This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Counting the Days*

The Torah does not stress the connection between the beginning of the ‘Omer counting and the commemoration of the Exodus on Passover. Nor does it identify Shavu'ot, at the conclusion of the ‘Omer count, as the anniversary of the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. It was the Jewish oral tradition that interpreted the counting as extending from the second day of Passover until the sixth of Sivan, thereby spanning those two momentous historical milestones.

Nevertheless, the sages of the Talmud and Midrash interpreted the ‘Omer-related rituals in their original Biblical sense as expressions of thanksgiving for the grain harvest, and as preconditions for consumption of the new crop

It was left largely to the medieval rabbis to redefine the ‘Omer count in a manner appropriate to its historical associations.

A simple, but classic, explanation in that spirit was offered by Maimonides. In his Guide of the Perplexed, he writes that the obligation to count the days from Passover to Shavu'ot teaches us that the liberation from Egyptian slavery acquires full spiritual significance only if it is perceived as a prelude to the giving of the divine law of the Torah. Thus, Shavu'ot is clearly the most important of the festivals, and we accordingly count the days until its arrival "just as one who is expecting his most intimate friend on a certain day counts the days and even the hours."

The rationalist Maimonides thus remains true to form in his subordination of political liberty to the spiritual and moral enlightenment that is embodied in the Torah. His explanation seems to utterly ignore the more concrete, agricultural components of the Biblical command, both the waving of the barley sheaf at the start of the count, and the offering of wheaten loaves at its conclusion, though some other interpreters note that spiritual purification can be likened to separating grain from chaff.

Several commentators preferred to express the Israelites' feelings of anticipation through parables and symbols. The influential fourteenth-century Spanish liturgical authority Rabbi David Abudraham cited an otherwise unknown midrash comparing the Hebrews' situation to that of "a person who was incarcerated in a prison, who cried out to the king to set him free and give him his daughter in marriage. He continued to count until the awaited time." Though the situation is patently contrived, the sheer chutzpah of the prisoner's demands aptly expresses the polar contrast between the dire predicament from which the Hebrews had been rescued, and the exalted state to which they were aspiring.

The mystical imagination of the medieval Kabbalistic masterpiece, the Zohar, built upon similar ideas in order to weave the counting theme into an intricate fabric of symbols.

The author alludes to another instance where the Torah speaks of an obligation to count days, namely in measuring the period of impurity before a woman is permitted to resume relations with her husband. This, declares the Zohar, is an appropriate metaphor for the state of the ancient Hebrews, who had been immersed for centuries in the absolute depravity of Egyptian heathenism, and were now required to undergo a severe process of purification in order to ready themselves for their ultimate spiritual encounter with the Almighty at Mount Sinai.

This bold erotic imagery is typical of the Kabbalistic portrayals of the divine-human encounter. The Shekhinah, God's presence among the exiled Jewish people, is often personified as a princess who has become tragically separated from her royal lover.

In comparison with Maimonides' interpretation, which has a decidedly theoretical and historical quality, as a declaration of religious priorities or as the reliving of a past event, the Zohar's explanation expresses a vivid immediacy. For the Jewish mystic, we are not merely recalling an event from our collective past, but each of us is personally reliving the spiritual longing for our own Sinai experience.

The commentators we have cited do not raise the question of why, if its purpose is to express impatient anticipation, the counting does not take the form of a "count-down" of the number of days remaining until Shavu'ot. Indeed, the latter possibility would seem to be precluded by the fact that the Israelites were apparently not notified in advance on which day they would be receiving the Torah.

This unusual fact is consistent with the Torah's general reticence about the date and historical significance of Shavu'ot. An incisive interpretation of this puzzling phenomenon was offered by the famous Polish Jewish preacher Rabbi Solomon Ephraim Luntshitz (d. 1619) in his K'li Yaqar commentary to Leviticus 23:26, in a charming explanation of why Shavu'ot, uniquely among the annual festivals, is not assigned an identifiable date on the calendar.

...This is so because the Torah must remain as new for each person every day as it was on that day when it was received from Mount Sinai. For the Lord chose not to define a specific date, since on each and every day of the year it should appear to us as if on that day we received it from Mount Sinai...

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressApril 29 1999, p. 16.

  • Bibliography:

    • Leibowitz, N. (1982). Studies in Vayikra (Leviticus). Jerusalem, World Zionist Organization Dept. for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora.
    • Segal, E. (1992). “The Exegetical Craft of the Zohar: Towards and Appreciation.” AJS Review 17(1): 31-49.