Countdowns

RABBI WAGENSBERG
ON LAG BA’OMER
"Countdowns"

The Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762-1839; Drashos, vol. 2, pg. 289) says that one of the reasons why we celebrate Lag Ba’Omer is because that was the day on which the Manna began to fall for the Jews in the wilderness. We know this because the Jews had matzah to eat for the first thirty days after the Exodus from Egypt. The last morsels of matzah were eaten on the 15th of Iyar, which is the 30th day of the Omer.

The Jews complained on the 16th of Iyar, which was the 31st day of the Omer, that they had nothing to eat (Parshas Beshalach, 16:2-3). On the 17th of Iyar, which is the 32nd day of the Omer, Hashem promised that the Manna would fall for them on the next day (Parshas Beshalach, 16:4). Then, on the 18th day of Iyar, which is the 33rd day of the Omer, which is Lag Ba’Omer, the Manna began to fall (Parshas Beshalach, 16:13).

Therefore, one of the reasons why we celebrate Lag Ba’Omer is because of the fact that the Manna began to fall for the Jews in the midbar on that day. Let us talk a little bit more about Sefiras Ha’Omer, Lag Ba’Omer, and Shavuos.

The Zohar (Parshas Emor, pg. 97a) says that the days of Sefiras Ha’Omer are meant to prepare us for Kabbalas HaTorah. The seven weeks of Sefiras Ha’Omer are compared to the seven clean days (Zayin Nekiim) which are counted so that a husband and wife can be together.

During these seven weeks the Jewish people are supposed to cleanse themselves in order to greet Hashem on Shavuos just as a kallah (bride) purifies herself to greet her chasan (bridegroom) on her wedding day under the chuppah. This is because Hashem married the Jewish people on Shavuos just as a chasan marries his kallah.

One source supporting this idea is found in the verse, “And Moshe brought the people forth from the camp to greet God, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain” (Parshas Yisro, 19:17). Rashi (ibid) cites the Mechilta who comments on the words, “To greet God,” which means to say that the Shechina went out to greet the Jews as a chasan goes out to greet his kallah.

The Hafla’a (Rabbi Pinchas Haleivi Horowitz, 1731 Ukraine-1805 Germany) in his Sefer Hamakneh (Pischa Zeira) adds that when Mount Sinai was held suspended over their heads (Shabbos, chap. 9, “Amar Rebbi Akiva”, Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa, based on Yisro, 19:17), it served as the chuppah under which Hashem married the Jews. Moreover, the Torah itself which was given to the Jews at Har Sinai served as the Shtar Kiddushim (wedding contract) that Hashem married the Jewish people with.

There is another point worth mentioning about Sefiras Ha’Omer and how it prepares us for Shavuos.

The B’nei Yissasschar (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, Poland, 1783-1841; Iyar, 3:1) says that when you break down the 49 days of Sefiras Ha’Omer into two parts, you get one part consisting of 32 days and another part consisting of 17 days (32 + 17 = 49). The reason why we break it down in this uneven way is because the letters which numerically equal the number 32 are lamed and beis which spell leiv (heart), and the number 17 is the numerical value of the word tov (good). Together this spells leiv tov (a good heart).

This teaches us that during Sefiras Ha’Omer we prepare for Kabbalas HaTorah which requires a Leiv Tov. However, the B’nei Yissaschar breaks this down more specifically.

During the first 32 days of Sefiras Ha’Omer we are supposed to be preparing ourselves to receive Toras Niglah (revealed Torah). There is a hint which supports this idea. The hint is that the first letter of the Torah is a beis (Parshas Bereishis, 1:1), and the last letter of the Torah is a lamed (Parshas V’Zos Habracha, 34:12). These two letters lamed and beis numerically equal 32. This teaches us that during the first 32 days of the Omer we are preparing ourselves to receive Toras Niglah which is found between the first (beis) and last (lamed) letter of the Torah.

