Counting time – Sabbatical Year

The mitzvot of shmitah (the sabbatical year; pl. shmitot) and yovel (the Jubilee year) are enumerated in Parashat Behar where we learn that every seventh year is a shmitah year and the year following every seven shmitah cycles is a Jubilee year: “Count for yourselves seven sabbatical years, seven years seven times. And the days of these seven sabbatical years shall amount to forty nine years for you… And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and call freedom in the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee year for you.” This verse is clearly reminiscent of the mitzvah to count the Omer, which is written in a similar style, “Count for yourselves from the day following the festival… seven complete weeks they shall be.” The difference between them is that the shmitah is counting years and the Omer is counting days. Interestingly, both Torah portions are always read during the Omer.

Further back in the book of Leviticus there are two more situations in which we are commanded to count units of time. The first situation is regarding a man who has an impure discharge, “When a man with a discharge is purified of his discharge, and he shall count seven days to his purity.” Similarly, a woman who has a discharge is also commanded, “She shall count seven days and then she shall be purified.” In most years, these verses are also read during the Omer.

The ways of counting the days for a man with a discharge and for a woman in a similar predicament are identical; there are thus three different commandments to count units of time: the Jubilee year, the days of the Omer and the purification of an individual who suffered a discharge. These three are the only examples of any commandment in the Torah that requires counting something, and all of them relate to time and the awareness of the passage of time; from the seven days of counting purity, through the forty-nine days of the Omer and finally, the forty-nine years of shmitah followed by the Jubilee year.

Counting time is one of the outstanding characteristics of human culture. But it is not enough to know how many times the clock ticks; our task is to infuse time with significance. Thus it is told of the greatest Chassidic scholars who would always make a record of their time. To paraphrase a Chassidic saying, “Serving God means taking care of the hours; then the days take care of themselves. We should always know what we have done and what still needs to be done in the future, taking care that tomorrow will be much better than today.”

According to this interpretation, counting time means paying attention and attaching great importance to each day and every passing moment (because this moment is unique in that it has never been before and will never be again). We should not let time lead us―it should be us who lead time by accounting for every moment and making sure it is a significant one. The wisdom of Jewish counting (סְפִירָה) began with Abraham, who accounted for all his moments and days without losing or wasting any time. This is why Abraham is described as “coming of days” (בָּא בַּיָּמִים); all his days came with him. In addition, the book of Formation (סֵפֶר יְצִירָה), the earliest Kabbalistic text, which is attributed to Abraham, reveals the secrets of creation according to the ten sefirot (סְפִירוֹת; sing. סְפִירָה, identical to “counting”).

Naturally seven

In addition to counting time in the sense of “collecting” each day by infusing every moment with significance, we will continue to meditate on the three “counting” commandments in the Torah in which the accumulation of time is of great significance.

The first thing that we note about these commandments is that counting time is a cyclical, periodical series of sevens. As we explained in Parashat Shemini, The number 7 is an expression of consummate nature, which, like the hands of a clock that go around in a circle, constantly rotates in a cyclic motion, “Generation goes and generation comes… around and around goes the spirit.”

In Kabbalah, the number 7 corresponds to the seven attributes of the heart (loving-kindness, might, beauty, victory, acknowledgment, foundation, and kingdom). Each day while counting the Omer we should have in mind the intention (כַּוָנָה) to inter-include these attributes one within the other, from loving-kindness in loving-kindness to kingdom in kingdom. In the psyche, these seven attributes are the “emotive” and “instinctive” powers of the soul; i.e., the world of feelings in the heart and the powers of action. But, above these attributes are the intellectual powers of the soul, which should direct and refine the seven attributes. The passage of time corresponds to the attributes of the heart and to nature, while counting time is intellectual. Counting time reflects our human consciousness of reality, and each of the different types of counting in the Torah expresses a different level of time-consciousness, as we will explain.

Back to front

When we compare the commandment of an individual who counts “clean” days and the commandment of counting the Omer, we find a number of differences: We count the Omer at the beginning of the day (in Jewish tradition day begins on the previous evening), making the blessing and counting out loud, “Today is one day of the Omer,” “Today is two days of the Omer” etc. In contrast, during the clean days counted after an impure discharge, the individual has no need to count the seven days and certainly does not make a blessing over counting them. The sages teach us that in this case, “counting” means, “paying attention to the days,” i.e., taking account of the days and making sure that there has been no more discharge. Another difference between the two types of counting is that the principal issue of counting the Omer is actually to count the days; after counting “today is day one of the Omer,” I have no further obligation to do anything more on that day… In contrast, when counting seven clean days, the principal interest is the end result: validating that another clean day has transpired.

On a deeper level, the difference between the two types of counting is the difference between types of awareness, or consciousness: counting clean days is a practical manifestation of the emotive powers of the soul―a relatively low type of awareness―while counting the Omer is on a higher realm of awareness. A physiological discharge is related to disease and the infected individual is occupied with verifying his/her cleanliness during the seven day period. This account of time manifests in the mundane experiential-practical dimension of consciousness and its main purpose is the practical result (being clean for seven days) and not the knowledge of how many days have passed; there is therefore no need to verbally articulate the number of days.

