Passover II 5782-2022

“Counting the Omer
(Revised and updated from Passover II 5768-2008)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Emor, we learn of the mitzvah of counting the Omer. In Leviticus 23:15-16, the Torah declares: וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת…תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם, And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day on which you bring the עוֹמֶר–Omer waveoffering–they shall be seven complete weeks. Until the day following the seventh week you shall count 50 days.

The Torah instructs the people to count 49 days starting with the second day of Passover. It was on the second day of the Passover holiday, that the Omer (a volume measure)offering of the new barley crop was brought to the Temple. On the 50th day, the festival of Shavuot, marking the giving of the Torah, was celebrated.

This 49-day period is known as סְפִירַת הָעוֹמֶר–Sefirat HaOmer , literally, the counting of the Omer. Even though there is no Temple and no Omer offering today, the mitzvah of counting the Omer is still practiced. The Omer is counted each night after nightfall, so that the 49 days and the seven weeks will be complete.

Maimonides states: “Just as one who awaits a most intimate friend on a certain day, counts in ardent expectation the days and even the hours until his coming, so we count the days from the anniversary of our departure from Egypt until the festival of the Giving of the Torah. For the latter was the aim and object of the exodus from Egypt,” (Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3, chapter 43). Jews therefore count these days lovingly and patiently in order to give meaning to the exodus through the acceptance of the Torah.

Although it is, very often, the custom of the secular world to count down, e.g., at Cape Canaveral they count “5,4,3,2,1, blast-off” or, “three more shopping days,” “two more shopping days,” “one more shopping day,” it is the Jewish practice to count up: “Eighteen days of the Omer,” “nineteen days of the Omer,” “twenty days of the Omer.” This upward counting underscores the optimism of the Jewish people. When we reach our goal, we are not at all depressed, in fact, we are exhilarated, because the festival of Shavuot is seen as a time of fulfillment, not a conclusion or terminus.

The Kabbalists in particular, place great emphasis on the counting of the Omer, finding significant symbolism in the seven weeks of counting. These mystics ascribe hidden meanings to each of the seven weeks, attributing qualities to them that were found in our great ancestors. It is believed that by emphasizing these characteristics, the world is empowered to continue to exist and help humankind rise from its lowly state. This, of course, parallels the 49-day period from the exodus from Egypt until the giving of the Torah, which enabled the children to rise from being enslaved brick manufacturers, to become a people specially chosen by G-d to be a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.”

Eliyahu Kitov, explains the seven qualities in his classic, The Book of Our Heritage. The first week is called the week of חֶסֶד–Chesed, lovingkindness. It was that virtue that personified the life of our forefather Abraham. The second week is identified with Isaac, whose primary characteristic was that of strength, גְּבוּרָה–Gevurah. The third week is attributed to Jacob, who personified glory, תִּפְאֶרֶת–Tiferet. It was the great leader Moses who typified נֶצַחNetzach, eternity. Aaron’s special characteristic was splendor, הוֹדHod. Joseph is considered the foundation, particularly of all morality, known as יְסוֹדYesod. And, finally, King David was the prototype of sovereignty, מַלְכוּתMalchut.

Rabbi Kitov explains:

Each of these seven qualities closely intertwine with the others and all are interdependent. None exist in isolation. Kindness without strength of character becomes soft-heartedness, glory without kindness leads to sin. None of the qualities is complete if kindness is lacking. Each characteristic has a light of its own which it sheds on the others, even as it absorbs their light, but the quality of loving-kindness is greater than them all. (The Book of Our Heritage, vol. II, pp. 365-366.)

Although the original period of counting the Omer was a joyous period in the Jewish calendar, at least 33 days of this counting period are now regarded as a period of semi-mourning. The fact that there is no Temple and that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died during 33 days of the Sefira counting period as well as the historical massacres that occurred to the Jewish community during the Crusades at this time of year, has turned these days into rather sad days.

Nevertheless, the optimistic quality of the counting of the Omer should not be lost. From the depths of the suffering in Egypt the ancient Israelites marched forward to the moment of greatest communion with G-d at Mount Sinai. Although there is darkness at night, the sun will surely rise again and shine in the morning. That is the ultimate message of counting the Omer.

חַג כָּשֵׁר וְשָׂמֵח . We wish all our friends a wonderful, joyous, and meaningful Passover.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The seventh and eighth days of Passover will begin on Thursday, April 21st, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 22nd and 23rd.