The Omer - Bread from Heaven
Parshat Emor includes a list of mo'adim , a term usually translated as "holidays." This word might be more accurately rendered as 'appointed times,' times set aside for man to rendezvous with God. Our current parsha is not the first place the word mo'ed is used, but up to this point it has always referred to an appointed place, like the Ohel Moed - the Tent of Meeting, the place where man could rendezvous with the Divine Presence.
And God spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the People of Israel, and say to them, The festivals of God, which you shall proclaim to be holy gatherings, these are my festivals. (Vayikra 23:1-2)
It should come as no surprise that the list of holidays begins with Pesach (Passover): The Jewish calendar begins in the spring; Nisan is the "first month of the months of the year." Jewish History and our national, collective memory begin with the Exodus:
These are the festivals of God, holy gatherings, which you shall proclaim in their seasons. In the first month on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening is God's Pesach. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to God; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. (Vayikra 23:4-6)
In the verses following this description of Pesach, we find something which isn't quite a holiday:
And God spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the People of Israel, and say to them, When you come to the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the kohen; and he shall wave the sheaf before God, to be accepted for you; on the next day after the sabbath the kohen shall wave it. And on the day you bring the sheaf you shall offer a male lamb without blemish in its first year for a burnt offering to God. And the meal offering of it shall be two tenth-measures of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering made by fire to God for a sweet savor; and the drink offering of it shall be of wine, the fourth part of a hin. And you shall eat neither bread, nor parched grain, nor green ears, until that very day, until you bring the offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. And you shall count from the next day after the sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete. (Vayikra 23:9-15)
Two distinct aspects of this "festival" are delineated: on the one hand, an agricultural celebration, in which the first grain is brought to the Temple. Being an agricultural law, this rite was not performed in the desert. The rule is in force from the time they enter their own land, since in the desert they did no farming, grew no grain. However, once they enter the Land of Israel and activate this law, it remains in effect forever, and everywhere the Jews live. On the other hand, another aspect of this commandment regards the counting of seven weeks, leading to the next holiday, so aptly called Shavuot (weeks): seven weeks are counted, at the end of which the first fruits are brought to the Beit Hamikdash. 1
It may seem obvious to us that the counting of the Omer, which follows the bringing of the Korban HaOmer on the first night of the Festival of Matzot, leads us to Shavuot. Yet if we look carefully at what we know thus far about the various holidays, the linkage of Pesach and Shavuot is less obvious. Consider the nature of all the festivals: Jewish holidays all possess an agricultural identity, yet to this point, we have been told by the Torah that the timing of Pesach is in the spring because in that season the Jews left Egypt. To this point, Pesach is a holiday that commemorates an historical event. Similarly, Shavuot is purely agricultural in nature; Shavuot is referred to as Chag HaBikurim, the Festival of the First Fruits. No historical event was recorded in the Torah as having transpired on that day. Of course, simple mathematical calculation brings us to the conclusion that an event of singular, supreme importance transpired on that date: the Torah was given to the Jewish People at Sinai. Remarkably, the Torah represses the specific date of the giving of the Torah, leaving it to the Oral Tradition to point out this connection.2 Pesach, with its decidedly historical identity, appears at first glance to have no intrinsic connection with Shavuot, which follows seven weeks later; rather, Shavuot is simply the next day of significance on the calendar, independent from Pesach.3
The Omer changes this. The Omer, with its agricultural identity, is a period in our calendar which is unique. Serving as a link between an historical holiday and an agricultural holiday, this period of counting is different from the holiday which immediately precedes it in the text, and the holiday which immediately follows. It is precisely because of this link that we are able to discover the agricultural aspects of Pesach and the historical aspects of Shavuot.
The Omer is a strange sort of "holiday"; although a unique period in the Jewish calendar, there is no prohibition of work. Cessation of labor is the benchmark which defines all our other festivals as holy days. The Ramban therefore understands that these intermediate days are no different from the chol hamoed (intermediate days) of Sukkot; the seven weeks counted between Pesach and Shavuot are parallel to the seven intermediate days of Sukkot.4 This would establish an even stronger connection between Pesach and Shavuot, forcing us to look for a deeper common thread that connects these two distinct holidays.
