercial market and it remains to be seen whether they are even safe or effective. However, they might provide a model or analogy as to how plant produce might directly treat human illness.

The fourth development of the Messianic Age is the rebuilding of all the ruined cities in Israel, and perhaps elsewhere around the world. As prophesied by Ezekiel (16:55), even Sodom and Gomorrah will be restored! Again, we are already living in a reality where this prophesy has been partly realized, as many ancient towns have now been rebuilt in modern Israel, including Modi’in (of Chanukah fame), Caesarea, Be’er Sheva, Rehovot (not at the same site as the Biblical one), numerous settlements in Judea and Samaria, as well as Jerusalem itself. This leads to the next miracle of the Messianic Age, which is that Jerusalem will be overlain with sapphire stones and other precious gems, and will “shine like the sun” (based on Isaiah 54:11-2).

The sixth miracle is the one with which we started: the restoration of an ecological equilibrium, where all living organisms will be at peace. Related to this is the following development, that all people, animals, and living things on the planet will form a new covenant with God, as it is written: “In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground…” (Hoshea 2:20) The verse continues to say how there will be no more wars, with Earth entirely at peace, idolatry will be eliminated, and all will know God. This is the true, divine “new world order” which we await.

With this new order come the final three developments, all based on verses in Isaiah (65:19, 25:8, 35:10). The first is that there will be no more sadness or wailing. The second, that there will be no more death. Some take this to mean not that people will live eternally, but simply that people will live very long lives (as Isaiah says in 65:20 that the youngest shall die at 100). Perhaps it means there will be no more tragic, untimely deaths, and that all people will live to a ripe old age and die of natural causes. Whatever the case, the final new development in the Messianic Age is that there will be no more sorrow, but only real joy for all humanity.

Chag sameach!


From the Archives: ‘Did the Patriarchs Celebrate Passover?’

A New Theory of Shabbat HaGadol

This Saturday is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” before Pesach. One of the big mysteries surrounding the holiday is the origin of this term. Why is the Shabbat preceding Pesach described as being gadol? Why aren’t the Sabbaths before other big holidays described the same way? What makes this Shabbat so special? Over the centuries, many different explanations have been given.

Perhaps the most famous explanation is that on the Shabbat before the Exodus, the Egyptians got word of the impending Tenth Plague and Death of the Firstborn so, naturally, all the Egyptian firstborn rose up in protest. They revolted against Pharaoh and pressured him to free the Israelites so that their lives would be spared. A civil war ensued and many Egyptians were struck down. This is why we read in Psalms (136:10) that God “struck down the Egyptians through their firstborn”. The verse can be read to mean that God struck down the Egyptian firstborn, or that He struck down the Egyptians at the hands of their own firstborn! This great civil war (a mini-plague in its own right) gave Shabbat HaGadol its name.

Khnum

Another explanation is that on (or just prior to) the Sabbath before the Exodus the Israelites had been commanded to prepare the sheep for the paschal sacrifice. Since this was in the month of Nisan, the astrological sign for which is a sheep or ram, the Egyptians were in the midst of worshipping their ram-headed sheep god Khnum. To the Egyptians, the sacrifice of a sheep at that time would have been appalling and sacrilegious. Yet, in great dread of the Israelites and their God, the Egyptians stayed silent and did not protest what they knew was about to happen. This was a mini-miracle and yet another display of God’s greatness, hence Shabbat HaGadol.

A more pragmatic explanation for Shabbat HaGadol is that, since it is the Sabbath before Pesach, rabbis in all synagogues give an extra-long sermon in preparation for the holiday. There are a lot of halakhot to go over, and there is also a need for some words of inspiration. Because of the long speeches, it became known as Shabbat HaGadol. Finally, some hold that the name comes from the Haftarah typically read on the Shabbat before Pesach (Malachi 3), and its concluding prophesy about the return of Eliyahu before the “Great [Gadol] and Awesome Day of Hashem”. After all, we had finished last year’s seder by praying and hoping that next year we will be redeemed and in Jerusalem. So, the Shabbat right before the upcoming Pesach is our final wish that the Great Day of God will come now so that this year’s seder can be in Jerusalem as we hoped.

All of the above are wonderful explanations. I believe there might also be one more coming out of an oft-forgotten historical detail from the end of the Second Temple era.

The Great Calendar Debate

As is well-known, at the end of the Second Temple era Jewish life in the Holy Land was dominated by two major groups: the Perushim (“Pharisees”) and the Tzdukim (“Sadducees”). The latter held only to the strict observance of the Written Torah, with no particular reverence for oral tradition or oral law. For this reason, the Sadducees famously did not believe in an afterlife, since the Torah never explicitly mentions it, nor did they allow any use of an existing flame on Shabbat, based on their straight-forward reading of Exodus 35:3.

Another major debate between the Sadducees and Pharisees was regarding Sefirat haOmer. The Torah states that we must start counting the Omer from the day after the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:11, 15). The Sadducees took this literally, and began the Omer count from the day after the Shabbat of Pesach. This meant that they always began counting on Sunday and always celebrated Shavuot on Sunday. The Pharisees, meanwhile, based on oral tradition, held that the count must begin from the day after the first yom tov of Pesach, since the Torah often refers to holidays themselves as “Shabbats”, too. The count would always begin on the 16th of Nisan, making Shavuot always land around the 6th or 7th of Sivan (depending on lunar month lengths). The Pharisees insisted this was the correct way going back to Sinai, as taught by Moses.

