The forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot are called the days of Sefira or the days of counting Omer—Sefirat HaOmer—when Jews count every day as the first day of the omer, the second day of the omer, and so on until on the Eve of Shavuot, when the last, forty-ninth day is counted.
. . . And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that ye brought the Omer of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete.Leviticus 23:21
Seven weeks shalt thou number unto thee; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn shalt thou begin to number seven weeks.Deuteronomy 16:9
This period is marked by semi-mourning with observance of such customs as avoiding haircuts, not shaving, not celebrating weddings, and not going to concerts. There is no mention of such strictures in the Bible, however. Traditional sources link the semi-mourning customs of Omer with the plaque that killed twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva. Later authorities (such as Aruch HaShulchan, by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein) also linked the mourning with massacres committed by crusaders and Bogdan Khmelnitsky (Tach v’Tat), as well as blood libels. However, all these explanations seem entirely disconnected from the Biblical origin of the injunction to count the days of Omer.
The forty-nine days of the Omer connect Passover with Shavuot (which always falls on the 50th day after Passover). Aside from the agricultural connections mentioned in the Bible, what is the inner connection between the counting of the Omer, the mourning customs, and these two holidays?
Rabbi Hayyim Vital, in Shaar HaKavanot, provides a fascinating explanation of the Sefirat HaOmer. He explains in the name of his teacher, the Arizal, that the days between Passover with Shavuot are days of judgment because, on these days, G‑d is distant from the Jewish people. Rabbi Hayyim Vital compares this to the biblical injunction for a man to separate from his wife after she has given birth to a child. The Torah says:
And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a woman be delivered, and bear a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall continue in the blood of purification three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification be fulfilled.Leviticus 12:1-5
During this period, the wife is forbidden to her husband—the couple may not engage in marital relations. In the meantime, the woman must count the days of her purification.
According to Jewish mystical tradition, the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people is analogized to the relationship between husband and wife, as described poetically in the Song of Songs. The Arizal notes that the holiday of Passover marks the birth of the Jewish nation. After this birth, the Jewish people are separated from God; that is, we are unable to reach the intimacy in our relationship with God, the unio mystica. We, too, have to count the days of our purification. Once these days are complete, we can celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which is called Yom Chatunotoi—the Day of His Marriage. This is a deep insight offering an allegorical explanation of the connection between Omer, Passover, and Shavuot, why we count days, and why the days of Omer are days of judgment—due to our separation from G‑d.
There is a slight problem, however. Let us look at this allegory carefully. The Torah commands a woman who gave birth to a child to count days while separating herself from her husband. In the Midrashic metaphor, G‑d’s relationship with the Jewish people is described as the loving relationship between husband and wife. Another allegory portrays Passover as the birth of Jewish people. The Arizal interprets this as a cause for separating between G‑d and the Jewish people, just as the husband must separate from his wife after she gives birth to a child. We know who the husband is in this analogy—this is clearly the Almighty. But who is the wife, and who is the child? Recall that in the original metaphor of the Song of Songs, the Jewish people are the “wife.” In the Midrashic metaphor portraying the Passover as the birth of the Jewish nation, the Jewish nation seems to be the “child.” So, who are we compared to, the mother or the child?
This problem can be analyzed and resolved using the method of klal u’prat—the general and the particular. We have previously discussed this method extensively. See, for example, “Counting Weeks and Days” and “The Soul – Part IV. The Whole vs. the Parts.”
First, let us clearly state the facts and the metaphors:
- The Biblical ritual law requires a woman who gave birth to a child to separate herself from her husband for a number of days and count her days of purification.
- According to the Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim), the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people is metaphorically compared to passionate love between a husband and his wife, where the woman is a euphemism for the Jewish people, and her lover (or husband) is a euphemism for G‑d.
- According to Midrash, the Passover is the birthday of the Jewish nation.
Paying close attention to the language of the metaphor, we note that the Passover is considered the birthday of the Jewish nation, not the Jewish people. Jewish people existed long before there was the Jewish nation. There were Jewish Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There were Jewish Matriarchs—Sarah, Rebeca, Rachel, and Leah. There were twelve sons of Jacob—the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Torah states that Jacob descended to Egypt with seventy souls:
And the sons of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt, were two souls; all the souls of the house of Jacob, that came into Egypt, were seventy.Genesis 46:27
Subsequently, Jewish people multiplied in Egypt. But they were not a nation. They lacked the indicia of nationhood—they did not have their own country; they lived among other people; they lacked self-governance and were not free. The Jewish nation was born only after the Exodus from Egypt when the Jewish people gained their freedom, their leadership, the common purpose, and the promise of their own land—the land of Canaan, towards which they traveled in the Sinai desert.
Let us look at this from the klal (“general”) and prat (“particular”) perspectives. A nation as a whole represents a klal—the general. The metaphor of the Song of Songs, analogizing the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people to the relationship between husband and his beloved [wife], pertains to the Jewish people—the individuals that make up the Jewish nation. According to the Song of Songs, G‑d is in love, as it were, with each one of his chosen people—people of flesh and blood—not with an abstract concept of a nation. As such, each Jewish person is the prat—the particular. Parts taken together make up the whole, and the Jewish people taken together make up the Jewish nation.