Our search for a connection, for some sort of progression from Pesach, through the Omer period, to Chag HaBikurim, the Festival of the First Fruits, brings more overarching issues come to the surface. The entire progression, the underlying framework of these festivals, begins with a prohibition against leavened bread and all leavening agents: On Pesach, all leavened products are prohibited, and only matzah may be eaten. No explanation is provided for this law. The Talmud implies that the rationale for the prohibition is the correlation between chametz (leaven) and se'or (yeast or other leavening agents) with sin, an association which is found in numerous kabbalistic, midrashic and even halachic writings. The Talmud states:
According to some this was the prayer of R. Hamnuna, and R. Alexandri on concluding his prayer used to add the following: Sovereign of the Universe, it is known full well to You that our will is to perform Your will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough and subjugation to foreign Powers. May it be Your will to deliver us from their hand, so that we may return to perform the statutes of Your will with a perfect heart! 5 (Talmud Bavli Brachot 17a)
Although widely accepted, this approach leaves us with a major question: If chametz is analogous to sin, to the Evil Inclination which prevents us from performing God's will, why is it permitted at all, at any time of the year? Why are chametz and se'or prohibited for only one week each year, and permissible during the remaining 51 weeks?
THE EPIC BATTLE
Let us look at the history of mankind's war against the Evil Inclination. The first battle of this war, waged in the Garden of Eden, ended in mankind's defeat. Adam and Eve did not withstand the tactics of the Evil Inclination: they disobeyed God's commandment and partook of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Of all the trees of the Garden, two were singled out. One was the Tree of Life, and the other was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some of our most ancient sources associate the Tree of Life with Torah, as in the book of Mishlei:
My son, forget not my Torah; but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to you... She is a tree of life to those who lay hold on her; and happy is every one who holds her fast. (Mishlei 3:1-2,18)
The Tree of Knowledge was the polar opposite of the Tree of Life. Although knowledge per se sounds good, noble, desirable, this tree was apparently not what it seemed. This was surely evidenced by the caveat with which it was introduced to man: "For on the day you eat from the tree you will die (i.e. death will enter the world)." 6
Man's behavior in the Garden of Eden is perplexing: Even if he had an overpowering desire to eat from this tree, he should have taken precautions. The Tree of Life could have served as a prophylactic, protecting against the deathly poison of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil - the tree of death.
According to one approach,7 this sequence was the originally intended plan for man's progress; it was God's intention that man first eat from the Tree of Life,8 and only then, after he was physically and spiritually prepared, partaken of the Tree of Knowledge. The Tree of Life is Torah, and once fortified with Torah, with the understanding and spiritual superiority that Torah imparts, man can face good and evil and successfully grapple with the challenges of this philosophical battleground. Without Torah, man enters the fray unarmed - clearly in no position to face evil and emerge unscathed. Thus, man's sin in the Garden of Eden was one of priorities, of sequence and order: Man ate from the Tree of Knowledge too soon.9 Man's age-old need for immediate gratification was what brought about this deadly sin.10
Matzah is a spiritual antidote, a cleansing agent11 - or in kabbalistic terms, a tikun 12 - for this sin of haste.13 Matzah is prepared in haste, lest it become chametz; by ordering Israel to eat Matzah, God co-opts man's sin, and transforms it into an uplifting mitzva.14
Bread has more to do with the Eden story than we would have first suspected. As a result of eating from the prohibited tree, God says:
And to Adam He said, Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying, You shall not eat of it; cursed is the ground for your sake; in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life; and thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you; and you shall eat the herb of the field; by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, until you return to the ground; for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust shall you return. (Bereishit 3:17-19)
Before man's sin, in the Garden, all sustenance came directly from God. No effort was required on man's part. Now man would have to work for his bread, sweat for his sustenance. If bread is an element of man's punishment, perhaps it was part of the sin as well.
We know very little about the deadly Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; the Torah does not record its specific species, only the result of its ingestion. Perhaps this tree was "one of a kind" - sui generis. The Talmud records numerous opinions regarding the identity of the Tree of Knowledge.
