Feminine Aspects of the Omer

In mystical terms, this is a period of time leading to the unification of the male and female aspects of the Divine.

Print this page Print this page

A midrash that appears a number of times in the mystical work known as the Zohar describes seven weeks of purification culminating in the union of all worlds--a holy marriage--consummated on Shavuot. The following article explores this mystical imagery as well as other connections among female symbolism, the counting of the omer, and Shavuot.

As a biblical festival, Shavuot marks an agriculturally based economy moving from the barley to wheat harvest. Rabbinic interpretation of Exodus 19:1--which announces the arrival of the children of Israel in the Sinai desert in the third month after going out of Egypt--establishes the primary liturgical function of Shavuot as a celebration of God's giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.

By the medieval period, biblical narrative and law become fertile sources for kabbalistic (mystical) understandings of the nature of this reception of divine law, most particularly the feminine aspect of the counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot, or sefirat ha-omer. Each of the 49 days of the counting of the omer emerges not as part of a grid linking a shift in communal Temple practice, but as a metaphor for an incremental cycle moving toward unification of the male and female aspects in the godhead.

Divine Wedding

In the Zohar I:8a, the metaphor of mystical union finds expression in the beloved kabbalistic image of the divine wedding. Immersed in Torah at an all-night study session on the evening of Shavuot, students of Torah serve as the retinue for the bride, Shekhinah (the female aspect of the godhead Malkhut), as she prepares to meet her male counterpart, Tiferet. Likely the origin of the now widely observed custom of Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (staying up all night to learn Torah on the first night of the festival), the Zohar's vision of ecstatic Torah study consummating the fusion of male and female divine energy marks the crest of the counting of the omer. Unification of the Shekhinah with its male counterpart via Torah study of mystical intent is particularly apt on Shavuot, a festival rooted in Temple sacrifice, because the female presence of the divine is often depicted as having a unique attachment to the Temple because, according to tradition, it sojourned only in the Temple

Descriptions of the connection between Temple sacrifice and kabbalistic models of divine union with sexual connotations appear throughout the Jewish canon. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger--a 19thand early 20th century Hasidic master known as the Sefat Emet or the Language of Truth--explores this interpretive track by linking biblical commands for Temple offering--korbanot--to striving for ecstatic unity with the Divine--hitkarvut (Sefat Emet 3:3). [Both these Hebrew words share a common root consisting of the Hebrew letters kuf-resh-bet thus strengthening the connection between the biblical commands.] The template of 49 days of the omer--seven days multiplied by seven weeks--parallels the traditional Jewish family purity cycle requiring women to count seven days of menstruation followed by seven "clean" days before commencing intercourse with their partners. Both "seven times seven" of a human couple and sefirat ha-omer of the divine duality culminate in sexual union, each turning a very public ritual Temple act into one of greatest intimacy, individuality, and privacy. This parallel expresses the transformation of korban (sacrifice) to hitkarvut (unity) at its most visceral.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.