Metaphorical Significance of Lag BaOmer

According to tradition, the 33rd day of the Omer commemorates the death of Shimon Bar Yochai and/or the end of a plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Aqiva’s students. However, I would like to suggest another reason for this day of celebration.

As I explained in a previous blog, the Passover offering referred to in the Torah as a Pesach la-haShem metaphorically signifies the act of taking a leap to G-d’s bringing forth of experience. The day after the first seder, we begin counting the Omer for 49 days culminating in Shavuot on the 50th day. Based on the essential meaning of the Semitic root, the counting of the Omer metaphorically represents an oral recounting of the inundation of experience that occurs after having made the leap. It is likely that this inundation (עמר) of experience will feel overwhelming. For this reason, I believe, that the Omer is considered a time of mourning. But is there a metaphorical reason for ceasing this period of mourning on the thirty third day?

Every Hebrew word is made up of a consonantal root. Although most roots are made up of three consonants, there are some Semitic roots made up of one, two or four consonants. For example the word PeH (פה), meaning mouth, is considered a root of one consonant because the final letter Heh (ה) doesn’t make a sound and is simply a place holder. The Hebrew word for hand, YaD (יד), is made up of a two letter root. During the evolution of the Semitic languages new words were created by expanding or modifying roots. For example, the verb YaDaH (ידה), meaning to point out or acknowledge, was formed by expanding the two letter root word for hand (YaD – יד) and adding a vowel and a final letter Heh. Some later time, that root evolved both in form and semantically into the verb YaDa\ (ידע), meaning to know.

The words for Semitic numbers were similarly derived from other roots. Therefore, in addition to its numeric value, each word describing a number also has a more fundamental meaning reflecting its etymology. Consider the Hebrew word for five, ChaMaeSh (חמש). Although the first two letters in its root are Chaet-Mem, it is not etymologically related to the words ChaM (hot – חם), ChaeMaH (anger – חמה), ChaMaS (violent/belligerent – חמס, ChaMaTs (violent/leaven – חמץ), ChaMaD (desire –חמד, or ChaMaL (passion / compassion – חמל). Those words are etymologically related to one another and to the idea of heat. In other Semitic languages, the cognates of those words begin with the softer sounding Chaet, the voiceless pharyngeal fricative identical to the softer Mizrachi chet. On the other hand, the chaet found in the cognates of ChaMaeSh (חמש) is the harder, voiceless velar fricative. This word has nothing to do with the idea of heat. Instead it was formed by adding a chaet to the verb MooSh (מוש), meaning to grope and feel. But the word ChaMaeSh (five – חמש) doesn’t mean groper or feeler, it simply means five, albeit the number of fingers found on one’s groper or feeler, one’s hand. Nevertheless, the Israelites were described as leaving Mitsraim, Chamushim (חמושים) armed, or perhaps to be consistent with the metaphor, weapons in hand or handed. So the metaphor for ChaMaeSh (חמש) is the ability to handle an event. Shavuot (שבעות), which occurs on the 50th day after the counting of the Omer, is the handling of, the fulfillment of, the satisfaction (S’vae’oot – שבעות) of the inundation of experience, the Omer, that occurs as a consequence of one’s making the Pesach la-haShem, the leap to G-d’s bringing forth of experience.

Below is a list of the Hebrew numbers from one to ten, corresponding with the words from which they derive. Note that the Semitic languages have a fairly large number of letters described as hissing, S-like sounds (sibilants). In Sabaic, three different phonemes are described as S1, S2, and S3 roughly corresponding to the phonemes represented separately by the Hebrew letters Shin, Sin and Samech. To make matters even more complicated, as the languages evolved there was some fluidity between these sounds (and even with the fricative (th) and plosive (t) phonemes associated with them). For example, the two roots Sava\ and Shava\ (שבע), one with a shin and the other with a sin, are not etymologically related. The one utilizing the Hebrew letter sin roughly means full, satiated and bloated (bubbling). Nevertheless, the word for the number seven, Sheva\ (שבע) is etymologically related to it, but begins with a shin. On the other hand, the words ShaM (there – שם) and ShaeM (name – שם) begin with the letter shin, even though they are etymologically related to the verb SiyM (to place – שים) which begins with the letter sin. Additionally, the phonemic fluidity between a sibilant and its fricative and plosive sounds can be seen in the cognates of ShaLoSh (three – שלש) where in Ugaritic and Arabic it is Th.L.Th., in Syriac T.LT., and Sh.L.Sh. in Akkadian. The fluidity between the various S-like sounds and theןr corresponding voiced consonant (z), fricatives (th/dh)(in Arabic, Sabaic, & Ugaritic), plosives (t / d), and emphatics (ט / צ) can be shown in the variations between languages and within individual languages. For example, in Hebrew the roots ShaLaH (שלה), SaLaH (סלה), TaLaH (תלה), ZaLaH (זלה), DaLaH (דלה), TsaLaH (צלה) and T^aLaH (טלה) (and many of the words derived from them) all essentially mean to be lax, hang, hang off from, suspend, drag, draw up, lift up and toss – all semantically related concepts.

