Hidden Dimensions of Sefirat HaOmer | Aleph Beta

Hidden Dimensions of Sefirat HaOmer, Part 1

Hidden Dimensions of Sefirat HaOmer

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Hear Rabbi Fohrman's latest insights into the meaning of Sefirat Ha'Omer! 

This recording is from a live zoom series Rabbi Fohrman gave in partnership with the Five Towns-Far Rockaway Virtual Bais Medrash, April 27 - May 24, 2020. 


Rabbi Fohrman: So Vayikra 23, Leviticus 23 is where the laws of Sefirat Ha'omer appear in the context of Parashat Hamo'adim. Parashat Hamo'adim, essentially, appears at the end of Parashat Emor and it's a section which is dedicated, unsurprisingly, to a calendar listing and a short description of the various mo'adim (festivals).

"Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe leimor. Daber el B'nei Yisrael v'amarta aleihem mo'adei Hashem asher tikre'u otam mikra'ei kodesh eileh heim mo'adai." These are my mo'adim. These are my festivals. "Sheishet yamim tei'aseh melachah," it begins with Shabbat and then, from Shabbat, we get into the yearly festivals or the festivals that occur once a year.

We've got Pesach right after that in Verse 5. "Bachodesh harishon b'arba'ah asar lachodesh bein ha'arbayim Pesach Lashem." We hear a little bit about the laws of Pesach. We've got the laws of Shavuot. You've got the laws of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, followed by Sukkot.

I guess the first question that comes to mind is, right in the middle of this, you have what seems like a digression where we begin to talk about stuff that technically is not really a festival at all and that is the long, drawn out laws of Sefirat Ha'omer. That appears right after we talk about Pesach; we just get into this and the question is why is this here? Why are these laws here, in a chapter, in a section that specifically begins with "eileh mo'adei Hashem mikra'ei kodesh," these are the festivals of God, right? The Omer is not a festival and yet, there it is.

Let's begin to look at some of this language. Right after we hear about Pesach, in Verse 9 it says, "vayedar Hashem el Moshe leimor. Daber el B'nei Yisrael v'amarta aleihem ki tavo'u el ha'aretz asher ani noten lachem uketzartem et ketzirah vahaveitem et omer reishit ketzirchem el hacohen." When you harvest your fields, you should bring an omer, an individual serving's worth of the new harvest to the cohen.

Then, we've got some strange laws. The offering needs to be waved. What's the significance of that? "V'heinif et ha'omer lifnei Hashem," you wave the omer, "lirtzonchem." Then, also, when do we do it? Of course, this is the subject of a famous debate between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. We hear that you're supposed to do this "mimacharat Hashabbat yenifenu hacohen." You're supposed to wave the offering on the day after Shabbat.

Now, the question is, of course, what does that mean. Now, the Sadducees famously understand that to mean that you're supposed to conduct the service of the omer on a Sunday, the day after Shabbat. That's what it sounds like. The Pharisees, the Perushim, us guys, we don't understand it that way. We understand Shabbat as referring to Pesach, of all things. Our understanding is that it refers to the first day of Pesach and therefore, what we're speaking about here is a time period that just means it's the second day of Pesach, the day after the first day of Pesach.

I guess, the second question I would raise, in addition to why the laws of omer are here at all, in the middle of the Parashat Hamo'adim, is, you know, as a card-carrying Pharisee, it seems like the Sadducees are right. I mean, right? Mimacharat Hashabbat sounds like the day after Saturday, on Sunday, you should do this. Why is it that we say otherwise? Our argument, the Pharisees' argument, is that the word Shabbat is, again, a reference to the first day of Pesach, but why would the first day of Pesach, of all things, be called Shabbat? It's very confusing. So let's kind of chalk that up as question number two.

Anyway, we hear that this korban has a certain function a couple of verses later in Verse 14. What is that function? "V'lechem v'kali v'charmel lo tochlu ad etzem hayom hazeh." Keep that language in mind; it'll be helpful later. Bread and toasted grain, parched grain or fresh ears of grain, any different way you would consume grain, chadash grain, which is to say grain from the new crops, lo tochlu, you shall not eat it "ad etzem hayom hazeh," until this very day, until you bring the Korban Ha'omer. So the function of the Korban Ha'omer is that it is matir chadash, it allows you to eat from the new crop of grain but, until you bring the offering, the new crop of grain was off limits.

