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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Emor 5758
Leviticus 21:1–24:23
May 16, 1998     20 Iyar 5758

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Jews mark the period between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot by the counting of the omer. For a period of 49 days, beginning on 16 Nisan, for us in the diaspora the night of the second Seder, we count each day at the evening service (the start of a new day in the Jewish calendar) in terms of the days and weeks that have passed. This brief ceremony opens with the verse in this week's parasha that sets forth the prescription: "And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation – the day after the sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days (Leviticus 23:15–16)."

Thus, for example, I am writing these words (by hand) on the 29th day of the omer. Now I have trouble remembering what day of the month it is. (My old wrist watch, which still needs to be wound once a day, is of no help.) So, it is not with ease that I negotiate the passage of time between Passover and Shavuot. But I am not alone.

The Seminary's rare book room has two miniature illustrated manuscripts of Seder Sefirat ha–Omer, The Order for the Counting of the Omer. Altogether there are six samples of such omer booklets known, all from Italy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Each day of the omer gets its own page with a hand–painted biblical scene on the opposite page, denoted by an appropriate verse in Hebrew. In 1990 the Seminary published a facsimile edition of 250 numbered copies of one of its two manuscripts (black ink on paper, undated and clearly a specimen of folk art), and it is this heirloom which now helps me keep track of the omer. Clearly others have suffered from inattentiveness similar to my own. In time, need gave rise to a lovely artistic innovation.

Today the 50th day of the omer coincides with Shavuot on the 6th day of the month of Sivan, commemorating the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. But both identifications, which seem self–evident to us, are rabbinic interpretations of biblical passages that are quite indeterminate. Unlike Passover and Succot, Shavuot has no fixed date in the Torah. Nor is it ever associated with the giving of the Torah. Rather it remains an agricultural festival ("the day of the first fruits" – Numbers 28:26) without an overlay of historical justification.

Similarly, from the text in our parasha, there is no clarity about what phrase "the day after the sabbath (Leviticus 23:15)" actually designates, triggering endless controversy in antiquity over when the counting of the omer was to start. The original fluidity of Leviticus reflects an agricultural society where the celebration of the first fruits – first barley and then wheat – varied "from one region to another and as much as a month over the entire country," according to Professor Jacob Milgrom.

In their desire to nail down and historicize Shavuot, the rabbis interpreted "the day after the sabbath" to mean "yom tov," that is, after the first day of Passover, a span of exactly 50 days between 16 Nisan and 6 Sivan. On a deeper level, they linked freedom to law. The Exodus ends at Sinai with the adoption of a national mission grounded in revelation.

But what prompted the Bible in the first place to single out this 50–day span in the agricultural calendar? Professor Milgrom conjectures that counting betrays anxiety. The spring harvest coincides with the end of the rainy season but also with the onset of a period when Israel is often buffeted by the hot, dry east wind called Sirocco, blowing across Egypt. The contemporary Israeli name for this feared phenomenon is Hamsin, which derives from the Arabic word hamsun and is related to the Hebrew cognate hamishim, all meaning 50. The Mishna preserves the ancient angst: "At Passover the world is judged in terms of the grain harvest." Hence, from April to June (roughly a 50–day period), the earth's bounty stands in jeopardy of being depleted by the withering winds of a Hamsin. Before the triumph of biblical monotheism, Israelite farmers probably tried to ward off the danger by daily incantations to the demons of the weather.

How fascinating that this period of the sefira (counting) never shook its negative valence! History reinforced the melancholy rooted in nature. The Talmud relates that some 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died between Passover and Shavuot because they failed to treat each other with respect, leaving the world desolate. Scholars who give any credence to this murky report tend to connect it to the Bar Kochba uprising against Rome from 132 to 135. Once Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kochba to be the messiah, his students rushed to take up arms, and, like their revered teacher, lost their lives in the ill–fated venture.

In the Middle Ages, the proximity of Easter to Passover freighted the spring with foreboding. In the spring of 1096 the frenzied fanatics of the First Crusade decimated the heartland of Ashkenazic Jewry along the Rhine and Danube Rives. Though the number of casualties probably did not exceed 5000, the survivors and their descendants were imprinted with a deep–seated sense of their precariousness. The sefira period came to symbolize the ever–present insecurity of living in exile.

And the pall prevailed till the creation of modern Israel, the third and final Jewish commonwealth. Its history has at last transformed the counting of the omer into a celebration of Jewish sovereignty and power after nearly two millennia of homelessness. The commemoration of the Holocaust on 27 Nisan embodies the nexus between old and new. Even as we recall the helplessness of diaspora Jews in the face of a nation–state gone mad, we are mindful that international remorse at the extent of the depravity generated the momentary consensus that allowed Israel to come into existence. On 4 Iyar we remember the more than 20,000 Israeli soldiers who died defending the new Jewish state in an awesome display of instant military prowess. The passivity of galut has forever been transcended.

One day later, on 5 Iyar, we reach the pinnacle of our refurbished sefira, Israeli Independence Day, with an encore on 28 Iyar (the 43rd day of the omer) to commemorate the unification of Jerusalem in 1967. For me, Israel is not "the beginning of the blooming of our national redemption," that terribly mischievous phrase bequeathed us by the Chief Rabbinate. In a political sense, it is far more, being both well advanced and irreversible. In the year 2023, more than half of the Jewish people will live in Israel.

But Israel is also marked by the flaws of an imperfect world that will have to be addressed by the political sagacity of mortal leaders. To claim that we have crossed over into a messianic era is to unleash irrational forces deaf to the art of compromise, the need for mutual respect and the wisdom of self–restraint. The second Jewish commonwealth perished in the passions of messianic extremism.

And this is the warning for me of Lag be–Omer (the 33rd day of the omer), the massive annual pilgrimage to Meron, near Safed, by modern and ultra Orthodox, Sefaradim and Ashkenazim alike. It is the quintessential holy place in an era marked by proliferating holy places (120 by one count throughout Israel), where history gives way to legend and reason to willful ignorance. The first official act in Palestine by the World Zionist Organization after the Balfour Declaration was to lay the cornerstone of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. The resurgence of the irrational some 80 years later threatens the very foundations of the Jewish state.

In sum, there is nothing idle about the counting of the omer. Not only does it join Passover to Shavuot, but the Jewish people to Israel. Redefined by the 20th century, it should bring us to reflect each year about the destiny of Israel in the grand scheme of Jewish history.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Emor are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.