A certain springtime festival is officially here, but I want to talk about something else: the ritual period of “counting the Omer” between Passover and Shavuot. The Omer can be likened to showy, stage-loving Passover’s more demure, introverted sibling. They arrive only a day apart, but a lot of Jews are (quite understandably) confused or intimidated by, and feel disconnected from, this practice. That said, it’s an ongoing part of traditionally observant Jewish practice, and last year, when the start of the Omer period coincided with a dawning awareness of how long we’d be counting — or losing track of — days in quarantine, a number of us took up the ritual anew. There are a few basic things to understand about the Omer and the counting thereof:
Counting the Omer is a very old religious practice — it’s commanded-by-Torah ancient — and it’s evolved from its origins out of necessity, as have nearly all Jewish rituals. An omer is an ancient Israelite unit of measure used for grains and other dry goods (often rendered as a “sheaf” in translation); and during the era of Temple worship an omer was the measure of new grain crop required as an offering, in celebration of and before the people began to eat of the harvest. Immediately following this offering, a daily, verbal count would begin, coinciding with the ongoing harvest and lasting seven weeks. Shavuot fell on the fiftieth day, whereupon two loaves of bread were offered at the altar as first-fruits of the wheat harvest. So while the Torah doesn’t state a specific reason for counting the Omer, historically it’s easy to understand that marking this harvest period in the agricultural cycle would be deeply meaningful in a Jewish society that relied so heavily on a successful annual yield.
Jews still count the days from Passover to Shavuot; however, since the destruction of the Temple, the offerings are brought “in word rather than deed.” But what is the significance in continuing to count the Omer when it no longer corresponds to the biblically-ordained sacrifice of first-fruits? This is where the Omer really gets interesting! Here are a few lenses to consider:
- We still have the opportunity to mark and appreciate the seasonal cycle and our relationship to natural events. This time of year marks the transition in Eretz Israel out of the rainy season, but we can adapt our practice (and Jews always have) to the climate where we live.
- Passover marks our exodus from Mitzrayim and Shavuot is associated with the giving of the Torah at Sinai, so the Omer can represent spiritual maturation and anticipation between these iconic moments.
- The Omer has also gained an association as a time of semi-mourning. One common explanation is to link tragic events in various communities during the Omer period, but the historical record complicates this justification. Ultimately, the original reasons for mourning are unclear. I wonder if this tradition can become a means of identifying with the anxieties our ancestors must have felt concerning their ability to feed and sustain themselves through the coming year. We might alternatively interpret the Omer as a time of somber inward, existential contemplation rather than one of heavy grief.
- Kabbalistic interpretations further support the observation of the Omer counting period as a time of potential for inner growth and self-improvement: mystical emanations, or channels through which the divine One manifests, called sefirot, are juxtaposed in different combinations daily, resulting in 49 permutations that each represent an aspect of one’s character that can be improved.
- Finally, popular modern concepts such as self-care/self-love and mindfulness lend themselves well to this tradition and can be incorporated with creative, individualized practices.
- The possibilities continue!
In service of giving the Omer the appreciation and care it deserves as part of our rich tradition, it has been my pleasure to plan P.O.P. — the Pandemic Omer Project — with staff at the Minnesota JCC and with local artists through the JCreate community. Together we invite you to develop a practice of counting the Omer with creative, fun, and accessible daily prompts to help make each day a little extra special. Seven Jewish artists in the Twin Cities — Efrat Cohen, Daniel Ettedgui, Avigail Manneberg, Anat Szendro Sevilla, Adam Schwartz, David Sherman, and Deborah Taillon — will introduce a theme for each week and provide seven days’ worth of ideas to use as creative jumping-off points. Look out for prompts on Sundays at sundown, then use #POP5781 on Instagram or Facebook to share daily or select responses with the community through the week.
Counting the Omer according to halacha, traditional Jewish law, involves a verbal enumeration of each day when it starts at sundown — which may seem less engaging than responding to individual prompts — but the thing about a sustained practice is that it adds up! Consider keeping the count as part of your practice. Counting the Omer started on the second day of Passover (at sundown on March 28, this year), and concludes the day before Shavuot (May 15 at sundown). Happy counting!