Omer: Kabbalah of the Defective

May 7, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Posted in Counting the Omer | 1 Comment

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”).

עמר

omer

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.

Omer: Breaking Through

April 30, 2013 at 10:57 am | Posted in Counting the Omer | Leave a comment

This week in the annual cycle of Torah portions, we study Behar/Bechukotai, the last two portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. For some of my thoughts about Behar, click Three on Behar. You can also read my post on Bechukotai.

This week in the Kabbalistic counting of the omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, we are counting through seven permutations of the sefirah Yesod (“foundation”). In next week’s post I’ll write about the closing prayer in the omer service, with its amazing attitude toward the sefirot (the plural of sefirah). Today, I’ll just repeat that the word  sefirah comes from the same root as sofeir = counting, and the ten sefirot in Kabbalah are categories of God’s creative power, or forces ruling the universe and the human soul. The seven weeks of the omer count are linked with the seven lower sefirot, the divine forces we can experience directly.

But before the closing prayer of the traditional omer service, we read or sing a mysterious poem, Ana Bekho-ach.

עמר

omer

In my last few posts about counting the omer, I said that Ana Bekho-ach was written by Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah, a Kabbalist who lived in the first century C.E. But as I did more research on the poem, I learned that it was merely attributed to Rabbi Nechunya, just as The  Zohar, a major multi-volume work of Kabbalah, was attributed to 2nd-century Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai but actually written by 13th-century Rabbi Moshe de Leon. Until modern times, Kabbalists seemed to feel that texts carried more authority if they were attributed to respected rabbis from Talmudic times and before.

Alas, we still do not know who wrote the poem Ana Bekho-ach, though scholars speculate it was written as liturgy in Palestine in the Middle Ages. Neither do we know whether the anonymous author intended any of the Kabbalistic meanings that have been attached to the poem. Ana Bekho-ach might have been a psalm of supplication, written by a poet who simply enjoyed the challenge of writing in the form of seven lines, each line containing exactly six Hebrew words (making a total of 42 words). But in Lurianic Kabbalah, the number 42 is, if possible, even more exciting than the number 7.

Kabbalah took a new turn in the 16th centery through the disciples of Isaac (Yitzchak ben Shlomo) Luria, who taught in Sfat. Lurianic Kabbalah focuses on repairing the breach between God and creation, raising the divine sparks in our world to join the ultimate divine light. The first prayer in the traditional omer service sets the intention of using this service, both its prayers and its counting, to unify God Itself with the shekhinah, the divine presence in our world. (For more on this, see my post Counting 49.) The closing prayer of the omer  service also frames counting the omer in terms of the repair and unification of the divine. How can we help with this transformation, besides praying for it? Luria taught that one path toward unification is meditation on various permutations of the names of God.

The Talmud mentions a secret 42-letter name of God (Kiddushin 71a). So how could a Kabbalist resist reading mystical meanings into the poem Ana Bekho-ach, which has not only seven lines that might reflect the seven lower sefirot, but also a total of 42 words, which might correspond to the 42-letter name of God? The idea that a secret 42-letter name of God is expressed by the initial letters of the 42 words of Ana Bekho-ach is so irresistable, that after we read or sing this poem in the omer service, we whisper the same sentence that we whisper after the Shema prayer, which names God. An English translation of this whispered sentence is: Blessed is the name of the glory of Its kingdom forever and ever.

Most English translations of Ana Bekho-ach go beyond the literal level to bring out a poetic meaning that expresses the insights of the translator. Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate! Here is my attempt at the most literal translation I can manage using English vocabulary and grammar, with no effort to use six words per line or to capture an insight. (I’ll get to the insight later.)

1. Please, with the great strength of Your right [hand], may You break tzerurah.

     tzerurah = what is bound, tied up (from the same root as words for bundle, narrow straits, and distress).

