Here’s why Judaism counts up, rising to holiness


The concept of “going up in holiness” is one that gains prominence around Chanukah, as we light candles, adding one each night. But the opinion of Beit Shammai is that we start with eight and light one less each night.

Does Beit Shammai not believe in the idea of rising in holiness? He argues that we are mimicking the bull sacrifices of the Temple when we light those candles.  

The truth is that the concept of rising in holiness is relative. For example, we start the holiday of Pesach and then we have Chol Hamoed, which is certainly a less holy time period. When there is a Shabbat Chol Hamoed, we don’t even acknowledge that it’s Pesach in the haftarah.

While we may, we are not obligated to eat matzah on the last days of the holiday (unlike our obligation on the first night of the holiday). Those who are strict about not eating gebrokts are often lax about it on the last day of the holiday. That is certainly not going up in holiness.

A tale is told in the Talmud (Brachot) that after Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was deposed as Nasi, there was debate as to whether he could continue to lecture in the Nasi slot. They opted not to deny him the Nasi teaching slot, but to only give him less frequent opportunities to teach. Why? Because he couldn’t be brought down from the holiness level he had achieved.

The Talmud in Megillah discusses three options of how people can read the minimal required number of Torah verses, usually 10 altogether. Do we break down their three aliyahs as 4-3-3, or 3-4-3 or 3-3-4? According to the view that praises the last person who reads four, the argument is made that we go up in holiness. But if that is a rule, then neither 4-3-3 nor 3-4-3 should be an option!

Perhaps the principle can be applied in this way: when we’re dealing with an individual’s honor, sometimes “going up in holiness” has repercussions. Sometimes it is a support to a practice, but doesn’t define the practice.

Sefirat HaOmer is a great example. There is nothing inherently more holy about any day of Sefirah over another. Every day of Sefirah is the same. And yet, as we know, we count Sefirah upwards, because we are going up in holiness.

How, if each day’s level of holiness is the same? If “going up in holiness” is a principle which supports our halachic practice, we need to understand how it shapes how we observe Sefirah.

Rabbi Soloveitchik had a unique explanation for why we count Sefirat HaOmer up instead of as a countdown. Citing the Ran, he said we count the Omer today to reenact the counting of days from leaving Egypt until receiving the Torah. The people were not told on which date they’d receive the Torah, because G-d does not always reveal all the details of the endgame.

Just as we don’t know when the Messiah will come, and we count years upwards, the Jews had to count upwards to the receiving of the Torah because they did not know exactly when it would take place. When we reenact our ancestors’ count-up to Matan Torah, we count upwards as they did. There is an element of uncertainty in the religious experience.

The Ktav V’hakabalah notes that the word used to describe the seven weeks from Pesach to Shavuot is temimot, which more often means perfect or wholesome, and not shleimot, which would specifically mean complete or full. He defines temimotas complete in quality, while shleimotis a completion in quantity.  Seven weeks temimot means you haven’t missed a day of the 49.

Quoting Rabbi Chiya in the Midrash, the Ktav V’hakabalah says, “Seven temimot weeks are in fact temimot when the Jewish people fulfill G-d’s will.”

In the end, we need to recognize that holiness is less about trimmings, and more about what we can achieve when we use our time well.

Rabbi Soloveitchik talked about counting up because that is how we look forward to Sinai.

Maybe each of us can take upon ourselves a personal learning project in preparation for Shavuot. That is one way to “go up in holiness.” Another way is to do less judging of our fellow man, more putting the other person up than putting them down.

Through this we will not only enhance our relationships, but bring holiness into our day-to-day encounters.

Rabbi Avi Billet, originally from the Five Towns, is a mohel and the spiritual leader of Anshei Chesed  Congregation in Boynton Beach. A version of this column was previously published.