Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Counting the Omer - The Creation of Meaning (Part 6)

In previous posts, I discussed the murky historical origins of counting the omer and Shavuot. I also discussed how this is reflected in textual ambiguities and confusion. In this post, I would like to examine how people have come to create meaning for this ritual. This historical gloss---wholly apart from any underlying original meaning of the ritual---is in fact what most of us who count the omer experience when we count the omer.

Various midrashim (and later the Zohar) state that the Jews had descended to the 49th level of impurity in Egypt. Another midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:11 and Song of Songs Rabbah 2:5, included in Bialek's Sefer HaAggadah, p. 78, no. 25) states that the Jews could have received the Torah on the day they left Egypt, but they were physically weak and needed a few months to recover. In both cases, they needed spiritual or physical healing, and this took place during the time between Passover and Shavuot, or during the omer-counting season.

This idea gave rise to the kabalistic tradition of assigning the seven lower sefirot (or emanations of God) to each of the seven weeks and days, giving 49 combinations. The details of this idea are pretty well known and covered in many places on the web. Aish HaTorah has a good explanation. The basic idea is that just as the ancient Jews spiritually improved themselves from the degradations of slavery to the holiness of a people ready to receive a direct revelation from God, we too can improve ourselves during the omer-counting period.

This is actually quite a useful activity. I have had some great conversations with my kids about real examples of the omer count of the day (one of which---pertaining to a baseball game---I recounted here). And I have had some more serious adult discussions and introspections about the different sefirot.

But there is an important aspect of all this that should not be overlooked: it has nothing to do with the original understanding of counting of the omer. No early text mentions the sefirot or anything similar. These are all later creations that were linked to the counting of the omer, and because of their cleverness, wisdom, and utility have become widely accepted.

There are many other examples of this. For example, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a thoughtful discussion of how the omer counting reflects two different ideas of time: cyclical time and linear time. (Joni Mitchell picked up on the same theme, more or less, as I discussed here.) Like most of Rabbi Sacks' commentary, this one is really insightful. But it is an analysis that is prompted by the omer counting rather than solidly contained within the omer counting.

One final example. Pirke Avot is a volume of the mishnah with collection of wisdom sayings. Pirke Avot 6:6 states that "Torah is acquired through 48 things" and then lists 48 character traits, such as "study, attentiveness, orderly speech, an understanding heart" etc. Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, picked up on this idea and linked it to the counting of the omer. He called it the "48 Ways to Wisdom" and this set of teachings is one of the central study units of Aish HaTorah. Each of R. Weinberg's "ways to wisdom" is a contemporary version of the methods of acquiring Torah from Pirke Avot 6:6. These can be studied, one at a time, during the omer counting period. The webpage with all the information is here.

R. Weinberg developed a smart and useful set of wisdom ideas, and this is and well worth studying. But a few aspects of this stand out for our purposes here.

The first one is the discrepancy in the numbers. There are 49 days of omer counting but only 48 methods of acquiring Torah. R. Weinberg neatly solves this problem with "Organization" as the 49th way: review what you have learned, memorize it, keep it in a logical order, etc. And there is a 50th one of the 48 ways as well: "gratitude" on Shavuot itself.

But a more interesting issue is the differences between Pirke Avot's 48 ways and R. Weinberg's 48 ways. Many of these are the the same, and R. Weinberg simply elaborates on Pirke Avot. For example, the first method of acquiring Torah is "study" (or "talmud"), and R. Weinberg's first way to wisdom is "being aware every minute," which is a form of studying life itself.

But in several instances, R. Weinberg reverses the plain meaning of Pirke Avot. For example, the 14th way of acquiring Torah in Pirke Avot 6:6 is "a minimum of business activity." This method of acquiring Torah is followed by five other "minimizations": a minimum of preoccupation with worldly matters, a minimum of indulgence in worldly pleasure, a minimum of sleep, a minimum of conversation, and a minimum of laughter. These six collectively paint a stark image of a Torah scholar: minimal involvement in worldly affairs and pleasures, and instead long hours studying Torah. This is how great Torah scholars become great Torah scholars, but this is not a message that will sit well with Aish HaTorah's key target audience: non-Orthodox Jews who are thinking of becoming Orthodox. Americans are not into austerity.

