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Who Knows 50?

March 17, 2013 | by Osher Chaim Levene, with Rabbi Yehoshua Hartman

The distinguished number of transcendence.

Excerpted from the just-published book Jewish Wisdom in the Numbers.

The number 50 is the distinguished number of transcendence. The count up to 50 is composed of two essential and distinct stages.

The first phase is the step-by-step progression rising from 1 up to 49. As the square of 7 (7²=49), 49 denotes the complete cycle within the physical universe.1 This is a natural development, one that reaches the extremities of the outer boundaries. This may be the furthest limit as far as nature is concerned – but it is not the endpoint. But the ultimate destination of a Jew is his arrival at the second phase – one where he somehow manages the supernatural leap from 49 to arrive at the transcendental quality of 50.

The progression from 49 to 50 has, as its precedent, the stepping stone from 7 to 8. The soul is likened to the 7th center of holiness within the body that sanctifies the 6 directions of the physical world toward spiritual pursuits.2 Through this process, the soul is able to elevate itself, and the body with it, toward perfection.3 In number terms, the 7 is elevated beyond to reach 8, which is synonymous with entry onto the higher transcendental plane.4 And the arrival at 50 similarly marks the entry into this exalted state.

A Passage to Sinai

Perhaps the count toward the number 50 finds its most well-known historic expression in the Exodus and its aftermath. – exodus: 50

The momentous event that commemorates the birth of the Children of Israel as a nation was the exodus from Egypt. Not only is there a twice-daily remembrance of this milestone,5 but much of mitzvah observance is marked by repeated references to the Exodus. Its central importance is due to this event celebrating the Jewish People’s brand-new state of existence.

Their deliverance was not only from physical slavery but also from the Egyptian worldview. The Exodus released them from an outlook constrained by the natural realm.6 The redemption catapulted Israel into an alternate state of reality. They exchanged the restricted for the unrestricted, the natural for the supernatural, and the ordinary for the extraordinary. It was the seminal event that would define what Israel had now become: God’s Chosen People. Their transcendental quality was now evident in the aftermath of their trailblazing liberation.

The historic event of the Exodus is mentioned in the Torah a total of 50 times.7 And the redemption process which started on the first day of Pesach finally reached its completion stage 50 days later at Sinai. Indeed, God freed the Children of Israel in order that they accept the Torah. The Divine instruction given to Moshe at the burning bush was to lead Israel out of Egypt and bring the nation to serve God at that mountain.8shavuot: day 50

The 50 stages of redemption required a minimum 49-day interval for their national metamorphosis. Prior to their liberation, the Children of Israel had sunk to the nadir of spiritual impurity: the 49th level of impurity. The Exodus introduced a spiritual cleansing process. Israel embarked upon a gradual path of ascension, one level after another. Theirs was a phenomenal rise from their degraded position on the 49th gate of impurity up to the 49th gate of purity.9 Finally, they arrived at the highest spiritual pinnacle on the 50th day.10

This period bridges the Festivals of Passover and Shavuot. The journey is alluded to in the mitzvah that famously links this time frame: the 50-day Counting of the Omer, from date of the cutting of an Omer measure of the new crop of barley, which was brought up as an offering on the second day of Pesach: You shall count for yourself … 7 weeks that shall be complete until the morrow after the 7th week – it shall be 50 days ….11torah: 50

Shavuot is the only Festival not referenced by a specific date in the Jewish lunar calendar. Its classification as the time of the giving of Torah is recorded as Day 50 after the Exodus. This firmly establishes Shavuos as the climax of the Exodus. In the relationship between God and Israel, the giving of Torah at Sinai is termed on your wedding day.12

Marriage celebrates the total commitment of two parties to each other. The obligations of a Jewish marriage arrangement are recorded in the ketubah, the wedding contract. The set monetary settlement allocated to a maiden was 50 silver shekels (equivalent to 200 zuz/dinars in Mishnaic currency).13 This sum finds its perfect parallel in the giving of the Torah, where the contractual duties of Israel’s wedding day came into effect on the 50th day after the Exodus.

