Saturday, November 17, 2018 -
Print Edition

The ghost’s ghost

I’ve never had a ghost writer.
But what about a ghost’s ghost?
That would be Andrea Jacobs, IJN senior writer.

I drift by Andrea’s window, tossing out the standard, “Andrea, what am I writing about this week?”

She knows I’m only half kidding.

Not only does she give me good ideas, she often tosses out a few offhand phrases that I can reformulate into the the skeleton of a column.

As in last week’s musing about keeping Shabbos as Shabbos, absent comments (and complaints) about work.

And so, this week, too, “Andrea, what am I writing about?”

“Sorry, you’re on your own this week.”

Doesn’t rile me.

She says that every week.

So I repeat.

“Right. So what am I writing about this week?”

“Too bad you don’t do a religion thing.”

“Religion, I don’t do religion?”

“The Omer. I still don’t know what the Omer is. Would be nice if you could make a contemporary metaphor. I don’t know what we’re counting and why.

“And I don’t think a lot of our readers do.”

Andrea turns the corner, approaches my computer, and declares: “Don’t you dare use me in that column. I will deny any knowledge of it.”

OK, the Omer it is.

Andrea takes a quick glance at my computer before I quickly close the screen — don’t want to get caught tipping my hand!

“Wait,” Andrea insists, “I don’t want to make my synagogue look bad. I’m sure Rabbi Rheins and Rabbi Zwerin taught us about the Omer many times.”

No problem. I, too, drift off and space out from time to time as my good rabbi is sermonizing; and, really, everybody needs a refresher on everything. That’s why we begin the Torah-reading cycle over again each year.

So, here goes, Omer.

Contemporary metaphors:
High school senior: “Only 31 days of school left!”
Synagogue bulletin: “Only 43 days until our annual dinner . . . get your reservations in.”
High school sophomore or junior: “Only 17 more days before I can take my driver’s test.”
Seriously ill patient: “Only two more weeks of chemotherapy. Then I’m done.”
Exasperated automobile owner: “Only 6 more days — it’s been a month already! — and my car is out of the shop.”

People count down to things that are important to them. We count down to milestones. It’s a natural human tendency.

We count up, too. If our favorite sports team has a winning streak, we say, “The Rockies have won three in a row. Will they make it four tonight?”

If the National Jewish Medical and Research Center has been named the #1 institution of its kind in the US for 10 years running, it hopes it will be named for the 11th year, too.

Counting is a normal part of human existence. And so, to emphasize the centrality of the Torah, we count up from Passover to Shavuos, the holiday that marks the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

We do not count up (or down) to Tisha b’Av, the day that marks Jewish tragedies; nor do we count toward Rosh Hashanah or Sukkot or even Passover. But we do count from Passover to Shavuos.

There is another numbered span, the “ten days of repentance,” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s a critical period, but we do not count it, either up or down. The only full count is to Shavuos.

As I write, it is the 30th day of the Omer — the 49-day period between the second day of Passover and the eve of Shavuos.
When this issue is scheduled to be published, it will be the 33rd day of the Omer.

The Omer count acquires layers of meaning. Beyond the basic idea of the centrality of the Torah — the re-anticipation of the anniversary of its origin at Sinai through 49 days of counting toward it — there are three more layers.

First, the omer was a dry measure of flour brought as an offering in the ancient holy Temples in Jerusalem.

The Omer was Part 1 of a two-stage process.

Once the omer offering was brought in the Temple on the second day of Passover, the new season’s grain could be used for general use. This is Part 1.

Fifty days later, another offering, the “Two-Breads” offering, was brought in the Temple, and with that the new season’s grains could be use for Temple offerings. This is Part 2 of the Omer.

The Omer, then, is a 50-day period, begun by one offering and concluded by another, and corresponding to the time between the second day of Passover and the first day of Shavuos.

In counting up from Passover to the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Shavuos, we are also marking the time between the release of the new season’s grains for general use and for Temple use.

The agricultural-material cycle and the holiday-spiritual cycle overlapped and intertwined for the 49-day Omer period.
With the destruction of the ancient holy Temples, we have lost that integration and balance.

We are left with the counting of the Omer toward Shavuos — the holiday-spiritual cycle alone.

The second layer of the Omer is historical. During this period in antiquity, thousands of disciples of Rabbi Akiva died because, our tradition tell us, they did not have sufficient respect for one another.

This accounts for the Omer period as one of semi-mourning, marked, for example, by a ban on haircuts, on music and on weddings.

The exception is the 33rd day of the Omer — today — when the plague that took Rabbi Akiva’s disciples let up.

The third layer of the Omer is mystical.

As each of the seven mystical “spheres” interact with each other, there is a total of 49 interactions, one for each day of the Omer.

I can hear Andrea’s mind turning: What are the seven mystical spheres?

This would take much more than a column, as people far greater than I have been investigating this for centuries, indeed millennia.



Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com


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