R. Hisda said in R. Ukba's name, and others state, Mar Ukba said in R. Zakkai's name: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Noah: 'Noah, should you not have taken a warning from Adam, whose transgression was caused by wine?' This agrees with the view that the [forbidden] tree from which Adam ate was a vine. For it has been taught: R. Meir said: That [forbidden] tree from which Adam ate was a vine. (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 70a-b)
One would assume that a cogent argument could be put forth for all kinds of fruit, but the suggestion that the Tree of Knowledge was wheat - seems somewhat bizarre. Or is it? As we have seen, bread is part of the punishment; perhaps it was part of the sin15 as well. Furthermore, this would explain why the bread (matzah) is also part of the Tikun. Before the sin man didn't need to work; as a resident of Eden everything was provided by God, that utopia was destroyed with one bite. Now work must begin; together with exile. Man sinned with a particular, perhaps unique source of sustenance, and his punishment affected his source and means of sustenance. As mankind is banished from the Garden of Eden, exiled from the source of physical and spiritual sustenance, the decree regarding bread and their wanderings begin simultaneously. Similarly, the prototypical exile of the Jewish People in Egypt is marked by toil and struggle - sustenance is eked out by the sweat of their brow. When they are finally redeemed, the Exodus from Egypt begins the trek back to their spiritual and physical source of sustenance - the Land of Israel, the land of their forefathers. First, they must make a momentous stop at Sinai - a stop which has been foretold to Moshe before the redemption is set in motion: They will, at last, reconnect at Sinai with the Tree of Life.
On their way out of Egypt, they eat matzah; the sin of eating too quickly is healed. They prepare bread that does not allow them to tarry, and they are commanded, not merely permitted, to eat this bread of haste. This is the food of their physical and spiritual redemption, bread that heals and elevates.
The longer-term solution to their sustenance is revealing: When the Exodus is complete and the Jewish People leave Egypt forever, their source of sustenance changes radically. Their bread is no longer taken from the ground; the healing of the sin of Adam is achieved through the matzah, and now, once again, their sustenance comes directly from God, as it did in the Garden of Eden.
And when the People of Israel saw it, they said one to another, "Mahn hu" (literally, What is it) - It is manna; for they knew not what it was. And Moshe said to them, This is the bread which God has given you to eat. This is the thing which God has commanded, Gather of it every man according to his eating, an omer for every man, according to the number of your persons, whom each of you has in his tent. (Shmot 16:15-16)
The people needed food, and it rained down from the heavens - actually, like dew from the heavens. The people called it mahn - manna in English. The term used by Moshe is omer, referring to a measurement or amount. Surely, the relationship with the other omer cannot be lost upon us.
Both the omer of the manna and the Korban haOmer are found within the same timeframe - between Pesach and Shavuot, yet there is an important difference: The omer which is part of an offering is brought only when the people enter the Land of Israel, when they once again become farmers, when their bread comes from the sweat of their collective brow. The omer of manna, on the other hand, is bestowed upon them by God, and they have no need to work for this sustenance.
The contrast is stark: bread from heaven as opposed to bread made by great human effort from the fruits of the land. Heavenly bread reminds us of Eden; man's labor resonates of the expulsion from Eden.
There is another, slightly more subtle difference: The omer which is associated with the manna was heavenly food, whereas the omer brought as an offering was brought from barley, food which as far as the Talmud is concerned is fit for animals. Only one other offering is made of barley: the sotah offering, brought by a woman who is suspected of infidelity.
All other meal-offerings require oil and frankincense, but this requires neither oil nor frankincense. All other meal-offerings consist of wheat, but this consists of barley. The meal-offering of the omer, although consisting of barley, was in the form of groats; but this was in the form of coarse flour. Rabban Gamaliel says: as her actions were the actions of an animal, so her offering [consisted of] animal's fodder. (Talmud Bavli Sotah 14a)
The offering of the sotah is made of barley, of animal feed. The symbolism is blunt and unmistakable: The sin of the sotah stems from that same need for instant gratification that we have seen at the root of an earlier sin. She did not exert her mind, did not distinguish between good and bad. Perhaps because she could not wait for her marriage to be legally dissolved; perhaps she was swept up in a passion that required immediate satisfaction - she acted like an animal and not like a human being. Therefore, the offering she is commanded to bring consists of food fit for an animal.
The sotah ritual continues: The woman is given bitter waters, mixed with the ashes from the floor of the Mishkan:
17. And the kohen shall take holy water in an earthen utensil; and of the dust that is in the floor of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) the kohen shall take, and put it into the water.
This ritual was first16 performed after the sin of the Golden Calf:
And he took the calf which they had made, and burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the People of Israel drink of it. (Shmot 32:20)
The Jewish people were guilty of infidelity with the Golden Calf, and the method through which the nation was purified would become the practice associated with individual cases of infidelity - the sotah ritual.
