Friday, May 16, 2008

Free at Fifty

The study of p’shat, the straightforward meaning of the Torah text, is a pursuit which can supply a lifetime of study, wisdom and inspiration. However, Torah study is not limited to this approach. P’shat is only one of the Torah’s multiple universes. Sometimes, the façade of p’shat cracks and the Torah’s deeper dimensions come to the fore.

This week’s parsha begins with the mitzvah of Shmitah, the Sabbatical year.

When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a Shabbat to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbatical Shabbat for the land.

Vayikra 25:2-3

The Torah continues with Yovel, the Jubilee year.

You shall count seven sabbatical years, that is, seven times seven years. The period of the seven sabbatical cycles shall thus be forty-nine years. You shall make a proclamation with the ram’s horn... You shall sanctify the fiftieth year declaring emancipation of [Hebrew] slaves for the land and all who live in it. This is your jubilee year, when each man shall return to his hereditary property and to his family.

Ibid 25:8-9,10

After counting seven Shmitah periods, we arrive at Yovel, the fiftieth and final year of the cycle. Jews who sold themselves into slavery to escape poverty or were sold as slaves to pay off debts incurred by stealing are released and return home. Similarly, hereditary fields that had been sold during the course of the past fifty years return to their original owners on Yovel. Everything returns to its default position. It’s as if someone hit the reset button.

It is virtually impossible to study these mitzvot without bringing to mind a mitzvah from last week’s parsha.

You shall count seven complete weeks after the day following the [Passover] holiday… until the day after the seventh week, when there will be [a total of] fifty days… This very day shall be celebrated as a sacred holiday…

Ibid 23:15-16,21

This is the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer, a mitzvah to count the days from the Exodus on Passover to the revelation at Sinai on Shavuot fifty days later. (This Shabbat is the twenty-seventh day of the Omer.)

The Omer count follows the exact same pattern as the Yovel cycle! In both we are instructed to count sets of seven days/years seven times. And then, the following day/year, the fiftieth, is sanctified. Moreover, just as a ram’s horn was blown on Yovel, the fiftieth year, a ram’s horn was also blown at Sinai on Shavuot, the fiftieth day. “There was the sound of a ram’s horn, increasing in volume to a great degree…” (Shemot 19:19). What are we to make of all this? Do these cycles share a deeper commonality?

This isn’t going to be easy.

In the Yovel cycle, Jewish slaves are freed on the fifty year. We count the years leading up to their freedom. This is quite the opposite from the Omer cycle where the counting begins after the Jews gain their freedom from enslavement in Egypt. It would seem that the two sanctified fifties, Yovel and Shavuot, have nothing in common.

P’shat isn’t providing answers, so we turn to the Mishnah for assistance.

The only person who is free is the one who toils in the study of Torah.

Ethics of the Fathers 6:2

The Torah sets us free. This explains everything! Shavuot is the day we got the Torah at Sinai and we became free, just like Yovel!

Great. But free from what? Didn’t we leave Egypt fifty days earlier?

The Torah is throwing a wrench into our understanding of Jewish history. Maybe we didn’t gain total freedom at the Exodus. Maybe we were still enslaved to something for forty-nine more days until we were truly emancipated on Shavuot. But what could that something be?

The answer is right before our eyes, but we would prefer not to face it. With the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot we were freed from self-enslavement. For as long as Torah is lacking, as long as objective truth and mitzvot are missing from the world, man is destined to be the slave of his own negative drives. Without the system of Judaism to elevate us, in the absence of the service the God, we are left with nothing more than the service of the self.

It turns out that the two fifties, Yovel and Shavuot, are identical. What happens on Yovel? The Jewish slave, a man who is the sole cause of his own slavery, is set free. A hereditary field, which was sold by the owner himself, returns to where it belongs. This is the very same power of Shavuot. The Torah frees man from his self-imposed slavery and returns him to his true self.

On Pesach we gained physical freedom, but we were still slaves. By counting the days of the Omer we recognize that we need more than an Exodus, we need a deeper kind of freedom. A freedom that can only be found fifty days later on a hill called Sinai.


  1. Reb Yisroel,
    Beautiful as usual!! Great to see that you are back to writing.We definitely missed this the last couple of months.
    Keep it coming!

  2. Marbitz Torah Leshma5/20/2008 11:15 PM

    The Simcha of Lag Baomer is a strange concept. The Shulchan Aruch says on the day A Tzaddik dies you make a fast. Where did this day of happiness come from? The GR"A says it was the day that the Students of Reb Akiva Stopped dying. The Question still stands Reb Shimon Bar Yochai died on this day, what is the Celebration about? The answer brought by the Kadmonim is that Reb Shimon Bar Yochai himself said there should be a celebration on the day of his death. The Shach in Hilchos Aveilus also brings down a similar premise that if a father says not to act like an Avel the full 12 months we follow his command. This is because the whole Halacha of mourning is only in honor of the parent. Therefore if he asks you not to act in a manner of mourning then of course you listen. Now we must understand why did Reb Shimon say to celebrate his death when we know when a Tzaddik dies it like the Destruction of the Beis Hamikdash? There is yet another problem with the Lag Baomer Celebrations the Shoel Umashiv and the Chasam Sofer in their Seforim in a very strong language say that the Minhag of burning clothing which is prevalent at the Kever of Reb Shimon Bar Yochai in Miron is a problem of Baal Taschis (Destroying things without Purpose) and worse Darchei Amori (Behaving as a Idol worshipper). In defense we have a Mesorah that the Ohr Hachaim Hakodesh followed the Minhag of burning the clothing. The Aruch Hashulchan provides another reason for the Celebration of Lag Ba'omer that that it was the day Reb Shimon and his son where finally allowed to leave the cave in which they where hiding. A remez to this concept is that the Gemora that says the story of Reb Shimon leaving the cave is on Daf: Lamed Gimmel. The Mon also started falling on Lag Ba'omer. There is a Zohar in Parshas Hazinu that says that the day that Reb Shimon said over the secrets of the torah was on Lag Ba'omer and that was the day he died ,The students where afraid he would die before he would give over all the secrets, so when it happened they where overjoyed. In his final conversation he said "The whole day is in my control and now I have the right to say over all the secrets before I go to the next world in order that I not be embarrassed when I go up to Shmayim" . There are two thousand two hundred and twenty five Teachings from Reb Shimon Bar Yochai in Sifra, Bavli, and Yerushalmi. But the Secrets of the torah the SOD he was only able to tell over the day he died.
    In conclusion, what is the answer to all the above questions? The reason the day the Tzaddik dies is such a sad day that it is considered similar to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash is because of the loss of Torah to the people in this world. The Tzaddik is going to Gan Eden .The only people who lose out are the people he left behind in this world. The day Reb Shimon died is fundamentally different. That is because as the Zohar says the secrets of the torah the actual text of the Zohar was able to be said and copied over on this day so it is not a day of sadness and fasting but a day like Purim and Shavous a day of receiving the torah of Nistar (the hidden aspects of Torah) and therefore a day full of joy happiness and a celebration. The significance of the Mon was as the Mamar Chazal says the Mon was only given to those who ate the Mon. Now to the final question why burn the clothes? When Reb Shimon bar Yochai left the cave everything one looked at got BURNT thereafter the other would look at it and return it to the way it was. The reason why everything was burnt up was that they where so separated from the frivolity of this world they could not stand to look at it .The burning of the clothes symbolized that we should aspire to be like Reb Shimon and try to separate ourselves from Gashmius of this world and try to live on a higher spiritual level. The burning of clothing being allowed to teach a moral lesson would still seem to be a problem. This too can now be answered. The gemara in Mesechtos Tomid states when the Kohanim had Guard duty and they feel asleep on the job the Gemara says "Reshus Hayah Lisrof Es bigadav" Therefore we plainly see a source that allows the burning of clothing to teach a lesson in Halacha .This is as long as there is a lesson to be learnt hence the Chasam Sofer and the Shoel Umashiv are answered. There is also the question of what is the reason for the fires? The simple answer given is just as we know we light a small candle for a soul on a Yahrtzeit like the Chazal say "Ner Hashem Nishmas Adam" therefore for a great soul we light a large fire. There is another answer given that Reb Shimon was on such a level that with his Ohr Hatorah he was able to stop the Night from coming therefore we light fires to symbolize the light of his torah that is still here.

  3. Marbitz Torah Leshma-
    Thank you for your "comment." Although I missed the connection to my post, I found it interesting and informative - I was unfamiliar with that fascinating Shach!
    You might want to double-check the Zohar; it does not say that R. Shimon bar Yochai passed away on Lag BaOmer. see Eliezer Brodt's recent post on this issue here: