Shrouded in Mystery: Counting the Omer and Lag B'Omer

There is perhaps no less misunderstood period of time in the Jewish calendar than the omer and the minor holiday that falls during this time- Lag B'omer.  As you will see, this is because both the period of the omer and Lag B'omer contain are marked by customs derived from different texts and developed over a period of many years.

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, (49 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) see the omer period as a time 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 is an ascent from one of the 49 levels of impurity of Egypt. This is 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.

The period of the omer is marked by mourning. It is forbidden to marry, to have your hair cut, or attend concerts, and to shave. The most common explanation for why we mourn during this time found in this Talmudic passage about Rabbi Akiba’s students (2nd century CE):
It was said that R. Akiba had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. . . . A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot. (Yevamot 62b)
It is traditional for Torah study to be done in pairs, or "chevruta," which is why the students were counted in pairs. This means that 24,000 students died. How is it possible they did not treat each other with honor when Rabbi Akiba’s core teaching was "v’ahavta l’rayecha camocha" (love your neighbor as yourself)? Surely Rabbi Akiba's students were not perfect but given that love and respect was the theme that ran through all of Rabbi Akiva's teachings, it seems unfathomable that they did not treat each other well. The Maharsha comments on the gemarah to explain this and says“Lo nhagu cavod ha torah ze lazeh” (they did not treat each other's Torah with respect). The Maharsha explains that the students should have been deferential towards each other out of respect not just for their basic humanity but also for their Torah knowledge. Since the Torah is the source of life, they were punished by being deprived of life.

I think this teaching is very relevant to today when so many people argue and dispute within the Jewish community about different ways of interpreting the Torah. It is important for rabbis today (and I include myself here) to respect each other- not in spite of our Torah learning and teaching, but in part, because of it. If there were truly 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, surely there were different camps with different opinions and interpretations. 24,000 Torah scholars is a small city filled with rabbis! While they all called Rabbi Akiva their teacher, it is very possible they practiced his teachings differently.

The holiday of Lag B’Omer, (the 33rd day of the omer) which is a cessation of mourning, is when the plague stopped (or paused for one day, depending on the source), 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. These are not mentioned in traditional sources until the 8th century.

There are two main opinions about when to observe mourning. Yoseph 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. It is a wonderful time of year to rededicate ourselves to studying Torah and observing mitzvot in preparation for the holiday of Shavuot.