COUNTING THE OMER: A SEASON OF GROWTH by Student Rabbi Rebecca Reice
This year, between Passover and Shavuot, I am trying something new in my life. It is a new spiritual practice for me. I, along with my husband, am committed to counting the omer every night for 49 nights.
So, what is the omer? Why would anyone count it for 49 nights?
Leviticus 23:15-16 state:
טו וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה: שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה. 15 And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Shabbat, from the day that you brought the sheaf (omer) of the waving; there shall be seven complete weeks;
טז עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת, תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם; וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה, לַיהוָה. 16 until the day after the seventh Shabbat you shall count fifty days; and ye shall offer a new grain-offering to Adonai.
These verses are saying: for seven weeks from “the day after the Shabbat,” which the rabbis understand to mean the day after the first day of Passover (i.e., the second night of Passover), until the 50th night, which is Shavuot, Jews are commanded to count the omer.
“What is an omer?,” you ask.
“It is a measure of grain.”
“So, what are the Israelites counting?”
“The harvest. The barley harvest would have begun in the middle of the month of Nissan, when Passover begins. At the end of the harvest, Israelites would bring offerings from their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem.”
So, now you ask me, “Rebecca, are you and Asher raising barley?”
“No,” I reply.
“So, what are you counting?”
In point of fact, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, no Jews have counted omer and then made grain-offerings in Jerusalem. Actually, since the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis have asserted other values into the omer count.
For example, we count up and do not count down. This kind of counting may be unusual for Americans but it was common practice in the Hebrew Bible to count up to the Sabbatical year (the seventh year) and the Jubilee year (the 50th year, also known as seven Sabbatical years). In the case of the omer, we are counting the days from the Exodus from Egypt, which we celebrate on Passover, to the revelation of the Torah on Sinai, which we celebrate on Shavuot. The count transports us into biblical time. We are not aimlessly wandering the desert; we are grounded with a spiritual purpose. We are marching towards Sinai, towards Torah.
Moreover, this process of counting connects the experience of freedom with the experience of receiving laws. Freedom, as God’s people, is not a hedonistic enterprise where we follow our every whim. Rather, freedom is part of our relationship with the divine, which includes receiving commandments from God. God freed us from Egypt and we became God’s people. In our freedom, we are free to devote ourselves to God’s plan for this world: making peace, pursuing justice; doing what is right, increasing what is good, what is loving.
The medieval kabbalistic rabbis matched these seven weeks of seven days with the seven sefirot (attributes of God) through which God interacts with the world. In the kabbalistic understanding of God, there are 10 revealed attributes of God. These seven are: Hesed (Lovingkindness), Gevurah (Might), Tiferet (Beauty), Hod (Splendor), Netzah (Victory), Yesod (Foundation), and Malkhut (Sovereignty). Each week is assigned an aspect and each day an aspect as well. There are boundless opportunities presented by this practice to reflect on God and the world with each day of the count.
People also use the time to study Jewish texts every day, like Pirkei Avot or “The Sayings of the Fathers” from the Mishnah. One Conservative congregation in Texas is tweeting a lesson from Pirkei Avot every day of the omer count this year.
I am certainly not counting barley each night. I have actually taken on this mitzvah as a spiritual challenge to myself to be mindful. In past years, I have committed to counting the omer and then lost the count a few days to a few weeks into the count. How did I lose count? The rules of counting omer are as follows:
You count each new day at night with a blessing. If you miss the nighttime count, you can count in the daylight hours of that day, but you may not use the blessing. You then can resume counting with a blessing that next night. If you miss both the night and the day, you have lost count and can no longer recite the blessing, but continue counting the days.
I am determined to be mindful, to keep Sinai before me, to draw closer every day. For me, these days are a time for me to prepare for Shavuot, for receiving the Torah and a spiritual return to Sinai. Each day, I am a little more ready, a little more focused.
I am focusing, but I also have a daily alarm at 8:30pm and I am receiving a daily email from the Orthodox Union. I am trying to support myself in this mitzvah and so far my count is strong and I have not missed a day and I am halfway there!
I invite you to join me in preparing for Shavuot. What will help you prepare? Will you count the omer? Will you sign up to receive a daily text to learn? Are there other practices to help you be mindful of the coming holiday of “Receiving the Torah?” May this ancient season of the harvest be a season of growth for us all.