The laws of counting the omer must have been written by men!

If you do not know what the omer is, please keep reading past the first paragraph for an explanation.  Did you know that if you miss a night of counting the omer that you may count the next day before dark, but without a bracha (blessing)?   Then, that evening, you may resume counting with a bracha once more.  However, if you forget to count entirely and miss a full day, only remembering once the next evening arrives (or, God forbid, even later than that), you are “out of the game,” and may no longer recite a bracha when you count the omer each evening.  You have officially ruined the perfect counting of the days and can no longer fulfill the mitzvah correctly.  The term popularized by Grey’s Anatomy, pops into my head.  “Seriously?!”  For relevant Grey’s Anatomy Clips, click here:

What are we doing, playing UNO?  Today while playing UNO, I was also reflecting on the rule that if you do not say UNO when you only have one remaining card, that another player can “catch” you and then penalize you by making you draw two cards.  This rule also rubs me the wrong way.   Somehow the rule that you are “out” if you forget one night of counting the omer strikes me as making the omer somewhat like a sports competition, hence leaving me to believe that perhaps this rule was made by men.  And don’t send me any emails that I am being anti-feminist by associating sports with men, please!  Have a sense of humor, people!

Moving to the more serious history of the counting of the omer, I will now provide a summary for those who are unfamiliar with the custom.  The “counting of the omer” begins the second night of Passover and continues to Shavuot.  Omer means “measure” and is a certain volume.  This volume of grain was an offering of the first new barley harvest, which was brought to the Temple on the second day of Passover.  The Torah teaches in Lev. 25:15-21 that we must count seven full weeks, (fifty days) and then bring two full loaves of bread, and that the fiftieth day should be a sacred celebration.  Because of the ritual of counting, the period came to be known as “the omer” or simply, “sefira” for the word “counting.”  Each night we say a blessing which praises God for commanding us to count the omer.  We then actually count the omer by simply saying out-loud “today is the eighth day, which is one week and one day, of the omer.”

Why do we count?  No reason is given in the Torah.  It may have to do with the harvest.  This period of time was the harvest of the new barley crop which culminated with the offering of the loaves.  The holiday of Shavuot is the celebration on the fiftieth day.   Shavuot means “weeks.”  We could not eat of the new barley crop until the omer was offered on Passover and could not make a meal offering until Shavuot.  Thus the omer offering on Pesach allowed people to eat from the new barley crop, and the two-loaves offering on Shavuot allowed for sacrificial offerings from the new barley crop. These offerings expressed hope and thanksgiving.  In later rabbinic literature, the holiday of Shavuot is celebrated as the day on which we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. 

Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) saw the omer as one of preparation for the great event of Sinai.  Having been tainted by the impurity of Egypt, we had to transform ourselves into people being worthy of receiving the Torah.  Each day was an ascent from one of the 49 levels of impurity of Egypt.  This was done by seeing each day as a combination of two of the mystical sefirot, or attributes.  On each day of the counting, those who favor a kabbalistic interpretation seek to restore or elevate within him/ herself the combination of sefirot that belong to that day.  The seven attributes are Chesed - Loving-kindness, Gevurah -- Justice and discipline, Tiferet - Harmony, compassion, Netzach – Endurance, Hod – Humility, Yesod – Bonding, and Malchut - Sovereignty, leadership.  For example, the email reminder I received from tonight to count the omer contains a meditation for today’s combination of sefirot- chesed in gevurah, or love in discipline.  The meditation suggests “Before you criticize someone today think twice if it is out of care and love.”

The period of the omer is marked by mourning.  It is forbidden to marry, to have your hair cut, or attend concerts, and some do not shave.  The most common explanation is a Talmudic passage that teaches that a plague killed thousands of R. Akiba’s students (2nd century CE) during this time of year because they did not treat each other with respect.   The holiday of Lag B’Omer, (the 33rd day of the omer) which is a cessation of mourning, is when the plague stopped, and there is a custom of playing with bows and arrows, having picnics, outings, and weddings.  But this passage (about the plague in the Talmud) does not mandate mourning practices which are not mentioned in traditional sources until the 8th century. 

There are two main opinions about when to observe mourning.  Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, teaches that the mourning should end on Lag B’Omer, 15 days before Shavuot.   Rabbi Moshe Isserles, in his gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, believes that Lag B’Omer is just a one day cessation of mourning.  According to those who follow Isserles, there are several practices.  Some count from beginning of the omer to Lag Bomer, some from Rosh Chodesh Iyar to Shavuot, and some from Pesach to Shavuot. 

Another historical event attached to the holiday of Lag B’Omer is observed in many Hassidic communities.  They observe a Hillula (celebration) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who wrote the Zohar according to tradition.  It is debated whether it was his yarzheit or another event in his life.  At his grave there is feasting, dancing, bonfires, and hair cutting ceremonies.  The Zohar mentions the hillula but it is not connected to Lag B’Omer until R. Chaim Vital of the 17th century. 

There are a number of customs (other than those of mourning) during the omer.  One is to construct a “Sefira counter,” to help you remember to count the omer each night.  For a cool edible version to make with your children, check out this link from the blog of Jen Friedman, a female scribe,  There is also a custom to study Pirkei Avot.  There are six chapters and six shabbatot between Pesach and Shavuot. 

While I still find the rules associated with counting the omer to be a bit irksome, there are many beautiful traditions associated with this time of year.  Even though I do not like to be “out” when I miss a day of counting the omer, it does make me particularly competitive with myself about this particular mitzvah.  I become determined not to “miss a day” and therefore the rule itself does actually cause me to be more diligent about the mitzvah.  For example, last year, I somehow managed to miss counting the omer on the very first night, at the end of the second seder!  Perhaps I was counting on the Haggadah to contain a reminder, but alas, it did not.  Therefore, this year I remembered at our second seder and I have also signed up for my e-reminders.  On a more personal level, my daughter Hadassah was born on Lag B’Omer, making this a family celebration for us at home.  As the weeks proceed I hope to provide more humor and teachings about the omer.


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