2. Accept the singing-out of Your people; protect us, purify us, Nora (Awesome One).

3. Please, Gibor (Strong Champion), guard those who seek union with You, like the pupil of an eye.

4. Bless them, purify them, be compassionate to them; continually gemol then with Your tzedakah.

     gemol = wean, reward, ripen. The Hebrew Bible views weaning as a celebration of the child’s new maturity. Perhaps giving a child solid food was seen as a reward.

     tzedakah = righteousness,  justice that goes beyond the letter of the law.

5. Chasin (Mighty One) , with Your abundant goodness, guide Your congregation.

6. Yachid (Only One) who is gei-eh, turn Your face toward Your people, those who remember Your holiness.

     gei-eh = proud, haughty, aware of high status

7. Accept our call for help and listen to our outcry, Yodei-a Ta-alumot (Knower of Secrets).

One peculiarity of this poem is that it uses none of the usual names for God. Instead, it refers to several aspects of the divine: Awesome One, Strong Champion, Mighty One, Only One, and Knower of Secrets.

Whatever mystical meaning it may or may not hold, the poem Ana Beko-ach is certainly a supplication for God to pay attention to us and help us. What kind of help are we pleading for? It depends on the interpretation. Here is mine:

—I think that in line #1, we implore God to break whatever constricts us, so we can go free. Sometimes our constrictions, either external or internal, are too strong for us to break through by our own willpower, so we pray for help. This verse addresses God only as “You”; we will take help from any aspect of God, we are so desperate.

—In line #2, we address God as “Awesome One”. We want to be noticed, transformed, and protected, not by a parental figure, but by  the incomprehensible wonder of whatever it is we call God. Or maybe we simply long to be touched by the intangible and ineffable, even if it seems logically impossible.

—In line #3, we beg God to be our bodyguard, and maybe our soul-guard. We pray that God will be our “Champion” and treat us “like the pupil of an eye”. The pupil is an especially precious spot, which anyone would take great care to protect; it is the window of the eye, where light and sight come in. If we are talking about God’s (metaphorical) pupil, we want God to cherish “seeing” us. If we are talking about the pupil of the one who seeks union with God, we long to be enlightened and “see” the divine.

—In line #4, we pray first for gifts that require the grace of God: blessing, and a soul-cleansing purification. Knowing our own faults, we pray for God to view us with compassion. Then the prayer moves up a notch. Although we depend on God for life itself, we do not have to remain infants in every respect. We pray for God to wean us, through thoughtful justice, so we will grow up and find our own sustenance in the world God created. As in line #1, God is addressed simply as “You”, so we are praying for gifts of blessing and maturity from any aspect of God—including God’s creation.

—In line #5, we address God as “Mighty One”, and ask God to use the divine power gently, for goodness and guidance. When we pray fervently to an unknowable god, it is natural to become afraid of the overwhelming power we imagine. Being fallible humans, we long for the things that are good from our perspective, and for guidance in a life full of unknowns.

—In line #6, we beg God to turn toward us, because God seems haughty and aloof. I know I find it hard to maintain a feeling of intimacy with God for more than a moment, since God does not speak to me in audible words, or touch me with tangible hands. God does seem aloof to me, even when I am remembering the divine. The verse also echoes the Hebrew Bible, where God turns Its face toward the people It favors. Do we address God as “Only One” because we only need God’s favor? Or because there is only God in all the universe, and we want to repair the apparent breach between us and the divine? Or because there are no other gods, and we pathetically limited humans are God’s best option for communicating with any being?

—In line #7, we again pray for God to pay attention to us and help us. This time we address God as “Knower of Secrets”, using a word for “secrets” that comes from the same root as the word olam = world, universe, eternity. As the “Knower of Secrets”, God knows all possible worlds, while we only know this world, the world our senses report to us. Yet some sixth sense, perhaps reaching us from the “right brain”, intimates that there are other worlds we do not know. I think it is this sixth sense that leads us to grope for a notion of God. Without it, we would have no religious impulse, no need to pray, no way to ask something beyond ourselves to help us.

The poem Ana Bekoa-ach does not need to contain a mystical 42-letter name of God. It is already all about our longing for union with God. It already implores God to listen to us, and answer us. It already begs God to intervene in our lives, in order to improve our souls, in order to free us so that we can come closer to God.