Then, we get to the laws of the idea of Sefirat Ha'omer. "Usefartem lachem mimacharat Hashabbat," now you have to start counting. "Miyom havi'achem et omer hatenufah," from the day that you bring this omer, this waving offering, you count for, "sheva shabbatot temimot tihiyenah," you count for seven weeks, seven Shabbatot, until -- and here we have this language again -- "ad mimacharat Hashabbat hashevi'it," until after -- and now, Shabbat means something else -- until after the seventh week, after the seventh cycle.

Here it doesn't mean the first day of Pesach anymore, but we have the same language, "mimacharat Hashabbat," suggesting that, after the 49 days are done, after the 7th week in the cycle is done, you wait one more day and that's where you get to your 50th day, when you bring a new minchah. You bring two loaves of bread, "chametz tei'afenah," they need to be chametz. "Bikurim Lashem," you bring them as first fruits to God and that becomes its own festival, the festival that we have known as Shavuot.

It seems like a strange combination of laws. What's the waving? What's the counting? Why is there this thing that is matir chadash? What does it have to do with mimacharat Hashabbat? Why is Pesach being called mimacharat Hashabbat and why, the 50,000-foot question, does all of this have to do with festivals at all?

These are the basic questions that I would raise with you. Over the next couple of weeks, I'd like to try to develop an answer and, almost like layers of an onion, deepen the answer and deepen it and deepen it a little bit further, but let me kind of cut to the chase and suggest the beginnings of a path to answer these questions and, again, just in basic p'shuto shel mikra, the simple understanding of the text.

So here is the theory that I'd like to suggest to you. Let's just ponder this notion that, within Parashat Hamo'adim, we have this digression in Sefirat Ha'omer. Actually, there's one more aspect of this digression I'd like to just bring to your attention.

If you go back to this text one more time, at the very end of it, after we finish the omer, as if it wasn't bad enough that we had the digression of the omer itself, look what happens right when we finish that. In Verse 21, we're done with the omer. Now, look at Verse 22. "Uv'kutzrechem et ketzir artz'chem lo techaleh pe'at sad'cha b'kutzrecha v'leket k'tzircha lo t'lakeit le'ani v'lager ta'azov otam ani Hashem Elokeichem." All of the sudden, we get our laws of leket and pei'ah. When you're harvesting your field, make sure to leave the corners open for the poor. If you drop sheaves, make sure that you don't pick them up and "le'ani v'lager ta'azov otam." Leave them for the stranger. Leave them for the poor. I am God.

Then, from there, we go on, as if nothing happened, to Rosh Hashanah and this is just very odd. What do the laws of leket and what do the laws of pei'ah have to do with festivals? I mean, it's a real digression. So we digress from the festivals to talk about omer. We digress from the omer to talk about leket and pei'ah. It just seems kind of strange.

Okay. So let's go back to this again from the 50,000-foot perspective, just very generally, and just look at what we have here. In Leviticus 23, you basically have two festivals. You've got Pesach over here and then, you've got Shavuot over here. Now, when you think about Pesach and Shavuot, they're not just dates on a calendar; they are commemorations of something, right? Pesach is obviously the commemoration of Yetzi'at Mitzrayim, of the Exodus from Egypt. Shavuot -- although it's not as obvious in the text, certainly by tradition, we have it as a commemoration of Matan Torah.

Now, if you think about those events, not only do Pesach and Shavuot follow one another on the calendar by 49 days, but historically, the events that they commemorate have followed each other also, right? We came out of Egypt and that happened, and then 49 days later, we were standing at the foot of Sinai.

So here's a question that I want to throw your way or an observation I want to throw your way. All of the festivals seem to have these historical resonances, these things that they remind us of. Is it possible that the event which is right in the middle of these, Sefirat Ha'omer, is a kind of festival, in and of itself? It's a festival in the sense that there's a celebration that's taking place, there's an observation that's taking place, which is also commemorative. Is it possible that we're also commemorating something in Sefirat Ha'omer and is it possible that that which we are commemorating might just have taken place chronologically in between Pesach and Shavuot? Could it be that omer commemorates something?

Now, let's talk about omer. Let's talk about what it might be commemorating and ask yourself this question. Is there an event that took place between Yetzi'at Mitzrayim and the giving of the Torah that had to do with these qualities, that had to do with, say, Shabbat, of all things, that had to do with the idea of tomorrow, mimacharat Hashabbat? Is there an event that had to do with Shabbat, that had to do with tomorrow, that also had to do with the omer? So ask yourself this question. That word omer, that word for a measurement of a single serving, it's an unusual word, right? So does that word ever appear elsewhere in the Torah and it turns out that --

