“Counting the Omer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In parashat Emor, we learn of the mitzvah of counting the Omer. Leviticus 23:15-16 declares: “Oosfartem lachem mee’macharat ha’Shabbat…tis’p’roo cha’mee’shim yom,” And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day on which you bring the Omer wave-offering–they shall be seven complete weeks. Until the day following the seventh week you shall count 50 days.

The Torah commands that we 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 to be celebrated.

This 49 day period is known as 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 days and the weeks will be complete.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) 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.” 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 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 upwards 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. The 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–a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.”

Eliyahu KiTov explains the seven qualities in The Book of Our Heritage. The first week is called the week of Chesed, lovingkindness. It was that virtue that personified the life of Abraham. The second week is identified with Isaac, whose primary characteristic was that of strength, Gevurah. The third week is attributed to Jacob, who personified glory, Tiferet. It was the great leader Moses who typified Netzach, eternity, and Aaron whose special characteristic was splendor, Hod. Joseph is considered the foundation, particularly of all morality, known as Yesod. And finally, King David was the prototype of sovereignty, Malchut.

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.

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 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 we march forward to the moment of greatest communion with G-d at Mount Sinai. Although there is darkness at night, the sun will surely rise and shine in the morning. That is the ultimate message of counting the Omer.

Chag Kasher V’samayach. We wish all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful conclusion to Passover.

May you be blessed.

The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Friday night, April 25th, and continue through Shabbat and Sunday, April 26th and 27th.