Like the offering of the sotah, the Korban haOmer is also an offering of barley. Once again, the message is unmistakable: The bread from heaven would end when they arrived in the Land of Israel. Israel is the Promised Land - but it is not paradise.17 Man would once again work the land; bread would come from the sweat of his brow. Man had sinned, and the clock could not be turned back. They were forgiven, but the price would still be paid.18
The omer links Passover with Shavuot, the Festival of Matzot with the holiday on which bread is brought as an offering:
To the next day after the seventh sabbath shall you count fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal offering to God. You shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two tenth measures; they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven; they are the first fruits to God. And you shall offer with the bread seven lambs without blemish of the first year, and one young bull, and two rams; they shall be for a burnt offering to God, with their meal offering, and their drink offerings, an offering made by fire, of sweet savor to God. Then you shall sacrifice one kid of the goats for a sin offering, and two lambs of the first year for a sacrifice of peace offerings. And the Kohen shall wave them with the bread of the first fruits for a wave offering before God with the two lambs; they shall be holy to God for the Kohen. And you shall proclaim on the same day, that it may be a holy gathering to you; you shall do no labor in it; it shall be a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations. And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not make clean riddance up to the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning of your harvest; you shall leave them to the poor, and to the stranger; I am the Lord your God. (Vayikra 23:16-22)
Through all of what we have seen thus far, we are able to track two branches of possibility, two paths that lead to the Land of Israel. The first path, the intended path, leads the people from matzah, through manna, culminating in lechem, the bread brought as an offering at the end of the process. Matzah is bread devoid of leaven - devoid of the Evil Inclination. Matza is a vehicle which leads to the next stage - the stage of heavenly sustenance, bread from heaven. This stage represents the healing of the sin of Eden, eating from the Tree of Knowlege, and a return to an Eden like-existence, in which sustenance is provided directly by God. At this stage, when the Jewish People attain this level of spiritual health and fortitude, they can approach Sinai and accept the Torah - the Tree of Life. Only after being armed with the insight and spiritual strength of Torah could they once again return to human sustenance - to leavened bread, to the challenge of facing the Evil Inclination. Only thus prepared can humanity defeat evil; only the knowledge imparted to us in the Torah enables us to withstand the confusion of good and evil that is embodied in the Tree of Knowledge.
But this was not the path that was travelled by the Jewish People on their way to the Promised Land; something went terribly wrong. By the time Moshe came down the mountain with the Torah the people had sinned terribly. Once again, they chose instant gratification. Once again, they could not wait; Moshe had tarried, and was replaced. The people were unfaithful: they "cheated on God." and Moshe instituted the same ritual used in the case of a woman suspected of infidelity.
Which brings us to our Parsha: The link between Pesach and Shavuot remains; the path between matzah and bread is not the path originally intended, but the progression is unmistakable. Something has changed19: the omer no longer refers to bread from heaven, as with the manna. Now it refers to animal food - the offering of the sotah. The People of Israel were unfaithful to God and man: They created a graven image of a calf, and they rejected Moshe as their leader. Everything had changed: through their infidelity, they altered the course of history: Animal food replaces heavenly bread, and Moshe will not join them as they enter the Promised Land. Once again, they will have to work the land; once again, paradise is lost.
But even now, God does not abandon them. He gives them another mitzvah - an active measure which will purify,20 and teach them patience. They are instructed to count: Count the days, count the weeks, count until the next holiday arrives. Seven full and complete weeks of waiting, of anticipating, of contemplating must transpire. Only then can we once again bring an offering of the first fruits. Only then will we have learned to combat our desire for immediate gratification. Only then are we healed from the sin of eating that very first fruit. This is also the point at which we can receive the Torah, and, armed with the ultimate weapon against the Evil Inclination, begin to use bread.
The Korban HaOmer serves as a reminder of our baser instincts, of our tendency to impatience, of our desire for immediate gratification which leads us to infidelity. The counting of the Omer, this unique period of introspection and preparation, reminds us that God has given us all the tools necessary to overcome the obstacles of doubt and spiritual immaturity. We need only partake of the Tree of Life, and the wisdom of Torah will enable us to regain the paradise which God always intended for us to enjoy.