#

from

Verb’s (or noun’s) meaning

Number,s meaning

one

EChaD

אחד

חדד

sharpen

(single) sharpened point

two

Sh’NaiM

שנים

שנה

Repeat

Repetition

three

ShaLoSh

שלוש

שלה

Dangle / suspend (שלה –> שלש)

(?hold with 3 fingers); suspend / completion / suspense

four

ARBa\

ארבע

רבע

lie down, spread out, make square

Spread out in all directions; flooding / inundating

five

ChaMaeSh

חמש

מוש

feel, grope, grab

Grabbing / handling

six

ShaeSh

שש

נשה

carry, draw out

Carry over (to the next hand)

seven

Sheva\

שבע

שבע

be satiated, satisfied, bloated

Full / satisfied

? Regarding a full week

eight

Sh’MoNeh

שמונה

שמן

Oil, distributing / spreading out

(from מנה distribute evenly)

Distributing of 8 fingers of hands together (w/o thumbs)

nine

TaeSha\

תשע

שעה

To linger / dwell upon > lean upon (שעה –> שען)

Lingering upon / leaning toward ten

Ten

\eSeR

עשר

עשר

To be rich / wealthy

All ten fingers = rich / wealthy

* for etymological purposes, the masculine and feminine forms are mixed

According to the chart, the word Shalosh (שלוש), the Hebrew for the number three, signifies the suspending or completion of something. This is not only my view. In his essay, Rabbi Yossi Marcus states, “According to Jewish law, once something is done three times it is considered a permanent thing. This is called a “chazakah.”” Upon awakening and before eating, observant Jews wash their hands, ridding themselves of ritual impurities, by pouring water over each hand three times. Similarly, when going to the Miqveh, a suspending of ritual impurity is achieved by immersing three times. On Yom Kippur, vows and oaths are annulled by reciting the Qol Nidre prayer three times. There is a tradition of preventing evil by spitting three times. Atonement is achieved through the ritual of kapparot by waving either a chicken or a bag of money over one’s head three times and then reciting a prayer three times. In Judaism, usually a prayer is said and then a commandment is performed. Since the saying of the blessing for the lighting of the shabbat candles initiates the shabbat, it would not be possible to then light the candles without violating the shabbat prohibition of lighting a fire. Instead, a person lights the candles first, closes the eyes and then waves over the flame three times, thus suspending the act as if to say that it had not yet occurred. Then the blessing is said, the eyes are opened, and voila, the candles are now lit after the blessing was said. On Saturday night, shabbat is suspended when one sees three stars in the sky. A convert is turned away three times in an attempt to suspend a less than wholehearted desire to convert to Judaism. Perhaps the challah should be said to be suspended three times into the salt, rather than dipped. And perhaps the lulav should be said to be suspended three times in each direction, rather than shaken. From the Torah, the fruit of a tree in the land of Israel is considered orlah, inaccessible, for the first three years. The fruit can then be sanctified to haShem in the fourth year. But the fruit cannot be eaten until the fifth year (חמישית), when it can be handled for personal consumption. Also an Israelite woman who bares a son must avoid coming in contact with a holy thing and may not enter the sanctuary until she has completed the 33 days of her purification, when her impurity has been suspended. Finally, the mourning period of the Omer is suspended on the 33rd day.

What evidence suggests that the Hebrew root for the word three, Sh.L.Sh (שלש), actually means suspend? This root evolved from the root שלה meaning to be relaxed and at ease. A doubling of that root formed ShiLShaeL (שלשל) meaning to let down, to lower toward, hang down, chain, couple, relax, and loosen the bowels. A doubling of the final letter of that initial root formed the word ShaLaL (שלל) meaning to let fall. Furthermore, although most words of the root Sh.L.Sh. relate to the number three in one way or another, this root also means to deposit and entrust. Klein claims that this is because the deposited item was given to a third person for safe keeping. However, the act of depositing or entrusting something essentially means to put something aside for later use, or to suspend something’s use for a later time.

So perhaps, in addition to any other proposition, the reason for the suspension of mourning practices on the 33rd day of the Omer is because the number 33 represents a suspending of a particular ritual or practice. On Pesach, we embrace whatever experience haShem, G-d’s bringing forth of existence, creates for us and we take a leap (a Pesach) into that experience. We count the Omer and recount the inundation (עמר – Arabic) of that experience. On the 33rd day, mourning practices are suspended. But the recounting of the inundation of the Omer does not cease. Although no longer mourning, the recounting of the inundation of experience continues. Some symbolism, some metaphor, is needed to keep us going until final satisfaction (S’vae’oot – שבעות) is achieved, until Shavuot (שבעות) comes. Perhaps, a celebration with bonfires and games with bows and arrows will work. A metaphor to strengthen and encourage אשש us, like a fire (אש). A metaphor that helps us to remain firm (קשה), like a bow (קשת). A metaphor that helps us to wedge (חצה) through the inundation, like an arrow (חץ). When the fiftieth day is reached, the day of fully taking the experience in hand, the experience will be fulfilled and satisfaction will be achieved. On that day, we place ourselves at the foot of the mountain and fully receive whatever it is that haShem had prepared for us.

Why are many things in Judaism done three times? by Rabbi Yossi Marcus http://www.askmoses.com/en/article/228,503/Why-are-many-things-in-Judaism-done-three-times.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/kapparot
Ernest Klein (1987) A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company

Hans Wehr. Ed by J Milton Cowan (1979) Hans Wehr A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Ithaca, NY: Published in the United States by Spoken Languages Services, Inc with permission of Otto Harrassowitz

Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, eds., A Concise Dictionary ofAkkadian, 2nd corrected printing (Santag Arbeiten und Untersuchungen Zur Keilschriftkunde, 5; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000)

Marcus Jastrow (1996) A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushlami, and the Midrashic Literature.New York: The Judaica Press

J. Payne Smith’s (1999) A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. Published by Wipf and Stock

About the Author
David Kolinsky is a retired physician born and raised in Monsey, New York. While living in Monterey California, David initially lived as a secular, agnostic Jew. However, in his spare time, he delved into twenty years of daily study of Hebrew etymology and Torah study culminating in the writing of an etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and a metaphorical translation of Torah. Abandoning his agnostic views, David was simultaneously a spiritual leader of the world's smallest conservative synagogue, a teacher in his local reform synagogue, and a gabbai at Chabad. He is currently sheltering in place with his family in his new home in Plano, Texas.
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