Omer: Kabbalah of the Defective

In the cycle of Torah readings, this week we study the first Torah portion of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. For my thoughts on that portion, read my earlier posts at: Three Posts on Bemidbar.

In the cycle of counting the 49 days of the omer, we begin the seventh and final week on Tuesday night. This is also the final week of my series of posts on the omer service, the prayers before and after the count. Next week, I’ll return to the Torah again, with a new post on the Torah portion Naso (“Lift”).



The closing prayer of the omer service starts out:

Master of the universe, You commanded us through your servant Moses to count the counting of the omer, in order to purify us from our klipot and from our impurities …

klipot = outer coverings (including shells, rinds, tree barks)

The word klipot in the first sentence of this prayer plunges us into Lurianic Kabbalah. In the 1570’s Rabbi Isaac Luria taught what became a core myth of Kabbalah: the mystical account of the Shevirat HaKelim (Shattering of the Vessels). The first part of the myth comes from Luria’s teacher, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero:

Before time, before space, there is nothing but the Ein Sof (“Without End”, or God). The Ein Sof is continually making a tzimtzum (contraction) to make space for the physical universe. In order to create the universe in this space, the Ein Sof emanates the ten sefirot. (Sefirot is the plural of  the noun sefirah, which comes from the same root as sofeir = counting and  sefer=book. The ten sefirot in Kabbalah are categories of God’s creative power, or forces ruling the universe and the human soul.) The sefirot channel the overpowering shefa (flow of divine energy) and step down the power to levels that the created universe can tolerate.

Luria continued the story this way:

Each of the ten sefirot was channeled through its own kli (vessel) which contained its divine “light” (a metaphor for the divine flow of energy). The three upper sefirot (keter=crown, chokhma=wisdom, and binah=insight) were able to contain the divine “light”.  The next six  sefirot shattered into klipot, shells, shards of the original vessels. The bottom sefirah, malkhut (kingship and God’s presence in our world) cracked and became a leaky container for its divine ‘light’.

Some of the ‘light’ that was in the broken vessels stuck to the klipot and brought them to life. Everything in our world (according to Luria) contains both klipot and divine “light”. The  klipot are the source of evil, because they conceal the divine “sparks” inside them. But God created the universe with the Shattering of the Vessels on purpose. Human beings can redeem the whole universe by releasing the “sparks”, so all the divine “light” will again be one. We can release the sparks and contribute to the reunification of God by performing mitzvot: God’s commandments, both those written in the Torah and those discerned later by holy rabbis.

One way to raise the sparks is to do the mitzvot that help our fellow human beings. But for Lurianic Kabbalists, it is just as important to carry out instructions in the Torah that appear to have lost their practical application–such as counting the omer. These acts also help to redeem the universe, according to Luria, especially if they are done with that intention. Lurianic prayers have been added to many parts of Jewish liturgy, but the omer service is entirely based on Kabbalah (except for quoting the original instruction from Leviticus/Vayikra).  The seven weeks of the omer count are linked with the seven lower sefirot, the divine forces that need to be repaired. The service opens with that statement that we count the omer “for the sake of the unification of the Holy One” (see my first post on the omer service, Counting 49 ). And it closes with the prayer that begins: Master of the universe, You commanded us through Your servant Moses to count the counting of the omer, in order to purify us from our klipot and from our impurities …

The prayer continues …as You have written in Your Torah, and then quotes Leviticus/Vayikra 23:15-16, which merely mandates the 49-day count, and has nothing to do with purifying anybody. After that, the prayer returns to a Lurianic point of view:

So that they will be purified, the nafshot of Your people Israel, from their contamination. Therefore may it be the will of Your presence, God, our god and god of our fathers, that from the merit of the counting of the omer that I have counted today, whatever defect I have caused in the sefirah _______ of _______ be straightened out. And may I be purified and may I be made holy with the holiness of Above, and through this, may there flow an abundant flow [of divine energy] in all the worlds. And may it straighten out our nafshot, our ruchot, and our nishmot, from every sediment and defect, to purify us and to make us holy with Your holiness, the Most High. Amen, Selah.

nafshot = plural of nefesh, the level of soul that animates the body and its actions (according to Kabbalah)

ruchot = plural of ruach, the level of soul that is seized by emotion or moved by the spirit of God (according to Kabbalah)

nishmot = plural of neshama, the level of soul with the most divine “light” that is still uniquely individual (according to Kabbalah)

The two blanks in that prayer are filled in with a different pair of sefirot on each of the 49 days of the count.  First comes the sefirah of the day, then the sefirah of the week. For example, Monday night began the seventh day of the sixth week. Out of the seven lower sefirot, the seventh is Malkhut  and the sixth is Yesod, so the count was Malkhut of Yesod. Only the seven lower sefirot are used, because they are the ones damaged by the Shattering of the Vessels.

I translated the names of the seven lower sefirot in my earlier omer post on Psalm 67. This final week of the omer count is the week of Malkhut, and the last day, the day before the festival of Shavuot, will be Malkhut of Malkhut. Malkhut means “kingdom”, and in the Kabbalistic scheme it is the last sefirah to receive the flow of divine “light” or energy or creative power. If God is the king, then God’s kingdom is our world, our universe. Thanks to the sefirah of Malkhut, our world is infused with a non-shattering amount of divinity. We can tolerate the reduced divine energy, and sometimes we can sense the indwelling presence of God, the Shekhinah.

When we finish the omer count with Malkhut of Malkhut, we reach the most physical of the physical, and God is still there. That’s when we are ready to receive the revelation at Sinai, which we celebrate on Shavuot, the 50th day.

It’s a lovely symbolic system. But when I say the words of the opening and closing prayers of the omer service, I can’t throw my whole heart into them. I can see that something is seriously broken in our world, and I can see that every time an individual human does a mitzvah that is good deed, an act of kindness, it helps to repair the breakage. But I do not believe that counting the omer has any effect on the nature of God and reality. At best, the practice might help to turn you into the kind of person who is always thinking about God and about repairing what is broken.

Ah, but I would like to be that kind of person. Maybe that is why I am counting the omer again this year, and saying the traditional Kabbalistic prayers before and after the count.

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