Student: Manna

Student: The measurement of the manna.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. It's the manna. The manna fits all three descriptions? With the manna, everybody had what's called an omer lagulgolet, an omer's amount. By the way, not only is this the case, that an omer does not just happen to be the amount of the manna. To my knowledge, correct me if I'm wrong, it's the only other time in all of Chumash that the word omer is ever used. The word omer is used once to describe the omer being the asirit ha'eifah, a tenth and an eifah, which is a single person's serving of grain -- that's what we had with the manna. The only other time we have it is with the Korban Ha'omer and Sefirat Ha'omer. I don't think we have omer any other time in the Chumash. Plus, in addition to that, --

Student: You have it in Zechariah, of course.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, you have it not just in Zechariah. You have it in Megillat Ruth, as well, but in the five Books of Moses, in Chamishah Chumshei Torah, the only times you have omer, I think, are these two times. Plus, when was it that, at least according to the text, we first learned about Shabbat? It was with the manna and what about the idea of tomorrow with the manna? Does tomorrow remind you of anything with the manna? Remember what happens?

Student: Yeah, Shabbat.

Rabbi Fohrman: Remember what happens? The people are collecting their double portion --

Student: Their double portion, yeah.

Student: They couldn't leave it over for the next day.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. People are collecting their double portion of manna and when they collect the manna every day, they're not allowed to leave it over for the following day. If they leave it over for the following day, it'll all rot. The exception is one day they get this double portion of manna and they're confused. Why is it there? Moses comes and says this is just as God said. Tomorrow is Shabbat and it's the great revelation that tomorrow is this day of rest and you're getting this second omer of food for your day of rest.

The question I want to pose to you is, is it possible that omer actually commemorates something. It actually commemorates the manna. This korban was somehow a commemoration of the manna that we had in the dessert. The event that took place between Yetziyas Mitzrayim and the giving of the Torah and that, somehow, this korban is a memory of that experience. Now, the question is okay, let's say that that's true. So what does that mean for us in Sefirat Ha'omer? What exactly are we supposed to remember about the manna? Why is it important exactly to remember about the manna?

I'm trying to think about the most logical way to take you through this. Let me try to sharpen it with you in this way, if we can.

Student: Rabbi Fohrman.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yes, dear.

Student: In case, I'd say, by the mitzvah of "v'shachachta omer basadeh."

Rabbi Fohrman: Ah. Okay, you're right. It's not the only one. So let's see if we can just open that up. What chapter and verse is that?

Student: Chapter 24, Verse 19.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. So isn't that interesting that --

Student: It's brilliant.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right? So let's just talk about that. How does that fit our picture? Let's just read this. So here it is, Deuteronomy 24:19. "Ki tiktzor ketzircha v'sadecha," when you cut your harvest in the fields. "V'shachachta omer basadeh," and you left behind a sheaf or a serving in the field. "Lo tashuv lekachto," don't go back and take it for yourself. "Lager layatom v'la'almanah yihiyeh," it goes to the orphan, to the widow, to the less fortunate. "Lema'an yivarechecha Hashem Elokecha b'chol ma'asei yadecha," so that God will bless you in all of the things that you do.

So how does this relate? This isn't just an omer anywhere else. What does that remind you of with --

Student: Yeah, it's shikchah.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. It's shikchah. It's the other one of these laws. Remember? There are three laws that are very similar. There's leket, shikchah and pei'ah, right? So leket and pei'ah you heard about in Leviticus 23 right next to the omer and then, the only other time the word omer is ever used is with the third of these laws of what you're supposed to leave behind for the widow, which is the forgotten sheaf of the field and that's our only other omer and somehow, I would suggest that all of that comes back to the manna. What I'm suggesting, I guess, is that the manna is the source for four different ideas that somehow are connected with each other. The laws of Sefirat Ha'omer on the one hand, and then, the laws of leket, shikchah and pei'ah.

Now the question is okay, if the manna informs our understanding of omer, how does that connect, in our minds, leket, shikchah and pei'ah to the manna, right? How does that work? Which is something we’ll need to work on. Yeah, there was a quick question there?

Student: Is the idea of the manna being the sustenance that God is giving us and then, when we finish the omer, the whole idea of giving sustenance to others because it was an agrarian society where we have that responsibility or am I jumping two weeks?

Rabbi Fohrman: No. I mean, yes. I think so. First of all, think about us. When we had the manna, we were the less fortunate, right? We were the people who couldn't fend for themselves. So maybe there is this sense that we remember ourselves being provided for by God in the dessert when we were vulnerable and therefore, it comes as no surprise that after the laws of the omer, which is our way of commemorating how God fed us when we were vulnerable -- how are we supposed to respond to that? We're supposed to respond to that by feeding others who are vulnerable. If you understand what it was like to be fed when you were vulnerable, then understand what you need to do for others. How do you repay that, right? You repay that, perhaps, with leket, shikchah and pei'ah. It's pay it forward, as it were.

