Waving away the conflict

The idea of waving the omer, known as tenufa, is something we see several times in the Torah. What does it signify?

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Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg, | updated: 17:03

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

A large percentage of the weekly portion of Emor is dedicated to the description of the various festivals Jews are obligated to celebrate, and included in this section is the commandment concerning the omer (Vayikra 23:9-11):

“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the Land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, you shall bring to the kohen an omer of the beginning of your reaping. And he shall wave the omer before the Lord so that it will be acceptable for you; the kohen shall wave it on the day after the rest day.”

The idea of waving the omer, known as tenufa, is something we see previously in the Torah. For example, in the introduction of many of the stages of worship in the Temple, the Torah recounts the following (Shemot 29:26-27):

“And you shall take the breast of the ram of perfection which is Aaron's, and wave it as a waving before the Lord, and it will become your portion. And you shall sanctify the breast of the waving and the thigh of the uplifting, which was waved and which was lifted up, of the ram of perfection, of that which is Aaron's and of that which is his sons'.”

Rashi explains that “waving” refers to a horizontal action of moving away from you and back again, while that which is “lifted up” refers to a vertical raising and lowering.

Tenufa also serves as a template for the action of shaking the Four Species. The Talmud relates that the minimum size of the lulav must be large enough to be able to wave, and the source is derived from the tenufa done in the Temple.

What is the purpose of tenufa?

There are various interpretations offered by Midrashim, which ultimately boil down to two overall formualtions. In the first, one moves the omer horizontally back and forth to the One who the world is His, while the vertical movement is to the elyonim and tachtonim (the heavenly and earthly creatures) which are His. The second way of learning sees the horizontal movement as nullifying the harsh winds, while the vertical nullifies the injurious dew (in contract to normative dew).

When we analyze the above Midrashim, it becomes difficult to understand the philosophical objectives the waving movements are seeking to achieve. What are the dual ideas about God in the first opinion? Once one recognizes God’s supreme control over the world, what more is there? And the second approach? Without a deeper analysis, it would appear one is engaged in a superstitious ritual to ward off these potential weather phenomena.

The primary focus of these two approaches deal with our sense of control over our surrounding world. A common theme in many of the laws regarding agricultural growth and their various cycles is the balance between man’s effort and subsequent results against the elements beyond his purview. Commandments such as teruma and bikurim consider the idea that one must give up some of his produce to recognize the limitations of his control over the agricultural process. The procedure involved with the waving of the omer is part of this same class of commandments.

The difference in the above two approaches highlights two somewhat conflicting views we have of the world around us. On the one hand, the fruits of our labor are constantly apparent, and the willingness to accept the limitations of our control is a challenging endeavor. On the other hand, we sense vulnerability, knowing deep inside our foothold on the world is more of an illusion than anything else. This idea is present in considering the two approaches.

The first opinion lines up with the overinflated sense of control possessed by humanity. When the omer is waved, there are two discrete ideas being expressed. The first concerns God’s control over the universe. In this context, the understanding is about God’s knowledge of the universe He created, and the inability of mankind to master the information. The scale of the universe, alongside the commonality of its fundamental components, reflects the a clear expression of God as Creator. However, as human beings, there is another view we must have of God. The elyonim and tachtonim are referencing the created beings themselves, specifically those which have the means of perceiving God. We must see God not just as Creator, but as Ruler. God dispenses justice, rewarding and punishing based on our actions. The success of the agricultural process is dependent on Divine Providence alongside the physical effort exerted. When the omer is moved forward and back, the physical world is referenced. And the vertical axis obviously references the elyonim and tachtonim. Thus, the waving of the omer in this context reflects seeing God as both Creator and Ruler.

The other opinion focuses on the aspect of man’s sense of helplessness, especially when it comes to the idea of planning ahead. With the time of the omer comes the stretch of summer, and much hangs in the balance. With all the work put in, will success ensue? The two categories in this instance are more related to each other, as each targets a specific potential negative effect on future growth. Both the damaging winds and harmful dews are areas of weather beyond our control. The limitations in our predictive abilities are a constant source of insecurity. In this instance, the horizontal motion reflects the directions the winds blow in, while the vertical point to the dew (as dew is condensation and found on the ground). The waving, then, is not a ritualistic expression of superstition. Instead, the entire process functions to allow for man to recognize the importance of placing his security in God.

While we are not as in touch with the workings of the agricultural world as we once were, the ideas of the tenufa without question are timeless. Developments such as the technological revolution has created dangerous and damaging notions of human superiority. At the same time, cosmology has demonstrated to such a large extent the vulnerability of our existences. We struggle with these two extremes, an internal tug of war as to how to view ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. Only through turning to God, in both of the above contexts, can we resolve the conflict.