Seeds and Sparks: Cycles of Seven
by Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman
The statement by the Sages (Vayikra Rabbah 29:10) that “all
sevens are precious” is derived from their understanding that seven is the
primary cycle of time as revealed by God in the Torah. “And the heavens and earth
were completed and all their array. By the seventh day God completed His work that He
had done, and He abstained on the seventh day from all his work that He had done. God
blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on it He abstained from all His work
which God created to make” (Genesis 2:1–3). Thus, the seventh day became
not only the culmination, blessing, and sanctification of the entire Divine creative
process, but the cycle of seven became engraved in all future cycles of time as
In days, weeks, months, years, and millennia, the number seven appears as the principle cycle by which we mark the continual flow of time. Shabbat has become the central axis around which all Jewish life revolves, like the menorah of seven branches, whose middle column and light is the main pillar, balancing the three other branches on each side of it. The continual observance of Shabbat plugs us into a Divine energy and pattern of time, the very model of creation relived on a weekly basis.
There are two seven-week periods in the Jewish year — one prescribed by the Torah and one by the Sages. There are seven weeks in the period between Pesach — the redemption from Egypt — and Shavuot — the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. These seven weeks, or seven-times-seven Omer period, serves to connect these two holidays, thus teaching us that the purpose of leaving Egypt was in order to receive the Torah. This seven week cycle is not marked passively, but actively, by consciously counting each day with the recitation of a blessing, as we figuratively climb the mountain once again to receive the Torah on Shavuot, the culminating fiftieth day. These seven weeks are further associated with the sefirot, the Divine emanations through which God’s infinite light is channeled into our finite world. The seven lower sefirot (there are ten in all) relate to seven emotions and archetypal energies in the psychological makeup of man. During each day and week of the Omer period, we work on rectifying these energies in order to become worthy vessels to receive the Torah anew on Shavuot.
The second cycle of seven weeks are the seven weeks between Tishah B’Av and Rosh HaShanah. Tishah B’Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of both Temples and many other calamities in Jewish history, represents the “lowest” time of the year. From that low point to the new year on Rosh HaShanah is seven weeks. During this time period, the Sages established the reading of various prophesies of consolation on seven successive Shabbats, leading us from the destruction of Tishah B’Av to a new beginning on Rosh HaShanah.
The number seven relates to the monthly cycle in a number of ways. An astronomical month is approximately 29 days, which is basically four periods of seven and slightly more than a quarter days. The idea of a month consisting of four basic weeks is found in a month having a new moon, a quarter moon, and a full moon in its waxing, and then reversing itself in its waning towards the next new moon. The Jewish calendar is essentially a lunar one and the new moon is celebrated as a minor festival, while the full moon is celebrated in the monthly sanctification of the moon ceremony, known as kiddush levanah. In this model of the month, a seven-day week becomes the basic building block of the twelve months of the year.
The three pilgrimage festivals in the Torah — Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot — all occur during the first seven months of the year. These three festivals constitute a cycle in themselves as relates to many laws and customs that applied at the time of the Holy Temple. Pesach and Sukkot are themselves seven days in length.
The seventh month of the year, Tishrei, is the richest one as regards holidays and in that sense is the most important month of the year. The new year begins on Rosh HaShanah, followed by Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and culminates in the joyous days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.
When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Shabbat rest for God. For six years you may sow your field, and for six years you may prune your vineyard and you may gather in its crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Shabbat for God…. You shall count for yourselves seven cycles of sabbatical years, seven years seven times; the years of the seven cycles of Sabbatical years shall be for you forty-nine years. You shall sound a broken blast on the shofar in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month, on the Day of Atonement…. You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land…” (Leviticus 25:2–10)
The Sabbatical year follows the same pattern in years as the six days of work followed by a seventh day of rest, thus creating a macromodel of years based on seven. The pattern of the seven weeks of the Omer period, followed by Shavuot on the fiftieth day, is repeated in the seven times seven Sabbatical years, followed by the fiftieth Jubilee year. Although we have lost the feeling and effects of the Sabbatical cycle in the Diaspora, for nearly 1,500 years, when the Jews were in the Land of Israel and the during the time the Temples stood, this cycle was part and parcel of the experience of living in the land. For an observant Jew in Israel today, especially one living on the land, the Sabbatical year once again has begun to reenter our consciousness as an important and meaningful cycle.
The even larger cycle of millennia also follows the pattern of six days of work and the seventh day as a day of rest. According to tradition, the present period of history will last six thousand years, followed by the seventh millennium — the Messianic period. It is no coincidence that the rebirth of the Jewish State and the ingathering of the exiles is occurring as we draw closer and closer to the six thousandth year. The seventh millennium, the Messianic era, is called “all Shabbat and rest for eternal life” (Tamid 7:4). (Many of the above ideas will be dealt with in greater detail at the end of this chapter.)
The Sages integrated these cycles and their inner meanings and mysteries and applied them to all areas of Jewish law and custom. The first time the root of the word holy is used in the Torah is in relation to Shabbat: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy…” (Genesis 2:3). Therefore, the inclusion of “sevens” in a host of rituals adds an aura of holiness and endless symbolic associations. From the bride circling the groom seven times, winding the straps of tefillin seven times on our arms, circling the synagogue seven times on Simchat Torah, to the seven fruits of Israel, the seven shepherds, the seven branches of the menorah, the seven blessings of bride and groom — in all these cases and many more, the number seven reminds us not only of holiness and blessing, but also of God’s imminence in the dimensions of time, space, and soul.
The popular saying coined by the author Sholom Aleichem: “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews,” is true in a very fundamental way. Shabbat is the beloved soul mate of the Jewish people, the pearl in the crown of the King of Kings. Not only are all sevens precious, but they also connect us with God’s plan and purpose for the world, as it says in the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service: “The end of deed [Shabbat] was the first in thought.” The infinite oneness that existed before the creation will one day reveal itself and infuse all reality. On Shabbat we can already taste what that means in as tangible and real way as this world currently allows, for in truth, the future already exists in the present.
The cycle of seven is like a stone dropped in water, its evergreater ripples of influence creating widening circles of effect and blessing. The mystery of seven is deeper than the seven oceans and higher than the seven heavens. It is with us from the beginning of time and will accompany us till the end as it is stated: “Their end is embedded in the beginning and their beginning in the end” (Sefer Yetzirah 1:7).