Omer: Psalm 67 and Lag BeOmer

April 23, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Posted in Counting the Omer | Leave a comment

(If you want my insights on this week’s Torah portion, Emor, click here: Emor posts. If you are counting the omer, or interested in the upcoming holiday of Lag BeOmer, read on.)

עמר

omer

Out of all 150 psalms, why is Psalm 67 the one in the service for counting the omer? The quick answer is that once you remove the first verse (For the conductor, with stringed instruments, a praising song) the song itself  has 7 verses and 49 words in Hebrew. And counting the omer is all about the numbers 7 and 49.

We count the omer (a measure of barley) for 49 days between the holy days of Pesach and Shavuot.  The Torah established the count to mark when to bring grain offerings to the priests. After the second temple in Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E., the omer count has gradually become a spiritual exercise to prepare for celebrating the revelation at Sinai on Shavuot, and for a future transformation of human consciousness.

I explored the first four steps of the omer service in my last two blog posts. Step #5 is Psalm 67, which was written while the Temple was standing, long before any Kabbalah was recorded. The last three steps of the omer-counting procedure of Kabbalah, which is still used in orthodox prayer-books today, are:

#5.  Psalm 67, a 7-verse song with 49 Hebrew words.

#6.  Ana Bekhoach, a 7-line poem written by a Kabbalist in the first century C.E.

#7.  Closing prayer framing the count in terms of Kabbalah, including the 7 lower sefirot. (Sefirot is the plural of sefirah, a word from the same root as sofeir = counting. Sefirot are categories of creative power, or forces ruling the universe and the human soul.) In the middle of this closing prayer, you fill in the blank with the  the sefirah of the day and the sefirah of the week. Over the course of seven days a week for seven weeks, you get 49 different pairings.

According to the Maharshal (16th-century Rabbi Shlomo Luria) the seven verses of Psalm 67  represent the seven lamps of the menorah in the priests’ court of the early sanctuary and the later temple. One tradition in Kabbalah is to write the seven verses of Psalm 67 so they look like the seven branches of the menorah, each branch blossoming into a lamp.

Psalm 67 also corresponds to the seven lower sefirot, which we use in step #7 of the omer-counting service. In my translation below, instead of numbering the verses, I will count them by sefirah. I wish I could also translate  Psalm 67 so that it has 49 words in English, but I’ll go for accuracy instead.

Chessed (=love, kindness): May God grace us and bless us; may It brighten Its face with us. —Selah (a musical instruction)

Gevurah (=strength, discipline): To make known on the earth Your path; among all the nations Your power to rescue.

Tiferet (=beauty, harmony): The peoples will thank You, God; the peoples will thank You, all of them.

Netzach (=long-lasting success): People will be glad, and they will sing out for joy; because You judge peoples on the level, and You comfort people on the earth. —Selah.

Hod (=splendor, majesty): The peoples will thank You, God; the peoples will thank You, all of them.

Yesod (=foundation): Earth gives her harvest; God, our god, blesses us.

Malkhut (=kingship): God will continue to bless us, and all the ends of the earth will be in awe of God.

One standard interpretation of Psalm 67 is that it prays for God to bless the Israelites (later known as Jews), so we can then teach other people about God. The psalm anticipates then then the other peoples will convert and receiove our God’s blessing; and finally all people, to the ends of the earth, will be full of grateful and awe for God. This may well have been the intent of the songwriter, but once a work is published, people are free to discover new meanings in it. And how could a Kabbalist counting the omer resist overlaying the framework of the seven lower sefirot on the seven verses of the psalm?

Does the overlay fit the verses? The first verse prays for God to treat us lovingly, and perhaps for us to return love to God; this is indeed a prayer for Chessed. Traditional commentary adds that the verse asks God to enlighten our minds, so we will have the intellectual ability and knowledge to teach others about God’s way or path in the second verse. Understanding and following God’s path certainly requires mental gevurah, the discipline of focus and attention. In my own experience, teaching also requires focus and attention. Thus the second verse calls for gevurah.