However, during the last 17 days of the Omer we are preparing ourselves to receive Toras Nistar (hidden Torah). There is a hint which supports this idea. The hint is that the first day of the last 17 days is Lag Ba’Omer which is the day we celebrate the life and times of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai who revealed the secret teachings of Toras Nistar to us on Lag Ba’Omer.

There is another hint which supports this notion that the last 17 days of Sefiras Ha’Omer prepares us to receive Toras Nistar. As we mentioned above, the number 17 is the gematria of the word Tov, and Toras Nistar is referred to as Tov, as it says, “And God saw that the light was Tov (good; Parshas Bereishis, 1:4). In Meseches Chagiga (chap. 2, “Ein Dorshin”, pg. 12a), Rebbi Elazar teaches us that that light which is called Tov refers to a very spiritual light through which a person can perceive from one end of the universe until the other.

We are accustomed to call that light Ohr Ganuz (hidden light) because Hashem stashed that light away for the righteous people at some futuristic time. That Ohr Ganuz is by definition Toras Nistar which is called Tov, which is numerically 17, which is connected to the last 17 days of Sefiras Ha’Omer during which we prepare ourselves to receive that great light of Torah secrets.

Now, the Rashbi is repeatedly called “Botzina Kadisha” (holy spark) throughout the Zohar. One reason for this is because he revealed this great light by teaching us the secrets of Torah. This is why his sefer is called Zohar because it means “brilliant light.”

In fact, during the last 17 days of Sefiras Ha’Omer, the light of Toras Nistar begins to shine in the world once again.

With this idea about identifying the two parts of Sefiras Ha’Omer, we will be able to read the following verse, which talks about Sefiras Ha’Omer, in a deeper way.

In Parshas Emor (23:15) it says, “Usfartem Lachem” (and you will count [from the day when you will bring the Omer]). The Shvilei Pinchas points out that these words are grammatically in the plural. The smallest plural number is two. Therefore, this wording hints to us that there are two countings during Sefiras Ha’Omer.

This verse goes on to mention the first counting when it says, “Mimacharas HaShabbos” (from the morrow of the rest day). This refers to the second day of Pesach which begins the first 32 days of Sefiras Ha’Omer. Those 32 days are set aside to help us prepare for Toras Niglah.

The verse goes on to mention the second counting when it says, “Miyom Haviyachem Es Ha’Omer” (from the day when you bring the Omer offering). This hints to the day that the Omer (a certain measurement; Parshas Beshalach, 16:16) of Manna began to fall, which is Lag Ba’Omer, which kicks off the last 17 Tov days of Sefiras Ha’Omer during which we prepare for Toras Nistar.

This same verse goes on to mention the seven complete weeks during which the Jewish people purify themselves to greet God on Shavuos, much like the seven days of purity during which a bride prepares herself to greet her chasan.

The very next verse (Parshas Emor, 23:16) goes on to say, “You will count 50 days” (if you include the day of Shavuos itself). The reason why the number 50 is mentioned is because we are preparing ourselves to receive the Torah of which there are 50 levels of understanding (Meseches Rosh Hashana, chap. 1, “Arba’a Roshei Shanim”, pg. 21b).

This verse goes on to say, “And you will offer a new meal-offering to Hashem” which is the Shtei Halechem (two loaves of bread) which is offered on Shavuos (Parshas Emor, 23:17). The reason why there are specifically two loaves offered on Shavuos is because they correspond to the two types of Torah that we receive on Shavuos: 1) Toras Niglah, and 2) Toras Nistar.

The Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, second Gerrer Rebbe, 1847-1905, Poland; Shavuos) quotes his grandfather the Chiddushei Harim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg Alter, first Gerrer Rebbe, 1799-1866, Poland) who adds that the Shtei Halechem correspond to two types of bread: 1) Lechem Min Hashamayim (bread from heaven), and 2) Lechem Min Ha’aretz (bread from earth).