In Kabbalistic terms, this type of subdued information is called “back” (אָחוֹר)―like the back of the head that has neither eyes nor mouth―and refers to information that is at the back of the mind, directing and vitalizing our mundane actions. In effect, those very same actions actually conceal the information, which is why it is does not need to be verbalized. The individuals who suffered from the discharge hope that by counting the clean days they will rid themselves of the illness and thus escape the cycle of impurity. By counting the clean days in this way they can rise from the lower world of emotions and connect to the intellectual powers of the soul, connecting emotions to intellect. Nonetheless, their current situation remains within the limitations of the mundane world as it exists before it is illuminated by the light of the intellect.

In contrast, counting the Omer is “frontal” knowledge, “A man’s wisdom illuminates his face”: the main concern in observing this commandment is to know how many days have passed, to the extent that one can and should explicitly express the number in speech. The emotive powers of the soul begin “immature”; i.e., unrefined, instinctive, and rather animalistic in nature and it is our task to raise them to “adulthood” by making them more refined and civilized. This transformation is expressed by the transition from bringing the Omer offering of barley, which is animal fodder, to bringing the “two [loaves] of bread” that are offered on Shavuot, made of wheat, which is human fare. The inner significance of counting the Omer is to elevate and refine the emotive attributes by infusing them with human intellect; the advantage man has over animal. Thus, during the Omer, there is an emphasis on not being swept up in an infinite cycle, but constantly advancing in a progressive clarification process that began in the month of Nisan, in which everything is renewed and when we escaped the straits of Egypt, and culminates with the Giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

In actual fact, the Zohar does compare counting the Omer to counting the seven clean days before a married couple can reunite: the seven clean days correspond to the seven weeks of the Omer, and the reunion between husband and wife corresponds to Shavuot when the Divine Bride and Groom―the Jewish people and the Almighty―unite. Nonetheless, the emphasis on counting clean days is on the natural emotive level of the soul, while counting the Omer emphasizes elevating the emotive attributes intellectually. More precisely, in the Kabbalistic system of sefirot, counting the clean days corresponds to lower knowledge, which resides within the emotive attributes as the soul resides within the body, and counting the Omer corresponds to the sefirah of wisdom, which is above the sefirah of knowledge.

The Grand Jubilee

Now we come to counting the shemitah and Jubilee years. The uniqueness of this type of counting, in contrast to counting the clean days and counting the Omer, is that in this case, years and not days are counted, and the commandment to record the passage of time applies to the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court), not to individuals. Considering the length of time, this is understandable because an individual is less equipped to record such long time periods and only the Sanhedrin, as the public representative, can keep record of the succession of years and generations.

From a practical perspective, we can say that counting the Jubilee lies in between counting the clean days and counting the Omer. This we can glean from the fact that the sages of the Talmud do not relate specifically to how the years are counted, and there are differing opinions in the Rishonim: there are those who hold the opinion that the members of the Sanhedrin count the years verbally, just like an individual counts the Omer (and they even make a blessing before counting), and there are others who hold the opinion that counting the years until the Jubilee are in the same class as counting the clean days after an impure discharge, meaning that the number of years and shmitot must be noted to verify that the correct practical result is achieved.

So, what inner significance is there in counting the years until the Jubilee Year? From a general perspective, the years of the shmitah cycle and the Jubilee year bear historical significance. In addition, the shmitah cycle symbolizes the entire progression of global history, as the sages teach that there are six thousand years of existence followed by a seventh millennium that will be similar to a sabbatical year. The Jubilee year, in which everything returns to its initial state, everyone returns to his own territory and slaves are freed, symbolizes the Grand Jubilee, which is the World to Come. Kabbalists even describe a progression of seven sabbaticals of seven millennia, followed by the fiftieth millennium, or even “fifty thousand millennia.” But, the Holy Arizal explained that this cannot be taken literally, but only refers to spiritual processes in the higher realms.

In the Kabbalistic system of sefirot, it is appropriate to make the correspondence between counting the years until the Jubilee to the sefirah of understanding. The forty-nine years of seven shmitahcycles, together with the fiftieth year, correspond to the fifty gates of understanding, forty-nine of which were transmitted to us, while the fiftieth gate remains beyond human comprehension. But, in addition to this correspondence, which also relates to counting the Omer, in the Zohar the sefirah of understanding itself is referred to as “the Jubilee.”

Understanding (בִּינָה) is so called because it is the “intermediate” (בֵּינוֹנִי) intellectual power, which lies between wisdom and knowledge and includes both “back” and “front,” The sefirah of understanding can relate to reality but is not totally engaged in it, like a mother who has “given birth” to the emotive attributes and therefore experiences together with them every fluctuation in their development, while actually guiding them slowly and surely through an ongoing developmental process. This means that “counting” (סְפִירָה) each shmitah and Jubilee cycle does not bring us back to the starting point, but takes us constantly upwards on a spiral journey. Nonetheless, only the leaders of the Jewish people in the Sanhedrin can sense such long developmental rhythms.

Each type of counting (סְפִירָה) tells its own story (סִפּוּר): counting the clean days to purity is the personal story (סִפּוּר) of the individual; counting the Jubilee is the universal chronicle (סֵפֶר דִּבְרֵי הַיָמִים) of history; and counting the Omer is the highest story of all, the story of the Jewish people leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah. Counting the Omer illuminates all the sefirot (סְפִירוֹת) and all the stories (סִפּוּרִים) like a sapphire (סַפִּיר) gemstone, ensuring us that in order to be redeemed we do not necessarily require an extended process of years and generations, instead, we can shorten the process from years to days, and we can be redeemed on this very day, as the verse is interpreted, “Today – if you hear His voice.”

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