The line “The peoples will thank you, God; the peoples will thank you, all of them” appears twice in Psalm 67, first as tiferet, then as hod. Perhaps the first refrain points out the beautiful harmony of all the peoples, all the nations, united in thanking God. The second refrain points out the splendor of the one being thanked, God the creator.

In between, the netzach verse says people will sing with joy because God is both an honest judge and a comforter—an interesting pair of roles. I have noticed that children desperately want fairness, and need consolation when life does not go their way. Adults recognize that the universe cannot be that straightforward; sometimes people are hurt for no apparent reason. Yet we pray that at least we can achieve something important and long-lasting. We pray for fairness and comfort; but knowing the universe is not fair from our limited perspective, we also pray for netzach. Here, I think the sefirah adds an alternative to the verse, instead of restating it.

I think the netzach verse is a fervent plea, a supplication. Yet the hod verse, a refrain of the line about thanking God, expresses gratitude as if God has already granted our plea. Maybe once we experience the splendor and majesty of God, we can be grateful for any justice, comfort, and success we receive personally as the larger divine plan unfolds. The hod verse may also thank God for what all people receive in the following verse, yesod:  “Earth gives her harvest; God, our god, blesses us.”

When we notice all the gifts of nature, from the food we gather to the air we breathe, then we realize that God is always blessing us by maintaining the yesod, the foundation of our physical lives. In the final verse, the first phrase, “God will continue to bless us’, reflects the sefirah of malkhut both because it views God as the king of our world, ruling and protecting it, and because Kabbalah associates malkhut with the shekhinah, the feminine presence of God dwelling on earth. When all human beings experience the shekhinah, then, in the final phrase of Psalm 67, “all the ends of the earth will be in awe of God”.

At least these are correspondences I see between the seven lower sefirot and the seven verses of Psalm 67. You may see others. Psalm 67 does not appear to be a perfect fit for the  sefirot, but a more advanced Kabbalist may perceive meanings I cannot imagine.

As for me, Psalm 67 speaks to me as a prayer for grace and blessing and knowledge of how to follow a divine path; and as a prediction that someday all human beings will realize they do not run the world, or even their own lives, and all humans will be grateful and awed just to be alive, just for this universe to exist. That is a psalm I can sing or recite with a full heart.

עמר

In one way, the high point of the 49 days of counting the omer is the 50th day, the festival of Shavuot, when we celebrate two gifts from God: our first fruits, and the revelation at Sinai. But among the omer-counting days, the high point is Lag Be-Omer, the day that begins this year at sunset on Sunday, April 28. Lag is not an actual word. The Hebrew letter lamed, pronounced like an “l”, also stands for 30, and the letter gimmel, pronounced like a hard “g”, stands for 3. Add 30+3, and you have the number of the day of Lag Be-Omer, when the sefirot count reaches hod of hod.

The Hebrew Bible uses the word hod when people are dazzled by splendor and magnificence. It refers to God’s hod 12 times, to the hod of a king 7 times, to the hod of a horse twice (horses impressed the Israelites), and once each to the hod of Moses, Daniel, the son in Proverbs, and an exceptional olive tree in Hosea. How can we imagine the hod of hod, the splendor of splendor?

Start by being dazzled—maybe by a flaming, sparking, snapping bonfire on Lag Be-Omer, or maybe by watching water rush over stones as sunlight makes a dazzling pattern of white stars and the water-rock music makes more layers of sound than you can count. Then try to imagine a whole universe of constant change and splendor, all interconnected. This is the universe we are blessed to live in. If only we could remember it more often!

The peoples will thank you, God; the peoples will thank you, all of them.

Omer: Working on a Holy Place

April 15, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Posted in Counting the Omer | Leave a comment

(This is the second post in a series about counting the omer. If you are looking for inspiration about this week’s double Torah portion, you can check out my previous blog posts on Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.)