As I discussed in my essay, “Tzitzit, Korach, and Wave-Particle Duality,” the field is the klal, and a particle is a prat. From the point of view of the klal, we primarily focus on the field. In this paradigm, particles are viewed as the excitations of the field. However, from the point of view of the prat, we focus primarily on the particles. On this view, the field is merely an agglomeration of (virtual) particles mediating energy exchanges between particles of matter.
Trees (prat) make up the forest (klal). Words (prat) make up sentences (klal). Soldiers (prat) make up the army (klal). Jews (prat) make up the Jewish nation (klal).
From this point of view, it becomes apparent that the Jewish nation (klal) is the child in the metaphor of the woman giving birth. In the mystical lore of Kabbalah, the Jewish nation, Knesset Yisrael, is represented by the sefirah of Malchut. In the Lurianic doctrine of divine partzufim (visages), Malchut represents a “daughter” (bat), a child of Aba, the “Supernal Father” (associated with the sefirah of Chokhmah), and Ima, the “Supernal Mother” (associated with the sefirah of Binah). Thus, in Kabbalah, the Jewish nation is indeed viewed as a child, a daughter, to be exact. It is not surprising that the klal-prat analysis leads to the same conclusion.
What is surprising, at first blush, is that each Jewish person plays the role of a “mother.” Indeed, each of us collectively “gives birth” to the Jewish nation. In the Song of Songs, the relationship between G‑d and Jewish people is allegorically depicted as the relationship of a man (a husband) with his beloved (wife). Just as the relationship between husband and wife is deeply personal and intimate, so too, is the relationship with G‑d deeply personal and intimate; it is the relationship each of us has with G‑d on their own terms. Sometimes it is a tumultuous relationship—as in many marriages—with its ups and downs. But it is a personal relationship above all. It follows that the woman in the Song of Songs represents the concept of a prat—the intimate and personal companion. Therefore, Jewish people (prat that contributes to the klal—the Jewish nation) are depicted as the woman, the wife, or the mother. The Kabbalah thought also connects the prat with motherhood. Ima—the Supernal Mother—is based on the sefirah of Binah (“Understanding”). Binah’s function is to take the abstract idea and general inspiration coming from Chokhmah (“Wisdom”) and break it into details, particularize, dissect, and analyze the details of the abstract idea to make it concrete. Thus, Ima represents the quintessential prat.
As it is stated in Sefer Yetzirah, there are fifty gates of understanding (nun sha’arei binah). It is not coincidental that there are fifty days day that connect the Passover and Shavuot—it takes forty-nine days, which we count, to break down the general idea of the freedom, which we celebrate during Passover so that on the fiftieth day, we receive the Torah—the gift from above—that concretizes this general notion of freedom into 613 Biblical commandments, as I explained in my essay, “613 Degrees of Freedom.”
In Kabbalistic imagery, whereas the male represents an abstract idea and general inspiration, the female represents the drive to concretize and actualize this idea. It is not surprising, after all, that the Jewish people (prat) are allegorized in the Song of Songs as a woman—a wife.
Where is the concept of purity and impurity found in this analogy? After giving birth to a child, a woman becomes ritually impure for some time, whereas the child is always pure. So too here. Each of us may sully our relationship with G‑d, but the nation as a whole is always pure. This is reflected in Jewish ritual law, Halacha. When it comes to counting the Omer—the ritual reflecting accountability and repentance—it is strictly personal. Thus, the Torah says, “And ye shall count unto you…” Accordingly, when traveling across the international dateline, one must continue his personal count of the Omer, even though those around him may be a day ahead or behind. When it comes to prat, each individual is judged on their own merits.
However, when it comes to klal, the Jewish nation is always pure. Thus, according to the ritual law of sacrifices, while one was not allowed to bring a sacrifice in the Temple while in a state of ritual impurity (tumah), even if all Jews are ritually impure (as presently), they can nevertheless bring communal sacrifices, because the community as a whole is always pure, even if each member of the community is not. This is a stark example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts—the cornerstone principle of the philosophy of holism. This is also why we are encouraged to pray together in a minyan (the quorum of ten men)—because the community is always judged favorably, notwithstanding possible shortfalls of individuals.
The days between the Passover and Shavuot are seen as the days of judgment. This comes from the teaching of the Arizal, where he calls these days of gevurot. However, in Hebrew, gevurah means not only “judgment” but also a “force.” Thus the days of gevurot may be alternatively translated as the days of forces. What forces are these? When you take two magnets a try to pull them apart, you need to apply significant force—the larger the magnet, the greater the force. To keep them apart, one must continue to apply force to each magnet preventing them from coming together. So too, in the days of Omer, strong forces—gevurot—separate us from our G‑d. Jewish people, however, are pulled towards G‑d, and vice-versa, as husband and wife are pulled towards each other. An effort must be made to maintain this separation. This tension creates a sense of anxiety, unease, and some sadness. Maybe, this is why we observe certain customs, such as not celebrating marriages or other festivities, and not taking haircuts, during these days. That would explain why it is the Chabad custom (and that of some other communities) to continue these strictures even after Lag BaOmer, when, according to the Talmud, the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying, and therefore, there is no more basis for mourning.
When the counting is over, a married couple can look forward to a joyful reunion, and we, the Jewish people, can look forward to celebrating Shavuot—Yom Chatunot
oi, the Day of His Marriage.
 The number of days differ depending on whether the newborn is a boy or a girl. See Leviticus 12:1-6.
 Midrash Shochar Tov on Psalms 114.