Rabbi Shelton Donnell
The first half of Parashat Emor is literally a “Priests’ Manual,” containing the obligations and prohibitions incumbent upon the priests in performance of their sacred duties. The second half focuses on all of the Israelites and is the “Festival Portion.” The Torah presents us with the festival cycle of the Jewish year – “These are ADONAI’s appointed festivals, the sacred assemblies you are to proclaim at their appointed times: ADONAI’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month. On the fifteenth day of that month ADONAI’s Festival of Unleavened Bread begins; for seven days you must eat bread made without yeast. On the first day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. For seven days present a food offering to ADONAI. And on the seventh day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work” (Lev. 23:4-8). And, “From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to ADONAI… On that same day you are to proclaim a sacred assembly and do no regular work. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live” (Lev. 23:15-16; 21). Then, “ADONAI said to Moses, Say to the Israelites: ‘On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present a food offering to ADONAI.’ ADONAI said to Moses, The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to ADONAI. Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before ADONAI your God” (Lev. 23:23-28). And finally, “ADONAI said to Moses, Say to the Israelites: ‘On the fifteenth day of the seventh month ADONAI’s Festival of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. For seven days present food offerings to ADONAI, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present a food offering to ADONAI. It is the closing special assembly; do no regular work’” (Lev. 23:33-36).
“These are ADONAI’s appointed festivals, the sacred assemblies you are to proclaim at their appointed times…” This week we continue the counting of the Omer as described in our portion (Lev. 23:15-16, cited above). During this period we count the days between Pesach and Shavuot, seven weeks plus one day, for a total of fifty days.
On April 28, we will observe Lag BaOmer, the thirty-third day in the counting of the Omer. The origins of this special day in the counting are not to be found in the Torah but in later Jewish tradition. According to the sages of the Talmud, “It is said that 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiba’s disciples – from Gabatha to Antipatris – died at the same time because they did not respect each other. And the world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiba came to our teachers in the south and taught them, namely Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua, and it was they who revived the Torah at the time. All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot” (BT Yebamot 62b). Because the pestilence ended on Lag BaOmer we mark the day with rejoicing. And more, there is a connection between the day and the rebellion of Bar Kochba who fought against the Romans in the second century C.E. – the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag BaOmer (the 18th of Iyyar) is based on this connection. The rebels lit signal fires on mountaintops to spread word about the start of the rebellion. Additionally, Lag BaOmer is associated with the anniversary of the death (yahrtzeit) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (to whom tradition – erroneously – ascribes authorship of the kabbalistic work, the Zohar) and the day is particularly revered by kabbalists.
The days of the counting of the Omer and the festival days of the cycle of the Jewish year remind us of the significance of time in our lives. There is a rhythmic cycle to human life just as there are cycles to the seasons of the year. As the Psalmist wrote, “Teach us to number our days, so that we may obtain a wise heart” (Ps. 90:12). Each festival provides us the sacred opportunity to understand and appreciate our lives and our world more profoundly so that “we may obtain a wise heart.”