Introduction to the Practice of Counting the Omer
by Rabbi Diane Elliot
I. Traditional Practice Counting of Omer
(based on the work of Min Kantrowitz, Toward a Heart of Wisdom: The Practice of Counting the Omer)
As Judaism is renewed in our days as in days of old, ancient practices are given new interpretations. One ancient practice, counting the Omer, began as a significant marker in the Jewish agricultural year.The practice of counting the Omer is a traditional mindfulness practice, moving us daily toward closer spiritual connection through marking each of the 49 days of the Omer.
When the Temple was standing, barley was the first agricultural crop in Israel to be ready for harvest in the early spring. Ancient near eastern cultures had different ways of expressing gratitude to the spiritual forces which contributed to a healthy harvest. During Biblical times, a sheaf of barley (known as the Omer), selected from the choicest of the barley grown within the land of Israel, was brought to the Priests as an offering (Lev 23:10-12). The people would choose the most select first-cut barley,harvest it carefully, and bring it to the Temple as an offering to God.
The Priests would wave this sheaf of barley, the Omer, in the six directions, North, East, South, West, Up and Down. This waving process is similar to the formula still used today for shaking the lulav on Sukkot. Only after that ceremony, called the wave-offering, was completed, was the rest of the community permitted to enjoy the barley crop or any new produce from the spring harvest. In this way, the people acknowledged the role of the Divine in creating the grain.
The omer was brought to the Temple each day for the next 49 days, during which time the next, and most important grain, the wheat, was ripening. Counting these 49 days is known as counting the omer. These 49 days of the counting of the omer culminate on the 50th day, the first day of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks.In Hebrew, shavuah means week.During the time of the Mishnah, the Rabbis considered the proper cutting and offering of the omer so important that they wrote, “When it is time to cut the omer, you must do it, even if it is Shabbat” (Mishnah Shevi’ith 1:4 ).
Over time, the early spring period also became associated with the historical events following the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt.As Jews moved farther from intimate contact with the land of Israel and its growth cycles, the harvesting of the omer period transformed from marking an agricultural harvest to a spiritual one.The status of field crops became metaphorically transformed into a kind of “inner ecology”—the state of our own spiritual growth.Shavuot became associated with a spiritual harvesting - the receiving the Torah -- and the practice of counting the omer became understood as representing the ascent of the Israelites , ascending a new step each day from the depths of spiritual impurity in Egypt, eventually reaching the level of purity represented by the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Thus the omer is a path of the heart.We transform from newly freed people, a band of wanderers just beginning to explore the possibilities of growth, awareness and self definition, and become a spiritual community of souls open to receive that which is revealed.
II.The Deeper Spiritual Purpose of Counting the Omer
(based on the teachings of Rabbis Min Kantrowitz and Mordecai Finley)
Since the 16th century, Jewish mystics have found deeper meaning in the omer and taken this period as an opportunity to seek G!d, to examine their own lives, and to contemplate the wonders of creation.The Jewish mystical path is usually called kabbalah.The word kabbalah, which comes from the Hebrew root koof-bet-lamed, means “to receive”. So it is appropriate that we apply the method of the mystics to this most essential of receivings, the receiving of revelation in the form of our Torah, our instruction from G!d.
While Maimonides taught that G!d is perfect thought, the Lurianic kabbalists and later the Hasidim believed that a G!d of being, a perfect, quiet, infinite G!d, doesn’t create. In this mystical view, the creation of the universe is G!d externalizing G!d’s own inner chaos. Human beings, “created in G!d’s image,” are thus the externalization of G!d’s inner tensions.Hasidism sees what is darkest and most recalcitrant in us as an aspect of the Divine, and posits that G!d seeks G!d’s own healing through us.We are each moments of divine becoming, doing the tikkun of G!d’s chaos.
There is a midrash told at the time of Shavuot: G!d created the world only on the condition that the people of Israel would accept Torah, to ultimately bring tikkun to God.[We can extrapolate this to include all peoples, since our particular Jewish way of relating to G!d is one of many.] So underlying every mitzvah is the mitzvah of receiving Torah, because this mitzvah is the condition underlying all of Creation. In this model, the counting of the omer is the setting of kavana, the cultivating of the inner states that underlie the performance of mitzvot.
At the core of kavana is y’ira (awe, reverence). Reverence is the capacity to see deeply into the truth of things.Reverence involves vulnerability, an opening to let something in, to let it change you. In revering a thing, you ask: how should I live differently because of this thing? Counting the omer is the developing of reverence, the kavana of what it means to receive Torah, to take joy in and to revere this mitzvah of receiving revelation. It is also the practice of mindfulness -- of literally re-membering, in the sense of “putting back together,” who we are.And as I straighten out the chaos within myself, the kabbalists would say, I bring healing to G!d.
This, then, is the kabbalistic function of counting the omer: to prepare ourselves, make ourselves a pure, open vessel to apprehend truth. Shavuot is the holiday at which we recall that the world is created on the condition that we do our holy work—that’s the core mitzvah.Shavuot is about our opening to divine light, to an experience of intimacy with G!d.
III. The Method of Counting the Omer
The three Kabbalistic concepts that relate most to this practice of counting the omer are the Four Worlds, the Tree of Life, and the sephirot. According to kabbalah, while the Creator is unknowable, the Presence of Creation is apparent to humans through a group of Divine emanations, known as sephirot. Each of these ten sephirot, “contains” or “reflects”or “emanates” a cluster of Divine attributes. The word “sephirot” (singular “sephira”) comes from the Hebrew root samekh-feh-resh (to count or to tell). This is the same root as for the blessing for counting the omer.In a way, each sephira tells a set of tales about an aspect of God, and the relationships among the sephirot are the core of the spiritual approach to counting the omer.
Since Jewish days begin after sunset, the first day of the omer period falls on the evening of the second Seder to the evening of the second day of Pesach, on the sixteenth of the Hebrew month of Nisan.
The commandment, the mitzvah, is simply to count the omer.It says “You shall count from the day that you brought the omer as a wave offering.” (Lev 23:15) There are two components to fulfilling the commandment—the blessing and the counting.
The blessing is Baruch ata Adonai elohaynu melech ha’olam asher kidshanu b ‘mitzvotav v’tzivanu al sefirat ha’ome, Blessed are you, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer.
The counting is done by saying: Hayom (insert number) yamim, she’hem shavua h(insert number ) v’ (insert number ) yom (yamim) la’omer. Today is the (first, second etc.) day , which makes (insert number ) weeks and (insert number ) day(s) of the omer.
Traditionally, both the blessing and the counting must be done every evening of the omer period to fulfill the mitzvah.The omer blessing is said standing, after sunset and after the evening prayer.
IV. A Meditation
Scan your inner landscape. Do you have a sense of anything in body, mind or soul that makes you less available to receiving Torah, to accepting the condition of creation, that of doing your holy work?Get a clear picture or image of this limitation. See it as a symbol or an image, or feel it as a feeling, a sensation.Then breathe into it, breathe it in, invite it to soften, know it as a small piece of God’s yearning, God’s desire, the pull in God that led to the tzim-tzum, enabling Creation. Let it in.