1. Lest we think that the counting of the omer commemorates the days between leaving Egypt and the receiving the Torah, this opinion is not reflected in the Biblical narrative, which very specifically describes the counting as reflecting an agricultural phenomenon. On a midrashic level one may posit that perhaps the Jews did count between leaving Egypt and standing at Sinai. The Ra"n, in his comments to the Ri"f at the end of Pesachim, labels such a view as midrash, which he insists does not reflect halachic reality. The context of this discussion regards the level and nature of our obligation to count today, when we do not have the Beit Hamikdash and cannot bring the required offerings: Is the counting a rabbinic ordinance, or still a Torah-mandated commandment? The Ri"f posits that in present conditions, the counting is rabbinically mandated, instituted in order to retain and maintain our memory of the practice during Temple times. The claim that counting today commemorates the self-motivated counting of the Jews in the desert as they anticipated their arrival at Mount Sinai is described by the Ra"n as "only midrash."
2. For more on the connection between Shavuot and receiving the Torah see my book Emanations.
3. The first reference in the Torah to Shavuot, calls the day Chag Hakazir, the Holiday of the Harvest. See Shmot 23:16. But no date is given!
4. See Ramban Vayikra 23:37.
5. See the comments of Rashi to Talmud Bavli 17a.
6. Bereishit 2:17.
7. Sefer Be'er Mayim Chayim, Parshat Noach chapter 11.
8. See Rav Zadok of Lublin, Takanat Hashavim section 15.
9. See Shem MiShmuel, Vayechi 5672.
10. See comments of the Sfat Emet Berishit Liquitim.
11. See Hemdat Hayamim Pesach chapter 6.
12. See Tiferet Shlomo Moadim, Shabbat Hagadol.
13. See Rav Zaddok Pri Tzadik Essay on eating section 10, who writes that eating Matzah during Pesach sanctifies our eating throughout the year, and therefore counteracts the seductive forces of the Evil Inclination.
14. Rebbe Nachman explains the Tikun somewhat differently. See Liqutei Halachot Hilchot Netilat Yadayim Shacharit, laws 2 and 5.
15. Rav Moshe of Cordovero, in the Pardes Rimonim, opines that the word chita (wheat) and the word chet (sin) are the same.
16. According to the Zohar, (3:124b) the bitter waters that the people drank at Marah were intended to test the fidelity of each and every Israelite after their slave experience, to purify the community, one household at a time, from the corruption and immorality often engendered by slavery. R. Eleazar adduced here the verse: "And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter.... There he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he prove them" (Ex. 15:23-25). 'I wonder,' he said, 'how it is that people take so little trouble to understand the words of the Torah. Here, for example, one should really inquire what is the point of the words "There he made for them ... and there he proved them." But the inward significance of the water mentioned here is this. The Egyptians claimed to be the parents of the children of Israel, and many among the Israelites suspected their wives in the matter. So the Holy One, blessed be He, brought them to that place, where He desired to put them to the test. Thus when Moshe cried to God he was told: Write down the Divine Name, cast it into the water, and let all of them, women and men, be tested, so that no evil report should remain in regard to My children; and until they all be probed I will not cause My Name to rest upon them. Straightway God shewed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters," the tree being thus identical with the Divine Name the kohen has to write for the testing of the wife of an Israelite. Thus "There he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them. Now it may be asked: This was properly done for the women, but why include the men? But, indeed, the men also had to be probed to show that they had not contaminated themselves with Egyptian women, in the same way as the women had to be probed to show that they had kept themselves uncontaminated by Egyptian men, all the time they were among them. And all, male and female, were proved to be pure, were found to be the seed of Israel, holy and pure.
17. Had Moshe entered the Land of Israel, it would have been transformed to Paradise and the Messianic Age would have begun.
18. The Megaleh Amukot writes that the reason Moshe wished to enter Israel, was to reopen access to the Tree of Life.
19. See the comments of the Meshech Chochmah to Shmot 23:16, citing a tradition of the Vilna Gaon that the sin of the Golden Calf impacted on the holiday called "Sukkot." He claims the nature of the holiday was transformed after the sin.
20. In the Torah, counting is most often associated with a process of purity. A tradition exist that the counting reflects the 49 levels of impurity that the Jews had sunken to in Egypt; this approach is found exclusively in post-16th century sources, originating with the Ariza"l, most probably based on a teaching found in the Zohar 3:97a-b, which connects the seven weeks with the seven days of purification before a women would enter a mikva.