The meaning behind this is as follows. The Torah itself is called Lechem, as it says, “Come and partake of my bread” (Mishlei, 9:5. In this verse, the Torah is speaking). Therefore, the Lechem Min Ha’aretz refers to Toras Niglah which we acquire through effort (Megillah, chap. 1, “Megillah Nikreis”, pg. 6b). However, the Lechem Min Hashamayim refers to Toras Nistar which Hashem will share with people who are worthy, as it says, “The secret of Hashem is to those who fear Him” (Tehillim, 25:14). On Shavuos, we have the opportunity of receiving both types of Torah.

Although today we do not have a Beis Hamikdash, and as a result we do not have the Shtei Halechem; nevertheless, we still have a commemoration of the Shtei Halechem. This is based on the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1530-1572, Cracow, Poland; Orach Chaim, 494:3) who says that the reason for the custom of eating dairy products on Shavuos is in order to have a zeicher (remembrance) of the Shtei Halechem. The connection between dairy and the zeicher of the Shtei Halechem is as follows.

According to the Rema, we should fulfil the minhag of eating dairy products on Shavuos by having dairy products in the same meal as the meat. The kosher way of doing this is to make kiddush, wash, make hamotzi on two parve challahs, but only cut one of them. Remove the other challah from the table. Then, the first course should be dairy, i.e., bagels, lox , cream cheese, pudding, yogurt, chocolate milk, ice cream, etc.

Then, clear off the table and reset it with the meat dishes and cutlery. Eat a piece of challah and drink something to wash away any dairy residue inside your mouth (kinuach vahadacha). Bring out the chicken, cholent, cold cuts etc. for your second course. Now bring back the other challah that had been removed earlier and only use that challah to be eaten with the meat.

The reason why we do not use the first loaf of challah with the second course is because maybe somebody got their hands cheesy and cut the first challah making that challah cheesy. We can no longer use that challah with the second course because we might wind up eating cheesy challah together with meat and transgress eating milk and meat together.
By observing the minhag of eating dairy products in this way, we are forced to use two challahs. These two challahs are meant to remind us of the Shtei Halechem which is supposed to remind us of the two types of Torah that we receive on Shavuos, Toras Niglah and Toras Nistar.

The Shvilei Pinchas embellishes on the Chasam Sofer who said that part of Lag Ba’Omer’s celebration is that we are happy with the Manna which began to fall for the Jewish people on Lag Ba’Omer in the midbar. The reason why this calls for such a joyous occasion is because the Manna is very holy food that angels eat (Meseches Yoma, chap. 8, “Yom Hakkipurim”, pg. 75b; based on Tehillim, 78:25). The Manna itself helped the Jews prepare to receive Toras Nistar on Shavuos. The Manna purified the Jews by causing them to grow spiritually on a daily basis until they were worthy of receiving Toras Nistar.

It is not arbitrary that the Manna [which prepared them for Toras Nistar] began to fall on Lag Ba’Omer which is the first day of the last 17 days of Sefiras Ha’Omer, because it was on Lag Ba’Omer that Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed the secrets of Toras Nistar to the Jewish people.

This also ties into Moshe Rabbenu because it was in the merit of Moshe Rabbenu that the Manna fell to begin with (Meseches Ta’anis, chap. 1, “M’eimasai”, pg. 9a, Rebbi Yosi b’Rebbi Yehuda). Moreover, the Arizal (Likkutei Shas, Meseches Shabbos, pg. 33b) says that the soul of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai was a holy spark of Moshe Rabbenu’s neshama. In other words, the Rashbi was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Moshe Rabbenu. This is why they led parallel lives. Just as Moshe fled the sword of Pharaoh and reached tremendously great spiritual heights in the desert, so did the Rashbi run away from Ceasar’s sword and reach great spiritual heights in the cave located in the wilderness of Lod.

So, it turns out that the Rashbi merited to transmit Toras Nistar because he was a gilgul of Moshe Rabbenu. Since Moshe transmitted Toras Niglah, the Rashbi transmitted Toras Nistar. Although Moshe received both Toras Niglah and Toras Nistar at Har Sinai, he was only given permission, at that time, to transmit Toras Niglah to the Jewish people. He was not yet authorized to transmit Toras Nistar to them.

