Humans, Animals and Shavu’ot


Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein, author of the Arukh HaShulhan, offers a unique explanation for the counting of the Omer culminating with the Festival of Shavu’ot  (Orah Hayyim 489:3).   He writes that according to the Torah the Omer period begins with a barley offering and ends on Shavu’ot with a wheat offering.  While the difference between two grains seems minor, the implication is substantial. 

Barley was largely animal fodder.  It was the grain fed to cattle (much as corn is today).  While human beings could and do eat barley, it feels rough and unrefined to the palate.   Barley is a coarse grain.  And animals are coarse creatures.

Reinforcing the view that barley is more suitable to animals than to humans is one of the requirements of the ordeal of the suspected adulteress.  The meal offering that she brings (Numbers 5) is one of barley to symbolize, according to the Torah, that adultery is a sin of following one’s basest, lustful, animal-like impulses (Sotah 16b).  In contrast, the more refined and refine-able grain, that is, wheat, makes up the offering for Shavu’ot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai.  The Torah was given specifically, say the rabbis, to refine the human personality.  Shavu’ot is the festival that impels us to consider how different human beings are from other sentient but amoral creatures.  The more refined grain – wheat – represents the more refined human personality. 

Bracketed by the barley offering and the wheat offering, the Omer period is designed to remind Jews of how each of us is commanded to move from our lower nature to our higher nature; a higher nature cultivated by the teachings of the Torah.  The transformation is sometimes difficult.  But the difficulty of the task is mitigated by the knowledge that the transformation can be incremental.  Day by day, week by week: each Jew can gradually add a little more nobility, compassion, kindness or consideration until – at last – the transformation is complete.  Thus the Torah speaks not of counting seven complete weeks (temimot) but of seven weeks leading to perfection (temimut).

This is a dramatic time of year and a special opportunity to dedicate ourselves to spiritual growth.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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