Here God showered His beloved nation with the best wedding gift of them all: the gift of Torah. The metaphysical quality of Torah often sees its depiction as qualities of the Divine intellect. Its transcendental nature is over and above the physical existence of This World. Appropriately, Torah was given at the beginning of the 8th week after the Exodus. It taps into the symbolism of 8 transcending the natural realm epitomized by the number 7. In this respect, 50, which follows the cycle of 7 weeks each consisting of 7 days, shares the “out of this world” quality of the number 8.14

As the 50th day after Egyptian deliverance, in the 8th week, Shavuot relates to the transcendental nature of Torah.15 In the singular form, the word Torah is said to occur 50 times in the Torah.16

Parallel to the number 8, the 50th level relates to that which is “out of this world.”17 The Mishkan, Sanctuary, and subsequently the Beis HaMikdash, Temple, revolved around Torah as represented by the Luchos, Tablets, housed in the Kodesh HaKodashim, Holy of Holies. (In itself, the construction of a House of God served to immortalize the giving of Torah at Sinai.18) The purchase of the Temple site took effect through the 50 shekels of silver paid by each tribe.19 The maximum age for a Levi to serve in the Temple was 50 years old.20 In particular, the innermost chamber, the Kodesh HaKodashim relates to this 50th transcendental level.21 And there were 50 golden hooks upon the roof spread directly above the curtain cover at the entrance of the Kodesh HaKodashim.22

Above Nature

We have noted that 50 represents the full journey toward acceptance of Torah in the 50 days bridging Pesach and Shavuos. The passage through life calls for the Jew to emulate the national passage to Sinai. He must proceed until the natural end – and then go beyond it. He must transcend the finite and touch the sublime 50th gate that belongs over and above the natural rules of This World.2350: at a distance

The number 50 is used as the measure that places something at a distance. The Talmud notes the use of a rope measuring 50 cubits for matters such as measuring the 2,000-cubit distance of techum Shabbos, the distance beyond the city one may travel on Shabbos.24 Because of the negative impact of a granary, leather tannery, and cemetery, these were not halachically permitted to be located within 50 cubits of the city.25 Of course, the 50-day journey from Egypt to Sinai ensured that Israel was no longer under the sinful influence of their idolatrous past.

No less than 50 stages of redemption – parallel to the 50 times the Exodus is recorded in the Torah – were required to achieve a clean break from the past. Now, on the 50th day, Shavuos, the shackles of bondage were finally broken. This is recorded in the mention of the Exodus in the opening verse of the 10 Commandments: I am Hashem your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery.2650: gates of understanding

The creation of Israel in the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot ties into another aspect of symbolism found in this number. God created the universe with the 50 Gates of Understanding.27 The 50 Gates relate to the ascending spiritual levels within the world through which man must pass in order to uncover the inner secrets of creation and in order to comprehend the powers, capabilities, and life forces within.28

In a sense, the 50 Sha’arei Binah signify the distance of how far removed man is from God’s wisdom. It is incumbent upon man to pass through these Gates of Understanding in a journey to uncover the Divine wisdom hidden in the words of Torah. This often involves the deductive reasoning of understanding, (“bina” in Hebrew) to derive “one thing from something else.”29 “Bina” is cognate to “bein”, between,30 which indicates the gap that man must bridge in order to approaches his

The 50 days of the Omer parallel the 50 Shaarei Binah.31 The word binah further relates to “binyan”, building.32 The count of the Omer toward Shavuot is the process of building where the Jew builds himself up from the lowly level of an animal up to the spiritual heights of a Godly being.33 It is his bid to traverse the 50 gateways of Divine wisdom. He endeavors to transcend the natural and to touch the supernatural realm where he will gain a clearer perception of God.

The highest level humanly possible is 49 gates; it is God Who enables a person to make the final leap from 49 to 50. The human being who passed through the full 49 gates was Moshe.34 However, the final 50th gate still lay beyond his grasp. The secret of this ultimate step would lie within the secret nature of Yovel.35yovel: year 50

The 7 weekly cycles of 7 days lasting until the 50th day, Shavuot, has its obvious parallel to the 7 Shemittah, Sabbatical cycles of 7 years that culminate in the 50th year, Yovel, Jubilee Year.36 Yovel marked the cumulative conclusion of an epoch. Everything that had occurred previously – even something termed as lasting l’olam, forever37 – comes to an end. The slate is wiped clean. It returns to its original pristine state to enable the process to begin anew.

Shemittah is classified both as holy, and as Shabbos; Yovel is Holy of Holies, and “Shabbos of Shabbosos.”38 Actually, Yovel’s description as Shabbos of Shabbosos is shared by the festival of Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement.39 On this date, the Jewish nation was forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf that had undermined the Torah given on Day 50. A new era began as Israel was given the second set of Tablets, delivered by Moshe on Yom Kippur.40 This signaled that God had forgiven Israel, affirming that He would not destroy them.

The process of teshuvah, repentance – itself related to binah41 – is such that sin is eradicated. What happens? A person relates to his transcendental roots, returns to God, and emerges as a new creation.42 Interestingly, there is a total of 50 days of teshuvah from Rosh Chodesh Elul (29 days) until the end of Hoshana Rabbah (21 Tishrei).43

The word yovel also refers to the shofar-horn of a ram.44 Indeed, the 50th year assumed the status of the Jubilee year only once the shofar was sounded.45 The yovel/shofar was blown on Yom Kippur46 of the 50th year. It would herald that people and objects would revert to their original position. Sold fields returned to their original owners. Jewish slaves were released from their captivity.47 Here they freely return to their true identity.