Intriguingly, there was a third up-and-coming group of Jews at the time, the mysterious Essenes. They were originally a small break-away sect of Sadducees that also had beliefs similar to the Pharisees and did maintain certain binding oral traditions. The Essenes would have a large impact on the development of Rabbinic Judaism as we know it (which came mostly out of Pharisee Judaism) following the destruction of the Second Temple. Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, which held by a lunisolar calendar that used lunar months but aligned with solar years (as we still do today), the Essenes believed such a calendar was inaccurate and too flexible. They did not like it one bit that the lunar months were proclaimed by the Sanhedrin based on eyewitnesses who might be mistaken. Instead, the Essenes held only to a finely-tuned solar calendar which they thought was perfect.

The Essene calendar (as described in the apocryphal but hugely important Book of Jubilees, ch. 6, among other sources) went as follows: There were 52 weeks divided up into 4 seasons, each with exactly 13 weeks totalling 91 days. The result was that holidays would always fall on the exact same weekday all the time. Shavuot was always celebrated on a Sunday, the 15th of Sivan. (They argued that Shavuot should be on a 15th just like the other regalim, Pesach and Sukkot.) The Essenes interpreted that verse in Leviticus to mean that the Omer count must start from the day after Shabbat after Pesach is over. So, the Essenes always celebrated Shavuot a week after the Sadducees! (Depending on when Pesach would fall in a given year, the Sadducees and Pharisees might celebrate Shavuot on the same day, or a day or two apart. In a year like this year, when Pesach falls on Shabbat, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have begun counting the Omer on the same Sunday and celebrated Shavuot on the same day.) The problem with the Essene calendar is that it had a year of 364 days, and it isn’t clear how they intercalated to stay aligned with the solar year of 365.24 days.

After the Temple was destroyed, Sadducee and Essene Judaism both disappeared (along with numerous other, smaller sects). Pharisee Judaism continued and evolved into “Rabbinic” Judaism. It was precisely the richness and fluidity of the oral tradition that allowed Judaism to survive and flourish. And we still have many remnants of our ancient Sages instituting practices partly to counter the mistaken Sadducee claims. Lighting Shabbat candles and eating warm chamin (like cholent) was a direct assault on Sadducee Judaism which kept the lights out and ate cold food to avoid making use of a flame. With this in mind, I believe we can posit another hypothesis for the origin of Shabbat HaGadol:

Unlike the Sadducees (and Essenes), our Sages held that the Omer count must start from the second day of Pesach since the first day of Pesach is itself like Shabbat. When the Torah says to count from the day after “Shabbat”, it means the day after the first yom tov of Pesach. In that case, if we insist on calling the first day of Pesach a Shabbat, what does that make the actual Shabbat preceding it? It’s like we have two Shabbats in a single week! So, perhaps it became customary to refer to the actual Shabbat as Shabbat haGadol, both to distinguish it from the Pesach mini-Shabbat and to emphasize the wrongness of the Sadducees and Essenes.

This leads us to an even bigger question: why did our Sages insist that Pesach is the Shabbat in question? Isn’t the Torah quite clear that the count should start from the Sabbath after Pesach? What is so important about tying Pesach to Shabbat?

Purpose of Creation

Rashi begins his commentary on the Torah by pointing out that Beresheet means that God created “for resheet”, and what is resheet? Proverbs 8:22 calls the Torah resheet darko, “the first of His way”, while Jeremiah 2:3 calls Israel resheet tevuato, “the first of His grain”. Therefore, God created the cosmos with the intention to eventually forge Israel and give His Torah. If not for this, He would have never created to begin with, as we read in Jeremiah 33:25-26 that “If not for My covenant day and night, I would have never established the laws of Heaven and Earth, so I will never reject the offspring of Jacob…”

The ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the Eagle Nebula (Courtesy: NASA)

Therefore, there is a deep, intrinsic connection between Creation and Pesach: Without a Genesis, there would be no Exodus, and without an Exodus God would have never bothered with a Genesis! This is why, when reciting Kiddush every Friday evening to welcome Shabbat, we say zekher l’yetziat Mitzrayim, “in memory of the Exodus from Egypt”. And it is why, when the Torah gives the Ten Commandments twice (in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), the first time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate Genesis, while the second time it says Shabbat is in order to commemorate the Exodus! In the former, we are told to keep Shabbat because God rested on the Seventh Day of Creation, while in the latter we are told to keep Shabbat because we were once slaves working around the clock and we are no longer slaves so we should celebrate our freedom with a day of rest and divine service.

In short, Pesach and Shabbat are inseparable and represent two sides of the same coin. Our Sages insisted on commemorating Pesach itself as a Shabbat, for it cannot be any other way. Pesach is a Shabbat, the very reason for the existence not only of the Jewish people, but of the whole universe. And before the Pesach-Shabbat of Exodus comes the Great Shabbat of Genesis.

Shabbat Shalom!


The above essay is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Three.
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