So let me ask you this, then. Let's say this is true. Let's say this theory is true. Why should it be that the laws of the omer are the way they are, right? What does it have to do with the way they are omer? More than that, what does it have to do with being matir chadash? Why is it that you can't eat from the new crop of grain until you bring the Korban Ha'omer? What does that have to do with manna? Why is it that they can't eat from the new crop of grain?

Let me try to address that, if I can, with you, by taking it to a second text, another text that seems to be evoked by the omer. What I want to suggest to you is a fascinating thing, all right? The text of the omer appears in Leviticus 23. Leviticus 23, of course, happens after Yetziyas Mitzrayim, after the story of the manna, right? That's when we get the Torah. That's when we have Leviticus 23.

So Leviticus 23, the laws of the omer, is taking us back to an oppression, to an earlier event, which is the touchstone, which is the laws of the omer. What I want to suggest, though, is that Leviticus 23 also takes us forward, it foreshadows another event which is as yet in the future. That event is in Joshua Chapter 5. If you have a Tanach in front of you, open to Joshua Chapter 5. If not, let me just talk it out with you.

Student: That's when the manna stops, isn't it?

Rabbi Fohrman: It certainly is.

Student: That would tie it with Psalm 65, which is the one that we recite after counting the omer.

Rabbi Fohrman: Oh, wow! Okay. Well, we'll take a look at Psalm 65, too. Come with me for a moment into this text over here. Put the three side by side, so you have the omer, the story of the cessation of the manna and then, you have the story of the start of the manna, right?

So the start of the manna, of course, is "zeh hadavar asher tzivah Hashem liktu mimenu ish l'fi achlo omer lagulgolet mispar nafshoteichem." So everybody should take for themselves an omer lagulgolet, right? Gulgolet is a strange word, but it really means skull. An omer for each skull; an omer per each person, "mispar nafshoteichem," the number of their nefashot, their souls. "Ish la'asher b'ahalo tikachu," each one of you can take -- just like in quarantine. You can go to the grocery store and bring back food for the other people in your house, but only one member is allowed to do it.

So too, one person can go out, collect the manna and bring back to everybody else in their ohel, in their household. "Vaya'asu chein B'nei Yisrael vayilketu hamerbeh vehamam'it." By the way, pay attention to this word, yilketu, also. The manna is about that you were collecting, right? The verb for collecting, leket, becomes the law of leket, which is right after that in the omer, "v'leket k'tzircha lo telakeit." So the idea of gathering goes back to that story as well.

Take a look at Joshua Chapter 5 Verse 8. What happens? The people are coming into the land. "Vaheyi ka'asher," as they're coming into the land, they're crossing the Jordan River and they mal themselves, they undergo mass circumcision. At that point, God says to Joshua, "hayom galoti et cherpat Mitzrayim mei'aleichem," today I have uncovered the cherpah, the scorn of Egypt from you. "Vayikra sheim hamakom hahu Gilgal ad hayom hazeh."

Now, when you think of Gilgal, do you think that Gilgal, if you just read this verse, is actually connected to the word galoti, today I have uncovered the scorn of Egypt from you and that's why they named the place Gilgal. As you go forward, can you think of another hidden reason why you think this place might just be named Gilgal?

Look what's about to happen here. They get to this place that they call Gilgal. "Vayachanu V'nei Yisrael Bagilgal," they encamp in Gilgal. "Vaya'asu et Hapesach." Turns out they then make the Pesach and you're about to see, boys and girls, that the Pharisees are actually in their dispute with the Sadducees because look what happens next. "Vayachanu V'nei Yisrael Bagilgal," the people are in Gilgal. "Vaya'asu et Hapesach," and they bring the Korban Pesach. "Be'arba'ah asar yom lachodesh ba'erev," on the 14th day in the evening. "B'arvot Yericho," in the plains of Jericho. By the way, just look at that really nice alliteration here. Ba'erev, be'arvot. The two words are different words, but they are homonyms.

You're going to get another play of them here, because look what happens the very next day. "Vayochlu mei'avur," a play off of erev and arvot, where you just rearrange the letters. "Vayochlu mei'avur ha'aretz," they ate then, from the produce of the land. Remember, this is the first time in 40 years that the people are eating something other than manna. They're eating the produce of the land and when are they doing that? The day after the first day of Pesach. Isn't that interesting?