עמר

omer

Last week I wrote about the Jewish tradition of counting the omer—counting each of the 49 days between Passover/Pesach and the festival of Shavuot. (See my post “Omer: Counting 49”.) Most non-orthodox Jews who count the omer today simply read or recite two sentences (labeled as #2 and #3 below): a blessing for counting the omer, and the evening’s count—the number of days and weeks since the first day of Passover. But that way they miss all the juicy parts of the ritual.

In fact, the prayer service for counting the omer is full of Kabbalistic practices and symbolic meanings. I’ll repeat the orthodox order of the omer-counting service from last week’s post:

#1.  Opening prayer: a) the intention of the omer prayer service, b) Leviticus 23:15-16, and c) a blessing from Psalm 90.

#2.  Blessing for counting the omer.

#3.  Statement of which day it is in the count.

#4.  A one-sentence prayer about restoring the service of hamikdash = the holy place (usually translated as “the Temple”).

#5.  Psalm 67, which has 49 words.

#6.  Ana Bekhoach, a 7-line poem of supplication written by Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah, a Kabbalist who lived in the first century C.E.

#7.  Closing prayer framing the count in terms of Kabbalah, including the 7 lower sefirot. (Sefirot is the plural of sefirah, a word from the same root as sofeir = counting. Sefirot are categories of creative power, or forces ruling the universe and the human soul.) In the middle of this closing prayer, you fill in the blank with the  the sefirah of the day and the sefirah of the week. Over the course of seven days a week for seven weeks, you get 49 different pairings.

Last week, I wrote about the first sentence, a breathtaking declaration from Kabbalah that this omer prayer service is for the sake of changing reality and uniting God. I also wrote about the quote from Leviticus in the middle of the first prayer, which tells us to bring the priests an omer-measure of barley on the second day of Pesach/Passover (day one of the omer count), count 49 days, then bring a new grain offering (wheat bread) on day 50.

The first prayer of the omer service concludes with a three-line sentence from Psalm 90:

May the no-am of the lord our God be upon us,

And the work of our hands konenah upon us,

And the work of our hands, konenah it. (Psalm 90:17)

no-am = pleasantness, delight, sweetness

konenah = establish, firmly found, build to endure

This is a good blessing to recite before any serious undertaking—and medieval Kabbalists considered counting the omer a serious undertaking. The blessing carries additional meaning within the context of Psalm 90. The theme of that psalm is that although God is permanent, humans are ephemeral. What can we hope for, when our lives are so fleeting? The answer lies the psalm’s conclusion, translated above. We pray that we will enjoy whatever gifts we receive from God, and that the works we create will endure for generations after us.

The “work of our hands” includes everything we make, in every field of endeavor. (For example, this blog is one of the works of my hands.) The word konenah is commonly used in the Torah for solid buildings, edifices that will stand for a long time. Malbim (the 19th-century rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michael Wisser) wrote that doing  mitzvot (ethical and religious behaviors required in the Torah) also counts as the work of our hands. The habit of doing mitzvot adds depth to a human’s personality, he said, so establishing that practice counts as establishing a solid edifice.

Other traditional commentators have written that Psalm 90 is speaking about the “work of our hands” in making the portable sanctuary in the Torah, and building the temple in Jerusalem.  We pray at the end of Psalm 90 for God to confirm the holiness of the Temple we built, and strengthen it so it will last.

Both the first and the second temples in Jerusalem lasted for centuries. But when the second temple fell to the Romans in 70 C.E., Jews were left with only the temple mount and the remains of the western wall. Since then, we have built synagogues and study houses all over the world, and have turned our own homes into places of prayer. I believe these are all holy places, and the “work of our hands”, our intentional creative actions, make them holy. But does a house of prayer or study count as a “house of the mikdash” ?