Yovel replicates the impact of the shofar to awaken man toward repentance.48 The freedom of Yovel was unhindered by any constraints. It denotes the transcendental point that stretches above any prior attachment to what came before. – 50: all-in-1

In This World, there can be no independent human expression on the 50th level. It remains the ultimate, yet unknowable Godly dimension. It can be characterized as elevated or apart, from everything that precedes it. It transcends the natural world and human experience.49

In one respect, the 50th is the uncountable number. The Omer period lasts for 50 days – yet only 49 are to be counted. The counting of 49 automatically leads to the arrival of the 50th. This elevated state was reached at Sinai. It truly surpassed everything that came before it.50 It was on the 50th day, Shavuot, that the union between Israel and God, like a marriage, was solemnized.51

With this act the Jewish nation supernaturally transcended worldly existence to become one with God.52 Israel achieved this unity when they arrived at Sinai to encamp in a unified state: like a single person with a single heart.53 The names of the 12 Tribes of Israel, which were engraved upon the Stones worn by the Kohen Gadol, have a total of 50 letters,54 merged as one entity with their Creator.

Thus, the 50th is the point of arrival. This is where man has come “all the way.” This is the ultimate level; man has successfully completed the requisite stages of the natural passage and progressed to transcend up to the Godly level of eternity. This is the dimension of Torah, of Divine understanding, of true freedom. It is where Israel transcends to truly become one with God.

Click here to order a copy of Jewish Wisdom in the Numbers, the symbolism in the Hebrew numbers expressed in Jewish thought and practice.

