Parashah Ponderings

Sephirat HaOmer: A Time for Counting and Praying

This week’s Torah reading, Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17, a special reading for the final day of Passover, reiterates the mitzvot (commandments) to consecrate the first born of one’s herd or flock to God and also to observe the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, each at its appointed time. In between the verses pertaining to Passover and Shavuot, meanwhile, we find this:

You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain.  Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) for the Lord your God, offering your freewill contribution according as the Lord your God has blessed you. (Deut. 16:9-10)

The “standing grain” mentioned here is the omer, the sheaf of the first fruits of the barley harvest, which we learn about in Leviticus 23. The ritual of counting off seven weeks during the spring harvest between Passover and Shavuot is called in Hebrew “sephirat ha-omer” or “counting the omer.” For 49 nights, beginning with the second night of Passover and concluding on the evening before Shavuot, we are to recite a blessing praising God for commanding us to count the omer and then announce which day and week of the omer we are counting that night.

This ritual of counting the days of the spring harvest for seven weeks surely made a lot of sense to our biblical ancestors. On one hand, seven weeks was “the period of time required to complete the harvest.”[1] More importantly, though, until seven weeks had passed, it was not known whether the harvest would be successfully completed and plentiful enough to sustain life and not be damaged by late rain or pests.”[2] Our forebears spent the weeks of the harvest in a state of anxiety, praying that the harvest would sustain them through the scorching summer months.

The rabbis of the Talmud considered these seven weeks a period of semi-mourning for reasons that are not quite known to us. To this day, observant Jews will not get married, get their hair cut, or engage in celebratory activities such as dancing or listening to instrumental music during the counting of the omer. Only the 33rd day of the omer, the minor holiday of Lag B’Omer, provides a brief respite from these restrictions. Regardless of the rabbis’ reasons for enshrining the Omer in mourning customs and providing a day of relief, the meaning of the omer for traditional Jews is found first and foremost in the fact that God commanded the counting of the omer, and they feel duty-bound to fulfill that commandment.

What meaning, though, might the omer hold for less traditional Jews, Jews who neither live in an agrarian society nor feel bound by the dictates of Torah or the rabbis? Why do some of us non-traditional Jews bother pausing for a moment each night to recite the blessing and announce where we are in the counting of the omer? Not only do we no longer harvest our own food, but modern technology ensures that even in lean times we will have plenty of it, albeit possibly at a higher cost and with less variety. What is it about the omer that captures our spiritual imagination today?

To me, the omer is rife with personal meaning. First, the omer reminds me that not all people have the luxury to not worry where their next meal will come from. On the contrary, people living in developing countries, certainly in war-torn parts of the world, are highly dependent on their governments, on the good graces of the rest of the world, and on nature to provide for their needs. As one so far removed from the misery of millions, I see the omer as a structure for “counting my blessings” and praying that all human beings will one day enjoy the bounty I enjoy.

On another level, the omer connects my experience of liberation, celebrated during Passover, with my experience of God’s ongoing revelation, celebrated on Shavuot. On Shavuot, termed “the time of the giving of the Torah” by the rabbis, we remember when God revealed the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Whether that moment at Mt. Sinai is grounded in history or in sacred story, the moment signifies for the Jewish people that point in time when we committed ourselves to living lives of holiness, guided by our understanding of what God expects of us. During the omer, I feel grateful for my freedom and obliged to exercise my freedom in a way that affirms the covenant my ancestors and I made at Sinai.

Finally, the omer brings me closer to the Land and State of Israel. The Torah introduces the ritual of counting seven weeks with “When you enter that land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest…” (Lev. 23:11). By offering first fruits of the harvest and remaining in a grateful, if anxious, mood throughout the harvest, our ancestors gave thanks to God for bringing them into a place they could call home, a place where they could feel close to God, a place where they could become masters of their own destiny. Israel, with all its complexities, is still this place for the Jewish people. I am no less grateful for the existence of the Land and State of Israel today than were my biblical forebears.

While Israel exists as a blessing in my life, there remains one more meaningful aspect of the omer for me in connection to Israel: the tradition that asks me to keep my exuberance in check while counting my blessings demands that I keep my pride and joy in the Jewish homeland in check as well. Truth be told, the Zionist dream articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence nearly 67 years has yet to bear enough fruit to satisfy all Israel’s inhabitants. Until all Israel’s inhabitants equally benefit from the development of the country, until all her inhabitants equally feel the blessings of liberty, justice and peace, until all her inhabitants equally enjoy the full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture, I believe Jews everywhere must continue to pray for the bounty of Zionism’s harvest and, even more, help till the rich soil of Israel’s Jewish and democratic values to bring that harvest forth.

However you relate to this ancient custom of counting the omer, I pray that you, too, will count your blessings while maintaining awareness that for too many in our world their harvest has yet to yield its bounty or may never have been sown at all.

Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Dan

[1] Jeffrey Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996) , p. 156.

[2] Ibid.

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