Parashat Emor

Sefirat Ha-Omer--Time As Text

Our changing observance of the period between Passover and Shavuot reflects our sensitivity to the realities of our history.

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During this period, the Talmud tells us, the students of Rabbi Akiba, one of Bar Kochba's supporters, suffered from a plague, in which thousands died. The traditional reason given for the plague is that it was a divine punishment for the fact that the students did not show proper respect to one another. Some have speculated that the deaths were in fact connected to the Bar Kochba revolt. At any rate, this occurred during the Sefirat Ha'Omer period. As a result, the Jewish people again changed the nature of this period, and it became a time of mourning--no weddings, no parties, no haircuts--in memory of Rabbi Akiba's students. The thirty-third day of the Omer, known as Lag Ba'Omer--was celebrated as a minor holiday, as on that day the plague abated.

Subsequently, Lag Ba'omer has evolved into a day when, in different Jewish communities around the world, the deaths of a number of zaddikim, righteous men, are commemorated, in a festive fashion. The most well-known of these is Shimon bar Yochai, who, in modern Israel, is honored on Lag Ba'Omer in Meron, outside of Zfat, with a Woodstock-like gathering of a few hundred thousand people every year. All over Israel, on Lag Ba'Omer eve, bonfires are lit--the kids in my neighborhood are already scouring the streets for unwanted (or sometimes "we assume this is probably not-too-wanted") pieces of wood to be used on the night.

The Omer & Zionism

For almost two millennia, from the mid-second century on, this is the way the Omer period was experienced, as a sad season, during which joyful activities were curtailed, punctuated by the minor festival of Lag Ba'Omer. Then, on May 5, 1948, David ben Gurion announced that the Jewish nation in Israel accepted the UN's partition plan, and declared a state. May 5th falls out during the Sefirat Ha'Omer period, which created a conundrum for religious Jews. Was Yom Ha'atzma'ut, the day of Israel's birth as a modern state, important enough, RELIGIOUS enough, to counteract the mourning customs of the Omer? In other words--could we celebrate Yom Ha'atzma'ut as a holiday, even though it falls during the mournful Omer period?

The answer to this question depends on what kind of Jew you are. Religious Zionists celebrate the day as a holiday, interrupting, for the day, the mourning customs of the Sefira (counting) period. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews ignore it, as they see the modern secular state of Israel as not worthy of religious recognition, or, even worse, a negative development. For them, the day is just one more mournful day of Sefirat Ha'Omer.

Nineteen years later, during the Six Day War, when Israeli troops attacked the Old City, in order to silence Jordanian guns which were shelling Jewish West Jerusalem, and liberated the Old City after nineteen years of oppressive Jordanian rule, another holiday--Yom Yerushalayim--Jerusalem Day, was created. Again this fell during the Omer period, creating for traditional Jews the same issues, and generating much the same response that Yom Ha'atzma'ut did.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.