The Omer in Context

I love the transitions between holy times in the Jewish year. The spaces in-between remind us that special moments don’t often come out of a vacuum and that we can participate in the formation of holy experiences through small, sacred tasks. 

On Passover, we remember our Israelite ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt, as if it were our own. We say, “avadaim hayinu” – we were slaves and God took us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Not only our ancestors, but us, as well. Fifty days later, we celebrate Shavuot, a festival commemorating the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. Again, we are those Jews experiencing the Divine Presence, opening ourselves to the awe and wonder of revelation.

So how do we go from redemption to revelation? What happens in the days and weeks following our experience of liberation to prepare us for the gift of Torah?

Every year, we are invited to take the journey from Passover to Shavuot, from the Reed Sea to Mt. Sinai, by counting the omer. Counting the omer is one of my favorite rituals in Judaism, because it is so simple, and yet, so incredibly hard. All it requires is thirty seconds every night to say a blessing and count the day. Beginning on the 2nd night of Passover, we bless:

Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, asher kidshanu, b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al s’firat haomer. Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the universe, who sanctified us with mitzvot, and commanded us to count the Omer.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’,אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹֹּתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעֹמֶר.

And we count: 

הַיּוֹם יוֹם אֶחָד בָּעֹמֶרToday is Day 1 of the Omer.Hayom yom echad ba-omer.

Seventeen words. Thirty seconds of your time. The hard part is to do it each and every night from the second night of Passover to the first night of Shavuot. But when you do, there’s something really powerful in stringing together small acts and small, conscious moments, every day, for 49 straight days. Setting aside even a brief moment every night and pausing from the bustle of daily life is not easy, but it is worth it.

The mitzvah of counting the omer comes from Leviticus 23:15-16, where we are commanded to count the 49 days after we bring the first omer (or bundle) of barley to the Temple.

וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃ עַ֣ד מִֽמָּחֳרַ֤ת הַשַּׁבָּת֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תִּסְפְּר֖וּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים י֑וֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֛ם מִנְחָ֥ה חֲדָשָׁ֖ה לַיהוָֽה׃

And from the day on which you bring the omer of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete. You must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD. (Lev 23:15-16)

When The Temple stood in Jerusalem, the first bundle of barley would be brought to a Priest, who would elevate it in the air, and waive it from side to side and up and down, praying to keep away destructive winds and injurious dews that might damage the crop (Menachot 62a). From that day onward, one had to count seven full weeks and on the next day, bring an offering of wheat to the Temple. The counting helped our ancestors know when to begin the wheat harvest and the priest’s actions sought to keep ruinous forces at bay. But the Temple is gone and most of us are not Israeli farmers. So what does this ritual mean to us today?

In The Five Books of Moses, the word, “omer” appears most often when the Israelites are given the gift of manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16). For forty years, on every morning except for Shabbat, a substance as fine as frost would appear on the ground. It could be baked or boiled into a bread that tasted like cakes cooked in honey. The Israelites called it manna. And while they might have craved fancier foods, this simple source of food sustained them in the wilderness.

Each Israelite would collect as much as they needed, and when they went home and measured it out, each ended up with an omer (about two liters). It was a daily gift from God, and sustained the Israelites in the wilderness. There was always enough, and it was such a significant symbol of God’s love for Israel, that an omerful of manna was to be kept in a jar alongside the Ten Commandments for posterity.

So perhaps counting the omer is supposed to remind us of God’s unending love and generosity, of the small things, that we often take for granted, but really are great miracles. Counting can help us remember that even while we might crave fancy things and delicacies, we are happier, when we grateful for what we have. 

The word “omer” appears the second most times in the 23rd chapter of Leviticus, which includes instructions for a number of important holidays. We count the omer for seven full weeks and on the 50th day, we celebrate Shavuot. As the description of the omer and Shavuot comes to an end, we read a verse that seems to stand alone. 

וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת-קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם, לֹא-תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ בְּקֻצְרֶךָ, וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ, לֹא תְלַקֵּט; לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field, neither shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am Adonai, your God.” (Lev 23:22)

This is referring the Biblical concept of peah, of leaving the corners of one’s field uncut, for those in need. Following descriptions of two holidays, Passover and Shavuot, with agricultural dimensions, it’s not surprising that the discussion of sacred time is paused to remind us that we will only experience holiness in time when we take care of those less fortunate than ourselves.  A similar theme emerges from the final place where “omer” appears in the Torah, in Deuteronomy 24:19. In language that parallels Leviticus 23:22, the Torah describes the practice of leket, the act of leaving fallen grain for those in need.

 כִּי תִקְצֹר קְצִירְךָ בְשָׂדֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ עֹמֶר בַּשָּׂדֶה, לֹא תָשׁוּב לְקַחְתּוֹ–לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, יִהְיֶה:  לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ.

“When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten an omer in the field, you shalt not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow; that Adonai, your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.“ (Deut 24:19)

Leaving behind an omer of grain in your field is an act of tzedakah, of justice and of righteousness, and how we care for those in our midst. It’s also the reason we receive blessing in return. The instructions for pe’ah and leket in Leviticus and Deuteronomy evoke an image of the omer deeply intertwined with the care and compassion for others. Each night when we count the omer, our responsibility to help others is evoked.

We are undertaking a spiritual journey, but it cannot be a journey for ourselves alone. These references remind us of the relationship between the ritual and ethical aspects of our religious tradition. When marking the seasons of the year, we are to give thanks to God for the earth’s bounty; and when we reap this bounty, we must share it with others in need. Putting the verses in Exodus alongside those in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we understand that omer reminds us to appreciate what we have and share what we can with those in need. God gives us gifts and it is our responsibility to keep the gifts moving.

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