In the Torah reading of Emor, the commandment of counting the omer is stated:
"And you shall count unto you from the morrow of the day of rest ('Shabbat'),
from the day that you brought the sheaf ('omer') of the waving; there
shall be seven complete weeks" (Leviticus 23:15).
The Talmud (Menachot 65a) tells us that the sect of the Boethusians
interpreted the word Shabbat to mean the seventh day of the week, rather than
the "day of rest" of Passover. As a consequence they held that the
counting of the omer always begins on a Sunday. There was considerable debate,
during which the Rabbis brought many scriptural proofs to establish that the
Boethusian interpretation was false. But a persistent question remains: Why did
the Torah leave room for this error, instead of stating explicitly, "on the
day after Passover"?
2. Three Months
In Exodus 3:10, G‑d tells Moses: "When you have brought the people out
of Egypt, you shall serve G‑d upon this mountain." In other words, the
purpose of the Exodus from Egypt lay in the Giving of the Torah. Between these
two events, the Exodus and the Revelation on Sinai, came the seven weeks of the
omer. These seven weeks were the necessary transition between the start and the
completion of the redemption.
Three months were involved in this process: Nissan, in which the Exodus took
place; Iyar, which is wholly taken up with the counting of the Omer; and Sivan,
in which the Torah was given.
Only these three are explicitly mentioned in the context of the redemption.
Of Nissan it is written: "The month of Spring, . . . in it you came out of
Egypt" (Exodus 23:15). Of Iyar we find, "The second month . . . after
they had come out of the land of Egypt" (Number 1:1). And of Sivan,
"In the third month after the Children of Israel were gone forth out of the
land of Egypt" (Exodus 19:1). All three are mentioned because each was an
integral part of the redemption.
3. Three Kinds of Food
Of these three stages, Passover is linked to the eating of Matzah. The omer was a
measure of barley. And Shavuot had a special offering of two loaves of fine
flour baked with leaven.
This presents a number of difficulties.
Only two meal offerings did not consist of wheat: The omer, and the offering
of a wife suspected of infidelity. Both of these were of barley. In the latter
case the Talmud (Sotah 14a) gives a reason: Her offering was to be of animal
food as a humiliation for her immorality ("She did the deed of an animal,
therefore she brings animal feed as an offering"). But why was the omer of
On Passover we are forbidden to eat leaven, because leaven symbolizes man's
inclination to pride and self-esteem. As leaven causes dough to rise, so pride
inflates a man to arrogance. But why, in that case, are we allowed to eat leaven
the rest of the year, and indeed obliged (in the Temple) to do so on
4. "Draw Me; We Will Run After You"
In the Song of Songs (1:4), there is a verse, "Draw me, we will run
after you; the king has brought me into his chambers." The Kabbalists see
these three phrases as references to the three stages of the departure from
Egypt. "Draw me" is the Exodus. "We will run after you" is
the counting of the omer. "The king has brought me into his chambers"
is the giving of the Torah.
"Draw me" is passive -- it refers to the Israelites being taken out
by G‑d. Also it is singular. Whereas "We will run after you" is both
active and plural.
The Zohar explains that by the end of their enslavement, the Israelites were
assimilated into the heathen ways of their captors. They were not deserving of
redemption. They had to be seized and drawn out of their captivity by the
initiative of G‑d. Since they were not inwardly prepared for it, this unexpected
revelation did not alter them inwardly. They were taken hold of by G‑d rather
than by the promptings of their heart. And although their "G‑dly soul"
responded, their "animal soul" was unchanged. One part of their being
received the revelation, but the other, the capacity for evil, remained. Indeed,
says Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, this is why the Israelites are described as
having fled from Egypt (Exodus 14:5). What they were running from was the
evil within themselves.
So we can understand the phrase "Draw me." Firstly, when we take
possession of an object by seizing hold of it nothing is changed in the subject
itself; it merely changes hands: In this case, Israel went from being in the hand
of Pharaoh to being in the hand of G‑d. Israel in itself was unchanged.
Secondly, it was passive. The drawing out of Egypt was achieved by the hand
of Heaven, not by any spontaneous act on the part of the Israelites.
Thirdly, it was singular. The revelation of this sudden intervention of G‑d
affected only one side of their being. Their spirit responded; their physical
passions did not.