When Hashem decided that the time was ripe, and the people were ready, and the circumstances necessitated the hidden teachings of Torah, Hashem authorized Moshe to transmit that Torah to the people. To do so, Moshe had to come back into this world a second time as Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai and teach the people Toras Nistar. In this way, Moshe completed his mission as the Law Giver.

It is very fitting that the Manna fell in the merit of Moshe because the manna prepared the people for Toras Nistar which the Rashbi taught them. Since the Rashbi was a gilgul of Moshe, it is fitting that the Manna which prepared us for Toras Nistar would come about in the merit of Moshe.

The Chasam Sofer (Toras Moshe, at the end of Sefer Devarim) says that there is a hint supporting this idea that the Rashbi was a gilgul of Moshe. The words “Lag Ba’Omer” have the numerical value of 345 which is the same gematria as the name “Moshe.” This numerical equivalency teaches us that the Rashbi merited to transmit Toras Nistar on Lag Ba’Omer because he was a gilgul of Moshe.

So important is the study of Toras Nistar that Reb Chaim Vital (1543 Italy-1620 Syria; Peface to Eitz Chaim, 4:1) says that the sin of the Eitz Hada’as was that Adam Harishon did not want to learn Toras Nistar. We know this because the Zohar in Raya Mihemna (Parshas Naso, pg. 124b) says that the Eitz Hachaim (Tree of Life) in Gan Eden was Toras Nistar. However, the Eitz Hada’as (Tree of Knowledge) in Gan Eden was Toras Niglah.

The connection between the Eitz Hada’as and Toras Niglah is that the Torah describes the Eitz Hada’as as being a tree of “good and bad” (Parshas Bereishis, 2:9), and Toras Niglah constantly revolves around good and bad. This means that in Toras Niglah, it is always about whether something is good or bad, prohibited or permitted, contaminated or pure.
However, Toras Nistar is so holy that it transcends this lower world in every way to the point that everything in it is completely good, through and through. There is no bad in Toras Nistar.

The sin of Adam Harishon was that he was attracted to and connected himself with the Eitz Hada’as. This means to say that Adam only wanted to engage in the learning of Toras Niglah. Since Adam Harishon did not also partake of the Eitz Hachaim, we see that he did not want to engage in the study of Toras Nistar.

Reb Chaim Vital goes on to say that there are some B’nei Torah in our generation (he was speaking in the 16th century. Maybe this applies to the 21st century as well) who make the same mistake and transgress the same sin as Adam Harishon. There are some B’nei Torah who speak derogatorily about the study of Toras Nistar. They may even say that the study of Toras Nistar causes a person to die young, God forbid.

Although it is true that there were some Mekubalim who died young, there have also been other Mekubalim who lived a very long life. The same holds true of Talmidei Chachamim whose primary focus was on Toras Niglah; some died young and some died old. It would not be a fair argument to focus on just a few Kabbalists who died young and claim that this would be the fate of anyone who studies Toras Nistar.

Reb Chaim Vital continues to say that once Adam rejected Toras Nistar, Hashem drove Adam out of Gan Eden and placed Keruvim (angel like creatures) with the flame of the ever-turning sword to protect the path to the Eitz Hachaim (Parshas Bereishis, 3:24). From now on, those Keruvim would not allow anybody who is not worthy to engage in Toras Nistar. The Zohar (Parshas Naso, pg. 123a) says that Hashem also placed snakes, scorpions, Sarafites, and destructive angels to guard the path to the Eitz Hachaim. These dangerous creatures confuse a non-worthy person into thinking that Toras Nistar is not for him.

