Counting days and weeks
TorahLeviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Counting days and weeks

Parshat Emor

There is something strange about the way we count sefirah— the 49 days between Passover and Shavuos mentioned in this week’s Torah portion, Emor.

The Talmud says: Abaye stated, “It is a mitzvah to count the days, and it is a mitzvah to count the weeks.” This is because both are mentioned explicitly in the Torah. We thus fulfill both mandates. For example, at the conclusion of the first week, we count as follows: “Today is seven days, which is one week to the Omer.”

Why does the Torah instruct us to count both the days and the weeks simultaneously? What do we gain by counting the week after we have already counted the days? What would be missing if we left out the weeks?

What is this sefirah count all about anyhow? What is the point of counting days and weeks that will pass regardless of your count? All other mitzvos — beside this one — accomplish something tangibly (whether we fully grasp their significance or not). Our ears hear the sound of the shofar; our arms get wrapped in tefillin; our money goes to a poor person, etc. But what happens when I say, “Today is 33 days?” No matter whether I count or not, it will be 33 days!

The truth is that the count from Passover to Shavuos is really the count from the day we were set free and given independence to the day we stood at Sinai and received the Torah. The count is significant because it represents the count from Jewish peoplehood to Jewish identity.

On Passover we became a people. An entity called “the Jewish nation” emerged after being enslaved to another nation for decades. But that was not the end of the story. We immediately began counting the days in great anticipation until Shavuos, the day we would stand at Sinai and receive the Torah — the day we would create a covenant with G-d and accept His constitution, the Torah, as our eternal mandate and blueprint.

That is why we include both days and weeks in our count, to highlight and synchronize two ways of defining the meaning of Jewish peoplehood and identity.

A day is a unit of time created by the cycles of nature. The 24-hour period is the natural result of sunrise and sunset. Nature gives us the day.

A seven-day week, on the other hand, is not a result of any natural system. Why does a week have seven days and not six, eight or the complete number of 10 days? Nothing astronomically occurs at the end of seven days to justify it as a time marker, like the lunar cycle completed every 29-and-a-half days marking the end of a month, or the solar cycle completed after 365 days marking the end of a year, or the daily solar orbit completed every 24 hours, giving us day and night. Who came up with the universally accepted idea of a seven-day week? And why?

Judaism’s perspective is clear: From the days of Adam and Eve, the seven-day week was enshrined into human life. “Six days you shall work and on the seventh day is Sabbath,” Moses tells the Jewish people. It was the seven days of creation culminating with the Sabbath that introduced the notion of a seven-day cycle into the way we mark time. Beginning with Adam and Eve and their descendants, time was divided into seven days, representing the notion that G-d created the world, and on the seventh day He rested. The origin of the universally accepted seven-day week is directly from Torah. “Six days you shall work, and on the seventh day you shall rest.”

Now, there are “week-Jews” and “day-Jews.”

A “week-Jew” sees himself, his people and Judaism as orbiting within a Divine cycle of time. For this Jew, Jewish peoplehood and identity are defined exclusively by the “week”— by a Divine plan. In his or her perception, the essence of our existence is our relationship with G-d and His blueprint for the world.

For the “week-Jew,” the oxygen of the Jewish people is Torah and mitzvos — the means of our relationship to G-d. And it is this alone that is responsible for our survival throughout the ages. The tefillin have remained the same throughout all of history. The matzo is the same before and after electricity, before and after the internet. The gefilte fish and cholent haven’t changed much.

The “day-Jew,” on the other hand, sees Jewish peoplehood in natural terms — we are a nation like other nations, subjected to the ordinary laws and patterns of nature. Nations rise and fall like sunrise and sunset. The Jewish nation, they will concede, has demonstrated unique survival skills, but that is because of various historical and cultural factors. In essence, though, they will argue we are part of the natural family of nations.

The “day-Jew” strongly believes in cultivating our standing among the nations of the world. Our survival depends on ensuring that “nature” is on our side. We must remain firmly etched in the modern world, mastering its professions and embracing all its opportunities, to ensure our continuous success and existence.

This argument has been going on for much of Jewish history. The “day-Jews” would scornfully define the “week-Jews” as “weak-Jews,” believing in the intangible, not relying enough on their own prowess and strength. While the “week-Jews” would define their brothers as “dazed-Jews,” half-asleep, not alert and sensitive to the extraordinary story of our people and to the deeper dimensions of reality.

The truth is that both perspectives must be combined. We must count the “days,” representing the requirement to do all in our power to be a strong and united people. At our core we remain “week-Jews.” What is the ultimate definition of our peoplehood? That we are “Am Hashem,” G-d’s people, a people chosen by the Creator to be the ambassadors of holiness to the world. The day is part of the week; the week is not part of the day. Our experience as a nation among many must always be seen in context of the “week,” within our larger identity as G-d’s people.

As we all pray for the complete victory in Israel and the release of the hostages, we know that while we must do everything possible in the realm of nature (days) to secure victory, it is ultimately the blessings and protection of G-d (weeks) that will prevail.

This is therefore the story of our people: We never only count days; we also count weeks. PJC

Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum is director of Chabad of the South Hills. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabonim of Greater Pittsburgh.

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