This week we celebrate Pesach (Passover), the first of the shalosh regalim – three pilgrimage festivals to the Temple in ancient Jerusalem – that celebrate the agricultural cycle of Biblical Israel. A springtime holiday known for commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, Pesach also celebrates the start of the grain harvest. Matzah, those tasty squares of cracker-bread, is made from what would have been the previous year’s wheat harvest, and the month of Nisan begins the barley harvest. To remember this barley harvest, we count the Omer, beginning the second day of Pesach and continuing 49 days to the second pilgrimage festival: Shavuot. Omer literally translates to the bundles of grain which would be collected and offered as sacrificed at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
Nisan, the month that houses Pesach, is also known as one of four distinct “New Years” in the Jewish calendar – this one being the new year of “kings and festivals,” as opposed to Tishrei (when we now celebrate Rosh Hashanah), the new year for “years and Sabbaticals and Jubilees, and for planting, and for greens.” (Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:1) In the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11B), Rabbis Eliezer and Yehoshua disagree whether the Tishrei or Nisan new year corresponds to the creation of the world. In their arguments, both quote Genesis 1: “And God said, let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants of every kind, and fruit-bearing trees.” R’ Eliezer associates this passage with Tishrei, “the time of the second rainfall, when the rain fell and they sprouted as it is written: ‘a flow would well up from the ground.’” R’ Yehoshua says this passage refers to “the month that the earth is filled with grasses and trees bringing forth fruit . . . Nisan . . . the time that beasts and animals and bird copulate, as it is written (Psalms 65) ‘The meadows are clothed with flocks.’”
Ultimately, of course, Tishrei is acknowledged as Rosh Hashanah - even R’ Yehoshua agrees! Asking why this is so, Arbanel (on Exodus 12:2) says that “although Rabbi Yehoshua holds that the world was created in Nisan, he does admit that the beginning of the year for all of humanity is in Tishrei . . . because it fits with the natural cycle of things – it is the time of the earth’s pregnancy.”
There are, of course, many more opinions and discussion around this question of the four new years. My own reading of this particular aspect, however, suggests that the existence of both these two new years – opposite each other in the calendar – recognize both the natural earthly cycles of our home planet and the “artificial” frameworks of time that we as humans (whether on our own or as dictated by God) impose upon those occurring naturally. For example, the existence of a day is dictated by the rising, setting, and rising again of the sun. The existence of a week – seven days, wherein the seventh is made special (holy) – has no obvious grounding in natural occurrences. It exists either as a human construct or, to paraphrase Heschel, to create holy structures in time that help the Jewish people to become more holy. Shmita, the Sabbatical year, and Yovel, the Jubilee, are the same – although these are more explicitly bound to nature as well.
Heschel also suggests that we use and build holy spaces to help create the vessel, literally, for these holy experiences of time. Beautiful, awe-inspiring places, whether synagogues or mountaintops or well-designed courtyard, help to facilitate experiences of holiness: that which is distinct, or special. This suggests that perhaps we should start paying more attention to the spaces around us, to the unique qualities of our neighborhoods, local parks, cultural institutions, yards and rooftops, that can add distinctness or specialness (aka holiness) to our lives. We should pay more attention to place – and the wisdom we can learn when we deepen these connections: the Torah of Place.
A Place-based Omer Observance
As mentioned, the Counting of the Omer began on the second day of Pesach. Forty-nine days: seven holy cycles of seven, leading up to Shavuot, the Receiving of the Torah. What would it look like to do something every week from now until Shavuot to deepen your connection to place? Spring is blooming all around – a pretty perfect time to dive back in. I’ve created a chart with some suggestions for activities you might do, aligned with the seven days of creation, seven “material” Sefirot, and seven weeks of Omer. Download it here, and please share what you do and let me know if you find it useful!*
Or just go outside to a local park, or to a local music show, or theater event, or block party, or planting event, or for a hike, or bike ride, or canoe, or farmers market trip, or … what else? How do you connect to place? Share your ideas and experiences in the comments! And have a lovely, blooming, and blessing-ful spring.
PS I’m trying this out myself too! Stay tuned for the write-ups on my first two weeks of place-based Omer observance in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York, and elsewhere. Up next? Ramps!
*Big thanks to Rabbi Mat Tonti at Gesher Jewish Day School for collaborating with me on the original iteration of this chart, among many other things, for my thesis project!