Rabbi Weinberg deftly handles this problem. For example, he recasts the first method "minimizing business activity" as "Apply Business Accumen To Living." He starts off by noting briefly that we need to work to earn a living, but we should not overdo it and should also work to acquire wisdom. After this initial nod to the original text, he then notes that we can use some of the tools of business to do so. The rest of the article is a elaboration of these tools: operate efficiently, commit to goals, etc.

He does the same with the other minimizations. Instead of minimizing pleasure, we have Harnessing the Power of Sex (in the context of marriage) and The Use of Physical Pleasure. A "minimum of conversation" becomes The Art of Conversation. And a "minimum of laughter" becomes Laugh at Your Troubles.

I certainly do not have a problem with any of R. Weinberg's teachings here. They seem wise to me, and in many ways fit more comfortably with my worldview than the original Pirke Avot teachings. I am not a hedonist, but I am not ascetic either. I simply note here that several of R. Weinberg's ideas are not quite the same as the original teachings in Pirke Avot, and do not have any inherent connection with counting the omer.

This is not a criticism. R. Weinberg and R. Sacks and the kabbalists did what Jews have always done, and in fact have done it better than most Jews. They created new ideas full of wisdom and insight and linked them to existing ideas or ritual---here, the counting of the omer.

The meaning or importance of counting the omer does not lie in its original context. Best that I can figure, that original context was a way of setting a late-spring wheat offering relative to the date of an earlier early-spring barley offering. That does not carry much significance for me, a lawyer living in Los Angeles in the 21st Century. The importance lies in the layers of meaning that subsequent generations have added to this earlier ritual: the bridge between freedom from slavery celebrated at Passover and the holiness required for the giving of the Torah celebrated at Shavuot, personal growth and spiritual improvement and wisdom, and God and godliness refracted through 49 separate paired combinations of seven aspects of God and godliness, and themes of historical and cyclical time.

At the beginning of this series, I noted that many Jews have problems with relevance and authenticity. I think counting the omer shows a way around this problem.

Counting the omer seems to be inherently irrelevant: counting to 49 one day at a time. The best argument for its inherent irrelevance is that no one other than Jews does this. But the relevance of a mitzvah like this comes from the inherent importance of the ideas and themes created over time and associated with this mitzvah.

The authenticity of the ritual comes both from its relevance and its long historical tradition. People do not passively receive and understand a tradition; they also help create it. The great thinkers that have come before us have developed some pretty great ideas, and those ideas have become part of Judaism, regardless of whether they were there initially. (We also have had some terrible ideas that have been discarded along the way in the gale of creative destruction.) These all are an authentic part of Judaism.

Here is my humble addition to counting the omer. I told my kids that if we counted all 49 days without missing one, we could go out for ice cream after Shavuot. My older son stopped counting somewhere in the 30s, but I finished last night and my younger son (whose bedtime is before it is completely dark) finished this morning. We did it.

So in addition to relevance and authenticity, counting the omer---properly construed---also involves ice cream.

Chag sameach.


Monday, June 6, 2011

The Historical Confusion - Counting the Omer and Shavuot (Part 5)

In the previous post, I discussed the textual confusion about the date of the omer-counting and Shavuot. The historical record is similarly muddled. Let's start with what the Torah says about the date of the giving of the Ten Commandments and then see how early Jewish communities understood this

The Torah never states the date of the giving of the revelation at Mount Sinai. The Torah explains that the Exodus from Egypt took place on the 14th day of the first month. (Exod. 12:17-18.) After crossing the Reed Sea, the Israelites went to Elim (Exod. 15:27), then to the "wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month." (Exod. 16:1.) ("Sin" is a Hebrew word, not the English word.) After an indeterminate stay, they then went to Rephadim. (Exod 17:1.)

Exodus 19:1 then states, "In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai." It is not clear what "the same day" of a month means, although it arguably means the first day of the third month (later called Sivan). They then camped before Mount Sinai for some indeterminate amount of time (Exod. 19:2). Moses speaks with God (Exod. 19:3), then speaks with the people (Exod. 19:7-8), and then speaks with God again (Exod. 19:9-11). God tells Moses to tell the people to ready and on the third day, he will come down. (Exod. 19:11.) It is not clear from the text how much time this camping, and speaking took, but in any case the people do what they are told, and God appears on the third day. (Exod. 19:16.)

The rabbinic tradition is that the revelation on Mount Sinai occurred on Shavuot, which was 50 days after the second day of Passover, or (after some arithmetic, left as an exercise for the interested reader) on the 6th of Sivan. But as noted in earlier posts, this does not directly follow from the text. Shavuot in the Torah is an agricultural holiday and (unlike Passover) is not linked at all to the
revelation on Mount Sinai (0r anything else, for that matter), and in fact its date---seven weeks and one day after "the shabbat"---is also not clearly specified.

Given this, it is not surprising that there were early alternative traditions as to this date and the dating of Shavuot. The book of Jubilees was probably written in the second century BCE. It begins, "And it came to pass in the first year of the exodus of the children of Israel out of Egypt, in the third month, on the sixteenth day of the month" that God tells Moses to come up to Mount Sinai. The book later put Shavuot in the middle of the third month (and states that Isaac was born on this day): "And she [Sarah] bare a son in the third month, and in the middle of the month, at the time of which the Lord had spoken to Abraham, on the festival of the first fruits of the harvest, Isaac was born." This puts Shavuot 10 days later than the traditional rabbinic account, and thus the counting of the omer began 10 days after the traditional day, or on the 25th of the first month. Apparently, the author of Jubilees used a solar calendar where days fell on the same day of the week, and the 25th of the first month was the Sunday after the last day of Passover.

The later Christians adopted a similar understanding, putting the holiday of Pentecost at 50 days after Easter. Counting Easter Sunday as the first day, that put Pentecost on a Sunday, seven weeks later. But in the conventional account, the first Easter was the Sunday after the first day of Passover which was on Thursday night / Friday day, not the Sunday after the last day of the 7-day Passover week, as suggested by Jubilees.

The Talmud contains a debate regarding this issue. In Menachot 65a-66a, the Mishnah describes an elaborate procedure for the barley offering, and then asks why this procedure was necessary. "Because of the Boethusians who maintained that the reaping of the omer was not to take place at the conclusion of the [first day of the] festival." (The Boethusians were a sect that was related in some way to the Sadducees.) Thus, the Boethusians, like the Christians, placed the beginning of the omer counting on the Sunday after the first day of Passover, not the day after the second day of Passover.

The Gemara then picks up on this debate. One foolish old Boethusian (described that way in the Talmud) offers a silly argument for Shavuot being on a Sunday (and thus "the shabbat" being on Saturday), and R. Yochanan ben Zakkai responds by calling him a "fool" and offering a weak but possibly sarcastically made argument. The Gemara then offers four other arguments for "the shabbat" being the second day of Passover, none of which are very persuasive.

The obvious dispositive counter-argument is that if Shavuot had in fact commemorated the revelation at Mount Sinai, then it would be on whatever day the revelation at Mount Sinai occurred. If that was on the sixth of Sivan, then that's when it was. But no one in the Gemara makes this argument, presumably because the Boethusians either (1) did not believe that Shavuot commemorated the giving of the Ten Commandments, or (2) did not believe that the date was the sixth of Sivan.

In Louis Finkelstein's book "The Pharisees", he picks up on this debate. (Chapter VII.B, pp. 115-118.) He notes that "nothing could be more trivial than such a debate" and correctly explains that "[t]he Biblical verses in Leviticus which give the provisions of the law are concededly ambiguous." He then notes that the Pharisees linked Shavuot to the revelation at Sinai. They were more separated from agriculture than the Sadducees and more interested in history and the Law. The Sadducees, on the other hand, did not believe the holiday had any historical significance, and they were more attuned to the agricultural aspect of the holiday.

The historical upshot is this. Neither the fixing of the beginning of the omer counting (and equivalently, the date of Shavuot) or the link between Shavuot and the revelation at Sinai are based on the text of the Torah. Both were the subject of considerable debate in the period before the Talmud was written.

One can certainly believe that there was a reliable unbroken oral traditional going back to Sinai that established both the relevant dating and the link between Shavuot and the revelation at Sinai. But if one does not believe this, then it the holiday must have evolved in the thousand years before the Talmud was written. The holiday initially began as an agricultural festival, vaguely set at 50 days after an initial barley offering. The omer counting was either just a way of establishing this date or perhaps required actual counting. But over time, the date became fixed, the actual counting of days became required, and this agricultural holiday was linked to the revelation at Sinai.

In future posts, I will look at how Jews have created more layers of meaning attached to the counting of the omer, including most importantly the mystical sefirot.