The teachings of Toras Nistar are so strong that they have the power to destroy all dark forces of evil. If Adam would have partaken from the Eitz Hachaim, the Nachash (serpent) in Gan Eden would have never been able to convince him to disobey a direct Divine command. Although Toras Niglah is also strong, since it is made up of “good and evil,” there was an opening for evil to insert its foot in the door and convince Adam to rebel against Hashem’s Divine command.

The Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534 Jerusalem-1572 Tzfas; Sha’ar Hapesukim, Parshas Shemos) says that all of those souls that were wrapped up within Adam’s grand soul were reincarnated into the Jews who suffered in Egypt.

Based on this idea, the Shvilei Pinchas says that since the root cause of the sin with the Eitz Hada’as was that Adam [and by extension, all Jewish souls] did not want to connect themselves to the Eitz Hachaim and the study of Toras Nistar, their tikkun (fixing, repairing, mending) would be to accept the study of Toras Nistar upon themselves. Therefore, Hashem said to the Jewish people after they left Mitzrayim, “Behold, I will rain down for you food from heaven” (Parshas Beshalach, 16:4), referring to the Manna which prepares a person to receive Toras Nistar. This very verse continues to say, “So that I can test them whether they will follow My teaching or not.” This means that Hashem tested them with the Manna [which prepares a person to receive Toras Nistar] to see if they would attempt to engage in the study of Toras Nistar. If they would, it would serve as a tikkun for their old sin of rejecting Toras Nistar.

One practical take-away message of this teaching would be to use this Lag Ba’Omer, and these last 17 days of Sefiras Ha’Omer, as a springboard to engage, a little bit more, in the study of Toras Nistar, in a permissible way for every single one of us. That would be to have a seder in seforim that touch upon the teachings of Toras Nistar, because those sefarim share a portion of Toras Nistar that is kosher for everybody to learn, even if they have not fulfilled all or any of the conditions necessary to learn Kabbalah.

These seforim present and package ideas from Toras Nistar in such a way that it is releivant to our lives and which spurs self-growth. For example, we could study some of the Ramchal’s (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707 Italy-1746 Acco) seforim, or Sifrei Chassidus in which lofty concepts are brought down to our level from which we can draw inspiration.

In his Sefer Hahakdamos l’Talmud Eser Sefiros, Rav Yehuda Halevi Ashlag (1885 Poland-1954 Jerusalem; pg. 9, #30) posits that the pre-conditions of learning Kabbala (being 40 years old and having Shas and Poskim under one’s belt; Rema, Yora Deah, 246:4, Shach ibid, #6, based on Pirkei Avos, 5:25, Yehuda ben Taima), apply only to Kabbalistic teachings that one requires a Kabbalist to teach him orally, which are deep messages that can only be found between the lines; and such a Kabbalist would not teach an unready person to begin with.

However, to read Kabbalistic texts in a superficial way, [which contain beneficial lessons], is permitted for everyone. If this were not the case, meaning, if the simple translation of the text would also be forbidden to learn by most people, how could these Kabbalists have written down their teachings? Once it is printed, we cannot control who reads them and who does not. What if an unworthy person begins to study them? It must be that whatever has been written down has already been approved by that Mekubal as permitted material.
This is what Ramchal and Sifrei Chassidus have done. They have taken meaningful and inspirational ideas from Kabbalistic texts that are kosher even for the layman. By engaging in this type of Toras Nistar, we prepare ourselves for Yemos Hamoshiach when the full measure of Toras Nistar will be revealed. Moreover, it is through the study of Toras Nistar that brings Moshiach even closer.

So, may we all be blessed this Lag Ba’Omer, and during these last 17 days of Sefiras Ha’Omer to taste the sweetness of the manna by connecting to the study of Toras Nistar, in order that we develop an even greater Leiv Tov which will further purify us for our wedding day with Hashem on Shavuos, which will be metaken the old sin of the Eitz Hada’as, and enter into a world under the authority of the Eitz Hachaim, when we go back to Gan Eden Mikedem, when Moshiach will come and Techiyas Hameisim will happen, when we will be reunited with all of our lost loved ones, Bimheira Biyameinu, Amen!