That phrase appears in step #4 of the omer service. Step #1 is the opening prayer, which ends with the blessing for the work of our hands from Psalm 90. Step #2 is the blessing for counting the omer: Blessed are you, God, our god, king of the universe, who has made us holy with Its commandments, and commanded us regarding the counting of the omer. Step #3 is the actual count of the day. Then comes step #4:

May the Compassionate One return for us the service of the house of the mikdash to its place, in a hurry, in our days. Amen, Selah.

mikdash = holy place, abode of holiness, sanctuary, holy precinct

In this prayer after the omer count, “the house of the mikdash” is usually translated as “the Temple”. Even during the first century C.E., the century after the fall of the second temple, praying for a third temple and the restoration of the service of priests was a political statement. Some sects thought the priests had wielded too much power, and these Jews did not want a return to the old status quo.

Today, I am one of many Jews who feels an aversion to praying for God to restore the service of the Temple. I certainly do not want the mosque that currently crowns the temple mount to be torn down and replaced with a Jewish building. I do not want a return to a hereditary priesthood running things. And I do not want a return to worship through slaughtering animals as offerings; I believe it is far better to serve God through prayers and good deeds, as we have been doing for the last two thousand years.

So some evenings when I am counting the omer, I skip this prayer. Other evenings, I recite it in Hebrew, but my inner English translation is different:

May the One of compassion return us to service in the places where holiness dwells, now, every day. Amen, Selah.

God may be everywhere, but we only notice the divine at certain times and in certain places. The Hebrew Bible asks people to pay attention to the divine on Shabbat and festival days, and at the Temple where God dwelled. Now, I believe, the divine dwells wherever humans recognize holiness. Sometimes the holiness of a place strikes us suddenly. More often, we make an effort to create a holy space, by arranging what we see and hear there, and then going there to pray and to engage in rituals. Thus holy places are the work of our hands—in Moses’ time, in Temple times, and to the present day.

May the delight of our God be upon us,

And make the work of our hands an enduring foundation for us,

And the work of our hands, may it endure.

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Omer: Counting 49

April 10, 2013 at 9:43 am | Posted in Counting the Omer, Emor | 2 Comments

I have been counting the omer every evening for two weeks now, and we have five more weeks to go. The omer count begins on the second day of Passover and goes on for 49 days. On the 50th day, we celebrate the holy day of Shavuot (“Weeks”).

Barley sheaf

In the Torah, the priest waves a sheaf of barley each day for 49 days. But after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the omer-counting became a prayer service, and acquired new  meanings. This is the first of several posts I am writing about the fascinating prayers from Kabbalah that come  before and after the daily count in orthodox Jewish prayers.

But first, what does “counting the omer” mean?

The Hebrew word omer first appears in the book of Exodus/Shemot (in the Torah portion  Beshallach), as a measure for manna; one omer of manna feeds one person for one day.

The word omer does not show up again until Leviticus/Vayikra, in the Torah portion Emor. The Torah sets the time for the Festival of Matzah, i.e. Passover, then gives instructions for the next day:

…then you shall bring an omer of the first of your harvest to the priest. And he will wave the omer before God so you will be acceptable; [starting] from the day after the rest-day the priest will wave them. (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:10-11)

And you shall count for yourselves, from the day after the rest-day, from the day you bring an omer of the waving, seven tamim weeks. Until the day after the rest-day of the seventh [week] you shall count [to] the 50th day; then you shall bring close a new grain-offering to God. (Leviticus 23:15-16)

omer (עֺמֶר) = a measure for barley.  

tamim (תָּמִים) = whole, entire, intact, unblemished, blameless, sincere.

When the word tamim refers to a sacrificial animal, it means blemish-free. When it describes a human being, it can mean either that the person’s body is unblemished, or that the person is innocent, blameless, honest. So I think the text in the Torah itself invites us not merely to count the days for seven weeks, but to make the days count—by checking for blemishes in our souls.

The culmination of the 49 days of counting is Shavuot, the 50th day. Until the fall of the second temple, Shavuot was a harvest festival. People brought their “new grain-offering” of two loaves of wheat bread to the temple, along with the first fruits from seven kinds of plants (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates).

After the fall of the temple, the rabbis soon found a new meaning for Shavuot, deciding that it marked the anniversary of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. So for the last 2,000 years, the 49-day count has been linked with preparing, day by day, to be worthy of receiving the divine revelation of Sinai.