So you wonder why was the Korban Ha'omer, of all things, the day after the first day after Pesach. Look at this event that it foreshadows that takes place the day after the first day of Pesach, the very first time the people ever ate these crops. If you think about it, these crops, that very first bread or pastries that the people would've eaten from wheat of Canaan, would've been the ultimate chadash, wouldn't it have? Real chadash, right? The very newest of grain. When did they eat?

Listen to this language. "Vayochlu mei'avur ha'aretz mimacharat Hapesach." Well, what does mimacharat remind you of, right? When do you start counting? Mimacharat Hashabbat. What was macharat Hashabbat? Macharat Hashabbat, the Pharisees say, is mimacharat Hapesach. It's all the same thing. Pesach is a Shabbat, in this context. Why? We still haven't figured out why, but the textual language is clear.

Now, look what it is that they ate. They ate matzos. They ate bread. "Vekalui be'etzem hayom hazeh," they toasted grain, "be'etzem hayom hazeh." Listen to this language. Kalui, where do you find that? Go back to the omer. What are you not allowed to eat until this very day? You're not allowed to eat lechem, that would be our matzah, and you're not allowed to eat kali, you're not allowed to eat your toasted grain. Until when? "B'etzem hayom hazeh."

That language is, again, all this language borrowed from the omer, "ad etzem hayom hazeh." Then, listen to these words. "vayishbot haman mimacharat," and what happened after they ate this grain? The manna no longer had to fall, right? You didn't have to have manna anymore.

Why? The manna, which heralded Shabbat, which brought Shabbat into the world -- that's how we learned about Shabbat, from that manna. So now, the manna, which brought Shabbat into the world, went through a Shabbat itself. "Vayishbot haman mimacharat." Right? And then, the manna rested the very next day. Vayishbot, of course, is going to remind us of the omer, as well, because how long do you count the omer for? "Sheva Shabbatot temimot tihiyenah." So, "vayishbot haman mimacharat b'achlam mei'avur ha'aretz v'lo hayah od Liv'nei Yisrael." The Jewish People never had manna again. "Vayochlu mit'vu'at Eretz Canaan bashanah hahi," and they ate the grain of the Land of Canaan in that year.

I think it's pretty fascinating. What we can do right now is refine our theory, right? It's not just the case that the omer recalls the manna that we ate in the desert, the starting of the manna. It also recalls the cessation of the manna, or it foreshadows the cessation of the manna, an event, by the way, which did not yet take place when Leviticus 23 was written, because they hadn't yet come into the land.

So if you think about it, that now explains the function of the omer. What is the function of the omer? The function of the omer allows us to eat chadash, allows us to eat the new crops. Well, what was the very first new crop that we ever ate? The newest of new crops was the taste of the crops of the Land of Canaan.

So somehow, it sounds like that which allows us to eat from new crops -- it's not okay to eat from the new crops of the land until you recall the manna and it's almost like the people who ate from chadash in Joshua Chapter 5, they couldn't have helped but remember the manna because they ate it yesterday, right? So their eating of chadash was okay without a Korban Ha'omer. They didn’t need a Korban Ha'omer. They had the manna right in front of them. They remembered it perfectly.

For us, it's been many years since the manna. We have a commemorative device that every year allows us, before we eat chadash like they once did, to also remember the manna. Now, the question is why is it so essential to remember the manna before you eat chadash? How do we understand that? Why is remembering the manna so important? It's the key to being able to eat the new crop of grain.

Student: Lo litnah Torah elah l'ochlei haman."

Rabbi Fohrman: Yes. It's a phrase that the Gemara uses but it's true. The Torah could only have been given to those who ate the manna and you can't get to Shavuot either before remembering the manna. So what is it about eating chadash which is so important, to remember the manna, before you do it?

So I want to explore that with you. Let me just take you into one last very fascinating text which I think may help us explain all of this. There are a couple of puzzles with the manna itself which I think are explained by another mystery text that I'd like to show you.

Let me raise a couple of puzzles about the manna. Let's go into the language of the manna for a moment, if I can. We'll look at the omer and the manna together. Let's look at the story of the manna first. I don't think that it's an accident that the idea of Shabbat comes to us from the manna. I think there's a deep reason why that's true.

Look in the text and let's see what we find here. "Vayis'u Mei'eilim vayavo'u kol adat B'nei Yisrael el Midbar Sin asher bein Eilim uvein Sinai bachamishah asar yom lachodesh hasheini l'tzeitam Mei'eretz Mitzrayim." So here the people are; they're coming into the desert and they're hungry. "Vayomru aleihem B'nei Yisrael," and the people complain and say, "mi yitein muteinu v'yad Hashem B'eretz Mitzrayim," if only we would have died back when we were in Egypt. "V'shivteinu al sir habasar," things were good in Egypt. We ate, we sat by the flesh pots "b'achleinu lechem lasova," we ate bread to our satiety; we ate bread to our satisfaction. "Ki hotzeitem otanu el hamidbar hazeh," why did you bring us into this desert, "l'hamit et kol hahakal hazeh b'ra'av," to destroy us all in hunger?

Now, first of all, let me just raise a question over here with this? We just went through the holiday of Pesach. What question does the holiday of Pesach bring to bear upon this verse? Listen to the people's complaint. "Mi yitein muteinu v'yad Hashem B'eretz Mitzrayim," if only we would had died when we were in Egypt, "v'shivteinu al sir habasar," when we were sitting by the flesh pots. "B'achleinu lechem lasova," when we were eating bread delectably to our hearts' delight until we were satiated -- that you brought us to this lousy desert where there's nothing to eat. Let me ask you, boys and girls. What's strange about that verse in light of the holiday that they've just celebrated?

Student: Fake news.

Rabbi Fohrman: It sounds like fake news, right? We weren't eating lechem lasova. Ha lachma anya. This is our poor man's bread, this little matzah. Don't you remember? The matzah? So something confusing is going on with bread. The people seem to have these memories. Are they fake memories of this wonderful bread that they used to eat?

By the way, God takes their complaints seriously enough. Let's just go back into this text and I'll show it to you. God says, you know, it wasn't just Pharaoh that could give you lechem lasova. I can do it also. God is going to say, "Vayomer Moshe b'teit Hashem lachem ba'erev basar le'echol v'lechem baboker lisbo'a." God is going to give you meat to eat and he's going to give you bread in the morning lisbo'a, to your satiety when God hears your complaints. You know, that's what he's going to do.

So God says you know, I can do just like Pharaoh did. So it sounds like a serious thing. Like, somehow the people have these memories that Pharaoh gave them this wonderful bread. How does that square with ha lachma anya, with this terrible bread that we weren't supposed to --

Student: Rabbi, when you have no food, even a little food's good.

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. So it could just be that it was an exaggeration in their minds. It could just be that, if you have no food, even the matzah feels wonderful and yet, what I'd like to bring up, it's not the only thing that puzzles us about the bread in Egypt. To round out the puzzle -- and I'm sure, in many of your Sedarim, there are many people who ask this question on Seder night. How can it be that we say ha lachma anya, that we ate this bread because this is the poor man's bread that we ate in Egypt? It sounds, later on in the text of the Torah, that there's another reason we eat matzah. What's the other reason we eat matzah? Because God rushed us out of Egypt, right?

Student: We made it when we left.

Rabbi Fohrman: We ate it before we left; we didn't have enough time for the bread to rise. We're commanded to eat it as part of Korban Pesach. Then, a day later, we end up eating it as we're leaving and so it's all very confusing. If somebody says why do we eat matzah on Pesach, is the answer because it was the poor man's bread that we ate all of the 210 years that we were in slavery? Is the answer because that was what we ate during the Korban Pesach? Is the answer because the "v'chipazon yatzata Mei'eretz Mitzrayim," because you had to go out in such haste that you didn't have any time to bake your bread right? Is the answer also that bread was wonderful in Egypt and, like, the people think that it was all wonderful, right? So how do we understand that?

Allow me to suggest a possibility. This possibility was suggested actually by my partner in crime in Aleph Beta Land, Imu Shalev, when we discussed this a couple of years ago. He had an interesting theory that all four of these things are true, but they're true in a chronological order and I think this helps us see manna in a way which is kind of fascinating. Very briefly, his theory went like this. Why is it that anyone gets lured into slavery? What is the fundamental bargain that a master makes with a slave? Why would anyone ever sell themselves into slavery? Why would you do such a thing, accept a life of slavery?

Student: You're taken care of.

Rabbi Fohrman: The answer is they get taken care of.

Student: Food and shelter.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. Food and shelter. It's basically Maslow's hierarchy of needs, right? Maslow's hierarchy of needs basically says I only get to think about things like self-actualization and actualization through work and career when my basic needs of starvation and shelter are taken care of. If I don't have food and shelter, that's the only thing I can think of. So a ger, somebody who's a stranger who lacks food and shelter, they are fundamentally vulnerable. They can sell themselves into slavery if they don't have food and shelter for the promise of food and shelter.

So what basically happens then? This great bargain that the slave makes with the master is you take care of me and I will work for you. This must have been the bargain that we made with the Egyptians when we entered slavery and at that point, what do you do to lure a slave into slavery? You promise them a good meal and you promise them a nice bed to sleep in and that's how you get them in. Egyptian slavery was a terrible, brutal kind of thing; it ultimately beat us down. It was death through work.

The modern analog to it is Nazi Germany, which was also death through work. The lie of arbeit macht frei was just a lie, but it was really death through work. If you think about what the Nazis did to bring us to -- in the Warsaw Ghetto, to get soldiers out of their foxholes, they put piping hot bread in the middle of the town square, because if you're starving, that's what'll lure you out.

So the first reality of Egypt was piping hot bread. Wonderful, delicious bread. That's the bargain. You'll have this delicious bread and I'll take care of you and you'll enter into slavery, but that slavery was surreptitious and it became more brutal as time went on. As the work increased and as the slavery turned from an economic thing to something that beat us down and destroyed us, became avodas perach -- at that point, the food changed as well. At that point, ha lachma anya becomes real.

If I am the slave owner, then I know that, at a certain point, my slaves feel like just a commodity to me and yeah, I got them in with the big, wonderful piping bread of the restaurant meals and all of that, but once I got them, once they're my slaves, I start making calculations in my spec sheet and I realize I don't have to feed them that well. As long as I give them the basic calories and I see them as commodities -- I can just give them the most basics and that's bread and water and it's just this lousy bread and I even let the slaves make their own bread.

It's also matzah. Why? Because, as we will see with our mystery text, the one commodity that a slave doesn't have, more than any other physical commodity, is time. Time is not his own and therefore, the very first people who baked matzah because they didn't have time to let it rise were actually the Jews in Egypt, right? I didn't have time to let it - I couldn't. I needed to work all the time. I just didn't have the luxury. So I was forced to have this lousy matzah. Now, in the desert later on, what do I remember?

It's almost like a drug addict. A drug addict always remembers the first high because the first high is always wonderful. However, the nature of drugs -- and perhaps bread was the first great drug -- the nature of drugs is that you know you can never recapture that. At some point, your body's just dependent upon on it, almost like dependent on the calories of bread, but you don't get the enjoyment out of it anymore, but that's not what you remember. In your brain, you remember that first high. You remember the delicious bread and you always think you can get it back.

Now, when God redeemed us from Egypt and we had this 210 years of this lousy bread, what did he do? So the first thing he did was he said okay, there's going to be this Korban Pesach and at the korban, you're going to actually eat this matzah, this lousy bread that you ate the whole time and the reason why you're going to eat it is because it's not just a symbol of your slavery. It's going to be a symbol of your freedom, too.

Lo and behold, on the very next day, what happens? We end up eating matzah, of all things. Why are we eating matzah? The answer is because we don't have enough time for our bread to rise, except this time, there's a difference reason why we don't have enough time for our bread to rise. The reason why we don't have enough time for our bread to rise this time is a good reason.

God says I'm going to redeem your terrible experience with bread, this awful bread that you've been having this whole time that symbolizes slavery, the no-time-for-yourself bread and there's going to be a good reason why you have no time for yourself. Because I'm taking you out of Egypt so fast you don't even have time to get your wits about you. You have to leave that quickly.

Then, we leave Egypt and we enter the desert and, as we have these fantasy memories of the first bread that we had in Egypt -- which was true. There was a moment, collectively, when we all had that bread to eat. When we have those memories, God comes and says you know what. I can take care of you also. I'm also a king that can take care of you. I can give you lechem lisbo'a. I can give you bread that will take care of you, bread that will make you feel satiated as well.

So I think there's a continuum that has to with bread and manna is an important part of that continuum. Anyway, just to conclude and I'll let you go. For tonight, going back into the text -- the weird thing about the text, the strange thing about the text is this. "Vayomer Moshe v'Aharon el kol B'nei Yisrael erev vidatem ki Hashem hotzi etchem Mei'eretz Mitzrayim," by tonight, you will know that God took you out of Egypt.

Now, this is a strange thing to say. Here are people who went through -- the Red Sea just parted, they just saw the Egyptians drowned and Moses and Aaron say by tonight you will see that God was the one Who took you out of Egypt and by morning, "ure'item et kevod Hashem," when you see the glory of God, that's when you will know that God took you out of Egypt. "B'sham'o et telunoteichem," when God listens to your complains and gives you this, "lechem baboker lisbo'a," and gives you this bread in the morning to eat. How exactly is me getting bread in the morning to eat going to prove to me that God took me out of Egypt? It seems like such a strange thing to say.

