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What is counting the omer? How can I participate?

by Ask A Rabbi / April 02, 2013

I've been hearing a lot about "counting the omer" lately. What does this mean and how can I participate?  

Barley“Counting the omer (Sefirat haOmer)” is the practice of marking the 49-day journey from Passover to Shavuot by saying a daily blessing, and identifying each specific day according to its number.   

First, we say the blessing: “Blessed are You Oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us concerning the counting of the omer.”

Then we say, out loud, the count of that day. For example, when we begin the count (at the conclusion of the second seder), we say: “Today is the first day of the counting of the omer.”

Or on the eve of the 18th day, we would say: “Today is the 18th day, marking two weeks and 4 days of the counting of the omer.”

The roots of this practice are in the Torah, which commanded our ancestors to mark the time between the barley harvest and the wheat harvest by bringing an offering of a single omer (sheaf) of barley to the temple each day between Passover and Shavuot (Leviticus 23: 10-16). The rabbis preserved the memory of this temple custom by preserving the obligation to count. The Torah’s injunction that the counting must be “complete” has led to two rabbinic principles:

  1. One should count in the evening (when a Jewish day begins).
  2. Forgetting to count for more than 24 hours disqualifies you from continuing to say the blessing (although you are still obligated to count the remaining days without a blessing).

That’s it! It’s as simple as that…or so you might think. In reality, when we get caught up with the details of our lives, it's easy to forget, to wake up one morning and realize, “Oh, I think I forgot to count yesterday…or has it been two days?” It can be an effort just to differentiate one day from another. Many people I know approach the counting as a kind of game or test: how far can I get this year without forgetting?

I think of counting the omer as a Jewish mindfulness practice. It is an opportunity to marvel at the unfolding of a New England spring: which day do the forsythia bloom in all their bright yellow glory? On which day of the omer do the azaleas and the rhododendrons bloom, followed by dogwoods and magnolias? This is a practice that encourages us to break out of the auto-pilot routine of living, and to notice the small miracles that make each day unique.

The Jewish mystics added their own layer to the practice by identifying each of the seven weeks with a different Divine (and also human) quality, and each of the 49 days as a specific permutation of those qualities. They made the counting into a seven-week spiritual journey of moral reflection. If you are interested in following this path, check out Rabbi Simon Jacobson’s Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer. You can subscribe to a daily email reminder of the omer count, along with a description of that day’s moral quality.

A recent ruling from the Conservative movement argues against the general view that a person who has lost count for more than a day can no longer bless the days that are left. It quotes the opinion of several sages that each day is unique, and that blessing each day is a mitzvah in and of itself, regardless of what one may or may not have done on previous days. This ruling reminds us that it is never too late to begin our spiritual journeys and never too late to refocus our efforts when we have become distracted. 

Rabbi Dan Liben is the head rabbi at Temple Israel of Natick, a Conservative synagogue. 

Barley image by Ian Britton used under Creative Commons license from freefoto.com.

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