5. Intellect and Passion
For all this, the purpose of a revelation is that the spirit should change
the physical nature of man as well. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi puts it, if
man were meant to be pure spirit, he would not have needed a body. The point of
a religious life within the world is to bring every side of human nature
into G‑d's work. In the words of the Talmud: "'And
you shall love the L-rd your G‑d with all your heart' -- this means, with both
This interplay not only elevates the physical side of man, but also his
spiritual life, by adding to it the drive and energy of physical passion. Man as
an intellectual being is dispassionate: his emotions and desires are mitigated
by the rational control he exercises over them. But animal energy, be it
literally in an animal or in the instinctual drives of man, is unchecked,
powerful. "There is much increase by the strength of an ox" (Proverbs
14:4).When the animal in man is no longer at war with his spirit, but is
sublimated to it, all its passionate intensity is transferred to the life of
This is why the omer was of barley, animal food. This was the labor
of that period: to transform the "animal soul" of the Israelites
which had remained unaffected by the initial revelation in Egypt.
How is this done? By meditation. Meditation on the nature of G‑d awakens love
and fear. At first, when one knows that rebellion, pride and animal obstinacy
still hold power within oneself, one must "flee." This is the
time of suppression. But once one has left the "Egypt" of
temptation, there comes a time of meditation and sublimation, when the
two sides of man no longer battle for possession. The spirit rules, and
physical nature transfers its energy.
Thus Solomon wrote, "We will run after you." We will run,
because our service is quickened by this new source of energy. We will
run, because it is we, not G‑d, who take the initiative. And "we," in
the plural, because both sides of our nature are caught up in this effort of
reaching out towards G‑d, and each gives impetus to the other.
6. The Final Stage
There is still a further stage. At the Exodus, there was the Divine call.
During the counting of the omer, there was man's response. But at the Giving of the Torah, there
was the final abnegation of man in the face of G‑d.
While for forty-nine days the Israelite was transforming himself, he was still a self,
still using his powers and relying on himself. But at Sinai, in the face of G‑d,
"With every single word that went forth from the mouth of the Holy One,
blessed be He, the souls of Israel departed" (Talmud, Shabbat 88b). They
were empty: The only reality was G‑d.
Thus it is that on Passover we may not eat leaven. At the outset, when pride
and willfulness preserve their power, they must be suppressed, set aside. They
cannot be combated rationally for they can subvert the mind: "They are
wise to do evil" (Jeremiah 4:22).
At the stage of the omer, we use our understanding to redirect our emotions.
We use the leaven in ourselves to change ourselves.
And when, at the point of Shavuot, we reach the final openness of all our
being to G‑d, we are obliged to use the leaven, making every part of
our nature into a channel for the light of G‑d.
7. Every Day
The Rabbis tell us, "In every generation, and every day, a man is obliged
to see himself as if he had gone out of Egypt that very day" (Talmud,
Pesachim 116b; Tanya ch. 47). So each of the three stages of the Exodus are
components of the task of every day.
In the beginning of our prayers we say, "I give acknowledgment before
you . . ." (the modeh ani prayer). This is the acknowledgment, the
surrender to G‑d, that precedes understanding. It is the Nissan of the day, the
There then follow the Psalms of Praise (pesukei dezimrah) and the shema
and its benedictions. These are the prayers of meditation, and
understanding. "Hear, O Israel," the first phrase of the shema,
means "understand." And through this meditation, the emotions are
awakened, and the love of G‑d is aroused with "all your heart and all your
soul and all your might." This is the daily equivalent of the month of Iyar
and the counting of the omer.
But, so far, this represents only the battle against half, the
"animal" half, of one's nature (bittul ha-yesh). There still
awaits the final extinction of self-consciousness (bittul bi-metziut) which
comes during the Amidah prayer, when "like a slave before his
master" we have no self with which to speak. We are empty of words. We say,
"O L-rd, open my lips." And this is the Sivan of the day, the moment
when we confront -- like the Israelites at Sinai -- the all-possessing presence
8. After the Shabbat
Now, finally, we realize why the Torah, in the verse quoted at the outset,
says, "On the morrow of the Shabbat" instead of ". . . after
To achieve the transformation of the "animal soul" demands the
deepest reserves of spiritual energy. To have brought the Israelites out of
their entrenched impurity needed more than an "angel" -- an emissary
-- it needed G‑d himself in His Glory and Essence. If this was true of the
escape from evil, it is more so for the transformation of evil into good.
The task demands a spiritual source able to enter into the heart of evil without
Shabbat is a source of intense spirituality. It is the apex of the week. But
it still belongs to the week, and thus to time and the finite. "The morrow
of the Shabbat" refers to the step beyond Shabbat, beyond time itself: A
revelation higher than the world.
To count the forty-nine days of omer, that is, to transform into holiness
every emotion that we feel, we must rest our efforts on the "morrow of
the Shabbat" -- the light of G‑d from beyond the world.