  1. See “49: Full Measure.”
  2. See “7: A Holy Spark.”
  3. Ramchal, Derech Hashem 1:3. The reentry of the soul into the body after revivification is destined to propel man to a higher spiritual level than he could attain in life.
  4. See “8: Out of the World.”
  5. Berachos 12b.
  6. The root of the word מִצְרַיִם is related to the wordמֵיצַר , straits, as in the verse, ּall her pursuers overtook her within the straits (בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים) (Eichah 1:3).
  7. Zohar 2, 85b; 3, 262a. See Sfas Emes, Shabbos HaGadol 5634, for how the 50 references to the Exodus correspond to the 50 weeks and 50 Shabbosos in every year. See also Vilna Gaon, Tikkunei Zohar, p. 84.
  8. Shemos 3:12.
  9. See “49: The Full Measure.”
  10. Their development is beautifully symbolized in the 50-day ripening period of an apple – an allusion to receiving of Torah. The Midrash notes that the apple takes 50 days to ripen and this occurs in Sivan (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:2). This is a reference to the 50-day period between Pesach and Shavuos, when the Jewish nation embraced the Torah. (The apple symbolically relates to the declaration Na’aseh v’nishma, “We will do and we will hear” – Shabbos 88a. See Tosafos, ad loc. for how the apple refers to the esrog.)
  11. 1. Vayikra 23:15-16.
  12. Shir HaShirim 3:11 and Rashi ad loc.
  13. Mishnah, Kesubos 1:2. A divorced or widowed woman who remarries is entitled to half this sum: namely 100 zuz. The basic amount of 50 silver shekels for a maiden is derived from the laws of the penalty payable by a man who violates or seduces a maiden (Devarim 22:29; Kesubos 10a).
  14. Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael 25.
  15. Maharal ibid. Though the Omer count is stated to be for 50 days, only 49 are counted. One does not – indeed, cannot – count the 50th. It is not simply another day in succession to the 49 before it. It is separate and apart; it goes beyond the possible, beyond the countable.
  16. Rokeach, Devarim 6:7.
  17. See Tanchuma, Pinchas 15, about how Shemini Atzeres, the 8th day after the onset of Succos, should have ideally been positioned 50 days after Succos in the same way that Shavuos was placed 50 days after Pesach. See “8: Out of This World.”
  18. Ramban, Shemos 25:1 (Introduction to Terumah). See “410: First Temple.”
  19. Zevachim 116b. See also Succah 53a and Sifri, Nasso 42 for how David purchased the site of the altar for 50 shekalim.
  20. See Bamidbar 4:3, 23, 30, 35, 39, 43, 47.
  21. Maharal, Chiddushei Aggados, Rosh Hashanah 21b. See “8: Out of This World.”
  22. Shemos 26:6. See Rokeach, Shemos 26:6, p.141, for how the 50 golden hooks attaching the curtains parallel the 50 times the word Torah is mentioned in the singular in Chumash.
  23. See Maharal, Nesivos Olam, Nesiv HaTorah 1 for how the 50th is uncountable, as it belongs to the ethereal, elevated world that is not subordinate to time.
  24. Eruvin 57b.
  25. Bava Basra 24b-25a. See Rambam, Hilchos Beis HaBechirah 7:13.
  26. Shemos 20:2.
  27. Rosh Hashanah 21b; Nedarim 38a. “The 50 occasions Exodus is mentioned in the Torah correspond to the 50 Gates of Understanding” (Vilna Gaon, Aderes Eliyahu, Balak).
  28. Ramban, Introduction to Sefer Bereishis. See also Vilna Gaon, Safra D’Tzniusa 1.
  29. See Rashi, Shemos 31:3.
  30. Ibn Ezra, Shemos 31:3; R’ S.R. Hirsch, Bereishis 41:33.
  31. Vilna Gaon, Aderes Eliyahu, Balak.
  32. See Niddah 45b.
  33. The Omer brought on Pesach was an offering of barley, a grain that is used for animal feed. By contrast, the 2 Breads of Shavuos were made of wheat, a human food. This symbolizes the spiritual transformation from a non-spiritual beast to a spiritual human. See Sotah 15b; Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael 25.
  34. Rosh Hashanah 21b. See “49: The Full Measure.” Parallel to Moshe’s inability to attain all 50 Gates of Understanding, he was unable to pass over the River Jordan, whose width is said to be 50 cubits (Tosafos, Sotah 34b) and pass onto even 1 cubit of the ground of the Holy Land (see Baal HaTurim, Devarim 3:25 and Rokeach ad loc.).
  35. Ramban, Introduction to Sefer Bereishis.
  36. Vayikra 25:8-13.
  37. Shemos 21:6; Kiddushin 21b. This refers to a Jewish servant who rejected going free after his original 6 years of enslavement.
  38. Maharal, Chiddushei Aggados, Rosh Hashanah 21b.
  39. Vayikra 23:32.
  40. See Taanis 26b expounding the verse, the day of His wedding (Shir HaShirim 3:11). See Rashi ad loc.
  41. In the Amidah, the blessing of teshuvah is juxtaposed to binah (Megillah 17b). See Shelah HaKadosh, Chullin, Torah Ohr 63, Shelah Toldos HaAdam, Beis Chochmah (2nd) 24. See R’ Tzadok HaKohen, Pri Tzaddik, Tu B’Av, 6, as to how the level of 50 Gates of Understanding is the level of knowledge given to a penitent.
  42. See R’ Yitzchak Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak, Yom HaKippurim 1. See Shelah Toldos HaAdam, Beis Chochmah (2nd) 24, as to how Yom Kippur is a source of binah, returning the past year back to its roots and source.
  43. See Panim Yafos, Vayikra 16:30.
  44. Rosh Hashanah 26a and Rashi, Shemos 19:13. In the acceptance of Torah at Sinai, an extended blast from the yovel (shofar) indicated that the Shechinah had departed and the people could now ascend the mountain (Shemos 19:13). This, too, relates to the cessation of a phase.
  45. Rosh Hashanah 9b.
  46. See Minchas Chinuch, Mitzvah 335.
  47. Vayikra 25:10-13. See also “9: Where to Turn?”
  48. On Yom Kippur the 50th and most profound of all gates is opened, the closest level to gain insight into the ways of God (Sfas Emes, Yom Kippur 5653).
  49. Incidentally, we can explain with this the reason that, in the Purim narrative, Haman constructed a gallows that was specifically 50 cubits high (Esther 5:14). Symbolically, the wicked Haman presented himself as a deity who “supposedly” was not subject to the natural law of the land – namely, that he was on the transcendental 50th level (Maharal, Ohr Chodosh, Esther 5:14). See also Maharal, Ohr Chodesh, p.175 and Be’er Hagolah 4:14 for the symbolism of this 50-cubit gallows being constructed from the wood of Noach’s Ark (Yalkut Shimoni, 1056). See also R’ Tzadok HaKohen, Pri Tzaddik, Purim, 2, for how Haman’s gallows of 50 cubits corresponds to the 50 Gates of Understanding.
  50. Maharal, Rosh Hashanah 21b, Chiddushei Aggados.
  51. One who assaults a maiden must give her 50 coins of silver to marry her (Devarim 22:29). This is parallel to Israel receiving Torah on Shavuos, the 50th day after leaving Egypt (Rokeach, Bereishis 32:11).
  52. See Tikkunei Zohar, end of Tikkun 22.
  53. Shemos 19:2 and Rashi ad loc.
  54. The 12 Tribes of Israel were represented on the Avnei Shoam, the stones affixed to the shoulders of the High Priest’s Apron. There were 6 names, consisting of 25 letters, on each of the 2 stones, a total of 50 letters (Sotah 36a-b).

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