Moreover, if you think about the laws of the manna -- the laws of the manna were strange laws. The manna came with laws. What were those laws? There were three of them. The three laws basically went like this. Law number one, you get an omer's worth of omer. Don't collect more than an omer. Don't collect less than an omer. You get an omer's worth of manna. Law number two, don't leave it for the morning. Finish your omer that day. Law number three, don't go collecting on Saturday. It's not going to be there on Saturday. You're going to get a double portion on Friday.

Now, the strange thing about these laws, first of all, is that God describes them as a test. He said I'm giving you these laws "l'ma'an anasenu hayeilech B'torati im lo." To test to see if you will follow my Torah or not.

It's a strange test because, if you think about our experience with these laws -- these first laws that we get, these laws of the manna, are laws that, strangely, you can't transgress. Isn't it odd? What happens, the text tells you, if you collect more than an omer of manna? When you get home, how much do you have in your sack? Just an omer. What happens if you collect less than an omer of manna, according to the text? When you get home and you look in your sack, what do you have?

Student: An omer.

Rabbi Fohrman: You have the same omer of manna. So you can't actually transgress that law because, no matter what you collect, you're always going to have the omer. Now, what happens if you leave the omer until tomorrow? Can you eat it tomorrow? No. It rots and worms get to it, so you can't transgress that law, either. What happens if you try collecting on Saturday. What happens then? Well, you won't find it; there's none in the fields.

These laws are not possible to transgress. It's like, it's the strangest thing. It's almost as if the very first laws we had were, like, these training-wheel-laws. These laws that were a test but not a test in a vindictive way where God is like oh, I'm testing you to see whether you're naughty or nice. Testing almost as in I'm training you with law. I'm giving you training-wheel-laws that you can't even transgress to get you used to the idea of law.

So what is this notion of using manna to help us get used to the idea of law. It's almost like, if you think about Matan Torah, which is in the distance 49 days from now, the very first things which were getting us used to the laws were these three laws that had to do with our bread and, somehow, that was how we got used to this all. So what's the deal with these three strange laws that you can't transgress? What was the point of those laws and why was it that God says that you'll really know that I took you out of Egypt, that I listened to your complaints?

The answer to that, I think, lies in one more text. If the omer evokes in the future the story in Joshua of us going into the land and the s'vita of the manna, us no longer having manna and if the omer evokes in the past the beginning of the manna, then the story of the beginning manna itself evokes another story.

What other story? A story that happened earlier, which we'll get to next week. The hint that I will give to you now is that the language is two things. If you think about Shabbat beginning with the manna, the sheva Shabbatot of the omer, beginning with the Shabbat which we first experience with the manna, let me ask you a trivia question. Who is the very first person in all of Chumash who ever uttered the word Shabbat? The very first time a human being talks about that verb, Shabbat. Does anyone know?

Student: Adam.

Student: Pharaoh, Exodus 5.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's correct. It is actually the worst person in the world. It is the evil Pharaoh of Exodus 5 who, enraged, screams to Moses and Aaron and says that I've got a lot of slaves. What are you taking them away from their work and the language for taking them away from their work was, "hishbatem otam misivlotam." Are you going to cause them to rest from their work? That's the first time any human being says the word Shabbat.

Turns out that the story of the manna, which was our very first Shabbat, is deeply connected to the story of the evil Pharaoh in Chapter 5 in that debate that he has with Moses and Aaron about the bricks, where he doubles the workload with the bricks. It's not just the word Shabbat that first comes in Exodus 5 and then, reappears in the story of the manna. It's everything about these two stories.

If you look at these two stories carefully -- and I challenge you to do this. Open up your Chumash some time over the course of this week. Look at Exodus 5, the story of the first bargain between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh over whether the Jews can have their extended three-day weekend or not. Open that up in one Chumash and open up the story of the manna later on in Exodus and just catalogue them. You'll see in, like, ten different way that these stories are mirror images of each other.

I want to argue that to really understand the omer, you've got to understand the manna but to really understand the manna, you have to understand Pharaoh and the bargain with Moshe, Aaron and Pharaoh and the bricks, that story in which Pharaoh, enraged, turns to them and says, "hishbatem otam misivlotam," are you going to make a Shabbat out of all of this.

That story is the touchstone for all of this, the touchstone for manna and the touchstone for omer. So pull out a Chumash this week. You're in quarantine anyway. Sit down with your kids and see what you find. Come back next week, same time, same bat channel, 10:00. We'll pick up from there. I'll see you then. Good night.

Subscribe today to join the conversation.
Already a subscriber? Log in here!