Naturally, rabbis over the millennia have enriched counting the omer with other prayers that have a count of  7 or 49. The orthodox omer-counting procedure as it stands today follows this order:

#1.  Opening prayer: a) a sentence declaring the intention of the omer prayer service, b) Leviticus 23:15-16 (translated above), and c) a blessing from Psalm 90.

#2.  Blessing for counting the omer.

#3.  Statement of which day it is in the count.

#4.  A one-sentence prayer about restoring the service of hamikdash = the holy place (usually translated as “the Temple”).

#5.  Psalm 67, which has 49 words.

#6.  Ana Bekhoach, a 7-line poem of supplication written by Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah, a Kabbalist who lived in the first century C.E.

#7.  Closing prayer framing the count in terms of Kabbalah, including the 7 lower sefirot. (Sefirot is the plural of sefirah, a word from the same root as sofeir = counting. Sefirot area categories of creative power, or forces ruling the universe and the human soul.) In the middle of this closing prayer, you fill in the blank with the  the sefirah of the day and the sefirah of the week. Over the course of seven weeks, you get 49 different pairings.

Most non-orthodox Jews who count the omer today simply read or recite two sentences, labeled as #2 and #3 above. That way they get it done quickly—and miss all the juicy parts. Some people, especially in Jewish Renewal, go on to consider the essence of #7, and try to find a personal meaning in the pair of sefirot for the day. There are many books and blogs about what each of the 49 sefirot pairs might mean.

My posts will look instead at the often overlooked prayers in the omer-counting procedure: numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 in the list above.  This week, let’s zoom in on just the first prayer in number 1:

For the sake of the unification of the Holy One, blessed is He, and His shekhinah, in fear and love to unify the name Yud Heh with Vav Heh, in complete unity, in the name of all Israel.

shekhinah (שְׁכִננָה) = the indwelling presence of God in our universe (literally, the feminine form of “dweller”)

This opening prayer sets the intention of the rest of the omer-counting prayer service. We are not just counting the days; we are doing spiritual work that helps to change the nature of reality.

This introduction was written (in Aramaic) by the disciples of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Luria taught from 1569 to 1572 in Sfat, a town full of Kabbalists about 80 miles north of Jerusalem. In those three years before his death, he founded a major branch of Kabbalah. One of the core Lurianic ideas is that in order to create our universe, God first withdrew a measure of divine “light” to make space, then created ten sefirot, ten forces of creative power, which Luria saw as vessels for the divine light. The first three vessels, the three upper sefirot, could contain the light  poured into them. But the next six vessels shattered. The tenth and the lowest sefirah, Malkhut, cracked.

After the “shattering of the vessels”, the rest of the creation of the universe proceeded differently from God’s original plan, and included evil as well as good. Yet everything in our universe contains a spark of divine light. And human beings have the ability, through good deeds and prayers, to “raise the sparks” and repair the universe. Therefore the Lurianic Kabbalists preceded many prayers with the sentence above, to remind the person praying that the purpose of the prayer service is to unify God Itself with the shekhinah, the divine presence in our world. According to Kabbalah, the shekhinah is in the sefirah of Malkhut, the lowest one, the one closest to our daily physical life on earth. So uniting the Holy One with the shekhinah is also uniting the upper three sefirot with the lower seven  sefirot, and it also uniting the first two letters of God’s most holy Name, yud and heh, with the last two letters of the Name, vav and heh.

Every evening, during the 49 days of counting the omer, when I recite that intention to unify God with my prayers, I feel hollow with awe inside. What nerve! How could anything I do affect God, reality, the nature of being? And anyway, I’m not much of a mystic compared with most of my Jewish Renewal friends. I find the images of Kabbalah powerful, and they feel significant; but my rational mind does not believe any of this stuff.

And yet … if I pray for the sake of the unification of the Creating and the creation…if I pray for the sake of making whole the holiness I glimpse in the world…then maybe this little ritual of counting the omer  has a deeper meaning than I think. Maybe everything I do, everything each of us does, has a deeper meaning than we think.

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