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The Omer, Lag BaOmer, and the multivocality of Jewish Experience

04/30/2024 07:44:29 AM


Lara Giordano

Originally published in the May 2023 Newsletter.


You'll have to forgive the use of a term from my years in and as a continental philosopher, but in reading this fascinating article by Rabbi Shimon Felix, I couldn't help but think of the omer - and Jewish tradition more broadly - in terms of the palimpsest. The palimpsest is a manuscript on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but upon which traces of the original remain. Basically, the palimpsest is something in which many meanings are overlaid one on top of the other; unable to be resolved into one another, intermingling in their irresolution.

Judaism is just such a "text" in which multiple - and even contradictory - meanings co-exist. And this is the case because it is a tradition that remains wedded to its primal, foundational narratives as encoded in the Torah and which nonetheless grapples profoundly with historical experience. And both of these are messy.

How is it that the period of the Omer casts this dual character (timeless and historical) into relief? The foundational text of the Torah instructs us to begin counting the omer on the second day of Passover. On this day, the ancient Israelites were to bring a measure of barley (an "omer") as an offering and, 50 days later on Shavuot, this process culminated in the offering of two loaves of bread. The omer was primarily of agricultural significance; a way both of anticipating the harvest and an orientation of gratitude toward what was to come.

The Rabbis, however, received and transmitted this biblical prescription as coding another kind of experience: one of emancipation and revelation. For the passage of time between Passover and Shavuot is one in which we are meant to look forward to and ready ourselves to receive the Torah. In this way, the rabbis transformed the Serifat HaOmer -- something that was primarily of agricultural significance -- into a spiritual undergoing: the revelation at Mt. Sinai.

Yet another meaning attached itself to the omer in the aftermath of the Bar Kochba rebellion when the students of Rabbi Akiva (a supporter of Bar Kochba) died en masse from a plague. While the tradition offers different accounts for the cause of this mass death, it occurred during the Serifat HaOmer. Thus, this period became a time of mourning in which no marriages, parties, or haircutting were allowed. What we celebrate on Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the omer) is the abatement of this plague.

The experience and meaning of the omer is, in this way, multiple -- agricultural; emancipatory and revelatory; mournful. We do not abandon the original meaning as inscribed in the Torah in the face of ongoing experience. But nor do we deny history for the sake of preserving the purity of the past. The Torah remains the primitive text, the foundation of a people, and that is a text upon which we keep writing, open to what history reveals. 

Hence I think of the palimpsest. But philosophical tropes aside, what captivates me here is the unique mode of understanding in evidence. And the thought that from out of this toleration for messiness; this attentiveness to tension and irresolution - this rare and powerful capacity to resist false reconciliation for the sake of ease - there arises an ethic, one that aims to make itself equal to the fragmented world itself.

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784