Ari Sacher

‘The Cardinals’ Parashat Behar 5784

The number seven plays a prominent role in Judaism. On the second night of the seven-day festival of Passover, we begin counting the “Omer”. Each night we count, until forty nine days later, after seven weeks of seven days have passed, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. Jewish agriculture law also operates on a cycle based on the number seven. Each seven years, we observe the shemitta year, in which the land lies fallow. Following seven shemitta cycles, we celebrate the Jubilee Year (Yovel) in which the land lies fallow, slaves are freed, and property returns to its original owners. Regarding the Yovel, the Torah commands [Vayikra 25:8] “You shall count for yourself seven sabbatical years, seven years seven times. The days of these seven sabbatical years shall amount to forty nine years for you.” One need not be a rocket scientist to know that seven times seven equals forty-nine. Does the Torah really need to teach us such basic mathematics?

Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik[1], writing in Noraos Harav[2], suggests that the Torah includes the mathematical equation to teach that the forty-nine years are not part of a progression that culminates in the forty-ninth year, with each year losing its significance after it has been counted. Rather, each year has an independent significance: “The forty-nine years are cumulative. The words ‘They shall amount for you (v’hayu lecha)’ meas ‘You shall retain all the years’. At the culmination of the count, all forty-nine years are aggregated to comprise a single group of forty-nine discrete units. Each year retains its identity”. This hypothesis has halachic ramifications. When we count the forty-nine years of Jubilee, we must use cardinal numbers and not ordinal numbers. We must say, “This is year number five” and not “This is the fifth year”. Compare this with the enumeration of the days of the week. We refer to the ordinal “first day of the week (rishon laShabbat)” and the “second day of the week (sheni laShabbat)”, not to the cardinal “Day One (Sunday)” and “Day Two (Monday)”. A day of the week has no individual personality. It is significant only in that it brings us one step closer to Shabbat. Says Rabbi Soloveichik: “Once Shabbat has been reached, the prior days are irrelevant”. Proof for Rabbi Soloveichik’s hypothesis can be found in the format of the Counting of the Omer. We do not count the ordinal “Today is the eighth day (yom haShemini) of the Omer.” Rather, we count the cardinal “Today is day eight, which make one week and one day in the Omer”. Rabbi Soloveichik concludes that the counting of the years of Jubilee is similar to the Counting of the Omer in this regard..

While Rabbi Soloveichik’s hypothesis makes good sense, it is nonetheless problematic. Why do we count the Omer? When the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash) was standing, the Omer was a grain-offering from the first barley and the Counting of the Omer enumerated the days between the offering of the first barley and the offering of the first wheat on Shavuot. There is another better-known reason that we count the Omer. According to Aruch HaShulchan [OHC 489:2][3], already in Egypt, Moshe had announced[4] to the Jewish People that they would celebrate a religious ceremony at Mount Sinai once fifty days had passed. The people were so excited by this disclosure that they counted each day until that ceremony took place, as if to say, “In only so-and-so more days we will be receiving the Torah!”. Today, when grain offerings are no longer offered, counting the Omer still has a purpose as a remembrance of the counting of days before the giving of the Torah. Now here is the problem: How can Rabbi Soloveichik assert that each day of the Omer has cardinal importance when the Omer is really just an ordinal countdown to the receiving of the Torah?  Why do we not count, “Today is the eighth day (yom haShemini) of the Omer”? Once the Jewish People received the Torah, all the days counted leading up to the Revelation at Sinai had become irrelevant.

To address this problem, we must answer one more question: On which date was the Torah given? Nowadays, we celebrate Shavuot on the sixth day of Sivan, fifty days after we begin counting the Omer. Nevertheless, when the Hebrew calendar was determined by the appearance of the new moon, the fiftieth day of the Omer could have fallen on the fifth, sixth, or even the seventh day of Sivan. Only because the Jewish calendar has operated according to a fixed algorithm set into motion nearly two thousand years ago does Shavuot always fall on the sixth day of Sivan. But did we really receive the Torah on the sixth of Sivan? This question is the subject of a Talmudical debate in Tractate Shabbat [86b]. According to the Sages, the Torah was indeed given on the sixth of Sivan. Rabbi Yosi, however, posits that Moshe added an additional day for the Jewish People to prepare for the Revelation[5]. According to our Sages in the Midrash, G-d agreed with Moshe’s suggestion. Further, normative halacha is according to Rabbi Yosi[6]. But if this is so, then it seems clear that the Torah was given on the seventh day of Sivan. Why, then, do we celebrate Shavuot on the sixth of Sivan? How can we call Shavuot, “The season in which our Torah was given (Z’man matan torateinu)” if it was given on another day?

A comment made by Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch[7] can blaze a way ahead. Rabbi Hirsch, in his commentary on Vayikra [23:21], teaches that we celebrate Shavuot on the fiftieth day of the Omer even though the halacha is like Rabbi Yosi, even though the Torah was actually given on the fifty-first day of the Omer, on the seventh of Sivan. On the fiftieth day of the Omer, the Jewish People had completed all of the necessary preparations to receive the Torah. And so on this day we celebrate Shavuot – the “Feast of Weeks” – to commemorate our seven weeks of preparation. Rabbi Hirsch writes, “The day of Revelation and the giving of the tablets was purposely not turned into a holiday”. Rabbi Hirsch notes that Shavuot has no particular commandments – we don’t eat matzo and we don’t wave the lulav. The only commandment Shavuot has is the counting of the Omer, the preparation, culminating in a holiday that the Torah calls “Atzeret” – literally “culmination”. Each day of preparation is critical. When Shavuot arrives after fifty days of preparation, when our counting has culminated, the one and only commandment of Shavuot has been discharged.

How do we prepare for Shavuot? Must we refine ourselves like during the Ten Days of Penitence, where we are more scrupulous than usual in our performance of mitzvot? Sort of. Our Sages have given us a format for preparation. According to the esoteric Torah, our  world consists of seven “spheres”, each corresponding to a different facet of our personality. These spheres can be combined in forty-nine different ways. Each day of the Omer we refine one of these combinations. This year, the town of Moreshet was given a lesson in refining the combination of “Kindness in Might (Chessed shebi’gevurah)”. These two concepts seem disjoint – kindness gives and might takes away. But not this year. Last week, Rina, a resident of Moreshet, died of cancer. She was diagnosed only a few weeks after she and her husband came on aliya to spend their retirement with their children and grandchildren. Her husband eulogized her, saying that G-d bestowed “a great kindness” in that her cancer was diagnosed in Israel. Had it been diagnosed in the U.S., Rina would have spent her dying years alone. In His infinite might, G-d showed infinite kindness. Rina died with her entire family there at her side. May her memory be a blessing.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel

[1] Rabbi Soloveichik was the leader of Modern Orthodox Jewry in North America in the second half of the previous century.

[2]Noraos Harav” is a fifteen-volume set of transcriptions on talks Rabbi Soloveichik gave on the holidays, edited by Rabbi David Schreiber. Until recently, it was freely available in PDF format on the internet. It is now available exclusively on Amazon at the price of $20 a volume.

[3] Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, who lived in Belarus in the 19th century, wrote the “Aruch HaShulchan”, one of the most important modern books of halacha.

[4] The Aruch HaShulchan quotes the Ran who quotes our Sages in the Midrash. The problem is that the midrash in question has not yet been physically located.

[5] Rabbi Yosi’s position is based on his position regarding an issue in the laws of family purity.

[6] This has ramifications upon when a woman may visit the mikvah.

[7] Rabbi Hirsch live in Frankfurt am Mein in the nineteenth century.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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