Rabbinical School Divrei Torah Getting to Fifty: Some texts evoking thoughts about Shavu’ot as the day following the 49th day
Shavo’ut is unique among the biblical pilgrimage holidays in that it is not identified by date. It is celebrated on the day following the completion of counting seven weeks, or forty-nine days beginning on the day after the celebration of Pesah. In the Zohar, these forty-nine days are connected to the rabbinic notion of “gates of understanding”.
When the Israelites were in Egypt they defiled themselves with all kinds of impurity, so much that they were subservient to forty-nine forces of impurity. The blessed Holy One delivered them from the service of all other powers, and brought them into forty-nine gates of understanding that parallel them [the forty-nine forces of impurity]… This is why we count them [the forty-nine days of the Omer], beginning from the holiday of Pesah… Each day we are delivered from one force of impurity and brought into one force of purity.
Following this Zoharic story, the revelation of Shavu’ot is the culmination of a purification process. Shavu’ot, the fiftieth day, follows accessing all forty-nine gates of understanding. Interestingly, the rabbinic source for this idea (see below) actually has fifty gates of understanding rather than forty-nine, though admittedly only forty-nine are accessible to humans. What is this fiftieth gate? How does this idea of an inaccessible completion relate to the celebration of Shavu’ot on the fiftieth day? In the following sections I will address these questions first in the original rabbinic texts and then in two later Hasidic developments of this theme.
The notion of fifty gates of Binah–understanding is attributed in the Bavli to Rav and Shemuel.
Rav and Shemuel both taught: Fifty gates of understanding were created in the world, and all were given to Moshe except one. Of this it says: “You made him/them slightly less than God” (Psalms 8:6).
Psalms 8:6 is commonly presented in Rabbinic literature as a complaint of ministering angels jealous of humans. While in the earliest texts (Tosephta Sotah 6:5) the object of jealousy is the first Adam, in a later text the jealousy is directed towards Moshe who has come to heaven to receive the Torah.
At that time the ministering angels gathered to criticize Moshe. They said: Master of the universe, “Why should You remember humans, and keep going back to the son of Adam? (Why) make them only slightly less than God, and crown them with honor and glory? etc.” (Psalms 8 5-9). And they spoke behind Moshe’s back saying – who is this woman-born who has ascended to the heights?
This midrash may have more in common with the teaching about the gates of wisdom than just the shared citation from Psalms 8. Rav and Shemuel speak of gates of understanding that are “in the world”, which may imply a wisdom embodied in all of creation. However, both the phrase used in their teaching – “given to Moshe”, and the verse cited from Psalms 8, are associated with the receiving of Torah at Sinai. This allows us to understand that Moshe receives these gates of understanding as Torah at Sinai . But whether these gates are revealed in Torah or in the world, the origin of the number fifty in Rav and Shemuel’s teaching remains unexplained. The editor of Bavli Rosh HaShanah associates Rav and Shemuel’s teaching with another verse from Psalms: “The words of the Lord are pure words, silver purged in an earthen crucible, refined sevenfold” (12:7, JPS translation). The Hebrew word for sevenfold “shiv’atayim” is midrashically read as seven times seven thus leading to the conclusion that God’s word goes through forty-nine refinements, presumably equivalent to the gates of understanding that were given to Moshe.
The same verse is used to evoke the number forty-nine in a different context in the Yerushalmi:
R Yannai taught: Had Torah been given clear cut there would have been [for us] no place to stand. What then is the meaning of “God spoke to Moshe”? He (Moshe) said: Master of the universe, make known to me the path (halacha) to follow. God answered: “follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2) – If the majority rules innocent – acquit, and if the majority rules guilty – condemn. [I am not giving you a clear cut answer] so that you will discover in Torah (torah nidreshet) forty-nine aspects [leading to the conclusion] pure, and forty-nine aspects [leading to the conclusion] impure. Forty-nine is the numerical value of the word vediglo. […and his banner (vediglo) of love is over me. Songs, 2:2] Thus also scripture says – “The words of the Lord are pure words, silver purged in an earthen crucible, refined sevenfold” (Psalms, 12:7). And also – “they loved you sincerely” (Songs, 1:4).
The Yerushalmi, like the Bavli is focused on the limits of Moshe’s knowledge even as he receives Torah directly from God. There are however some significant differences between the two teachings. The verse both teachings have in common (at least according to Bavli Rosh Hashanah) is understood as leading to the number forty-nine. However, the number forty-nine is never actually mentioned in the Bavli. It is identified only as one less than fifty. This strange identification of the number makes some sense if we understand that the Bavli’s teaching focuses on the gap between God and humanity. God knows or inhabits the fifty gates of understanding, but even the most perfect human can acquire only forty-nine. To enter the fiftieth gate would be to acquire divine understanding, but the point of this teaching, summarized by quoting Psalms 8:6, is that humans are always “slightly less than God”.
In the Yerushalmi on the other hand the number fifty is never mentioned. Rather than being an expression of the difference between humans and God, the number forty-nine is an expression (“banner”) of God’s love. The number forty-nine embodies the multiple options of human readings accompanied by human insecurity, error and innovation. Beyond that lays the absolute authority of God who with divine certainty can tell us what path to follow. The request that the Midrash attributes to Moshe assumes that God will take that role, but God is not interested in having that kind of relationship with Israel. God wants a love relationship with Israel and understands that this requires the human partner have “a place to stand” as well. The Torah of the covenant is not authored by only one side of the relationship. God has offered us an unfinished text that has rich possibilities (forty-nine) of completion in any direction we humans might take it. Our relationship with God can truly be a love relationship only because we stand as autonomous partners in it and contribute our side to creating its text. The Yerushalmi does not have a mysterious fiftieth gate. It has forty-nine pathways of human creativity and innovation spreading out in any direction we look.
The verse from Psalms 12 makes sense in the Yerushalmi precisely because it is associated with the number forty-nine and not with the number fifty. Its connection to the teaching of Rav and Shemuel is more tenuous. In connecting the verse to their teaching the editor of Bavli Rosh Hashanah merges their teaching to that of the Yerushalmi, diffusing much of the Yerushalmi’s power. In creating this merger the editor leaves us with the impression that the endless possibilities of interpretation in Torah are a human shortcoming, the result of not having divine knowledge. Presumably, God who inhabits the fiftieth gate knows the correct interpretation.
While this conclusion may actually reflect the teaching of Rav and Shemuel it does not represent the Yerushalmi which celebrates the variety of human understandings as an expression of God’s love.
The difference between these two teachings might also be expressed in the way we celebrate Shavo’ut. Seen through the lens of the Bavli’s teaching Shavu’ot is a holiday of Yir’ah (fear/awe). Even if we stand at the peak of human achievement, having worked our way through all forty-nine gates of understanding, the revelation of Shavu’ot is beyond us. The Torah of Shavu’ot is the exposure to the Divine, to the fiftieth gate that we recognize will never be ours. Experiencing the awesome greatness of God we humbly accept to follow and work on Torah within our own human limitations.
On the other hand the Yerushalmi’s teaching is much more in line with the traditions that celebrate Shavu’ot as a wedding, focusing on the experience of Divine love –Ahavah. For forty-nine days we have affirmed the freedom we claimed on Pesah, delving into the entire realm of human possibility. It is this richness, our journeys, our mistakes, our autonomous being that allows us to be partners in love with the Holy blessed One and celebrate not only the receiving, but the co-creation of Torah.
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Rabbi Ebn Leader is a faculty member of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA.