A Sefirat HaOmer message for our times


A Sefirat HaOmer message for our times

Here's another interesting article by Rabbi David Harbater relating Sefirat HaOmer to current times.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Sefirat HaOmer—its meaning then and now

During the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, Jews around the world perform a mitzvah called Sefirat haOmer (the counting of, or, more accurately, from the omer, meaning “sheaf”), the origins of which can be found in Parashat Emor that we read this week. The mitzvah consists of the recitation of a blessing followed by a verbal counting of each of the 49 days (as well as the 7 weeks) from the eve of the second day of Pesach until the eve of Shavuot. Given that the mitzvah isn’t fulfilled until one completes the entire cycle of counting, and given that if one misses even a single day the mitzvah is null and void, those of us with poor memories find it necessary to arrange for daily reminders (my mother-in-law and I send one another daily whatsapps. If not for these, I would never have made it to day 2!), and there are even apps designed for this very purpose.

When asked for the reason behind this mitzvah, most people will likely say that we are counting from Pesach—the festival celebrating the Exodus from Egypt representing our physical freedom—to Shavuot—the festival of the giving of the Torah representing our spiritual freedom—as a way of expressing our anticipation from the one to the other. Despite the widespread popularity of this explanation, however, there is no evidence for it in the biblical text.

In the book of Leviticus (23:9-21) it says, “When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf (omer) of your harvest to the priest. He shall elevate the sheaf before the Lord for acceptance in your behalf… Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears… And from the day on which you bring the sheaf 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 the new grain to the Lord. You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering… as first fruits to the Lord… On that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you.”

According to the above text, the counting of the omer has nothing to do with the Exodus or with the giving of the Torah but with the ripening of the new grain crops in the Land of Israel. Barley typically ripens at the beginning of the spring and wheat at the end. The Torah in this text prescribes the bringing of an omer—a “sheaf”—of the new barley as an offering, before which time new grains may not be eaten, followed by a second offering 50 days later-—known as bikkurim, “first fruits”—which consists of new wheat baked into leavened loaves. The day of the second offering is to be declared a sacred occasion, which is elsewhere known as the Festival of Shavuot (See Exodus 34:22 and Deuteronomy 16:10).

While no reason is given in the text for counting the days in between, it may have to do with the volatility of the weather in the land during that time and the periodic heatwaves, to which anyone living in Israel today can attest. Indeed, the Arabic word for the dry, hot, and sandy windstorms is hamsin—meaning “fifty”—which may be an allusion to the preponderance of such storms during the said fifty-day period. Given the wide fluctuations in the temperature during this period and the fact that the wheat harvest can easily be ruined by bad weather, the counting may be a way of stressing our vulnerability, and dependence on God in the hope for, and anticipation of, a successful wheat harvest.

So why has Sefirat HaOmer become associated with the Exodus and the giving of the Torah? Because after the Temple was destroyed and sacrifices were no longer offered, the Rabbis did not want to abandon the mitzvah altogether. And since the beginning of the counting of the omer is roughly parallel to the beginning of Pesach (there is a long-standing debate regarding the exact day on which the counting is meant to begin. As noted above, we follow the tradition according to which it begins on the second night of Pesach), and since its conclusion 49 days later is roughly parallel to the date of the giving of the Torah (it is unclear from the text exactly which date within the month of Sivan it was given, and the Rabbis themselves debated this question), the Rabbis decided to reinterpret the counting as a symbol of our anticipation from the time of the Exodus to the giving of the Torah.

There is a gnawing sense in Israel today that there is no end in sight to the war we are currently waging against Hamas and Hezbollah and some of us are starting to lose hope in Israel’s future. Sefirat HaOmer serves as a reminder that, despite the bumps along the road and the challenges we may face in the present, we must always look ahead in anticipation of better times in the future. For if the Rabbis, despite the destruction of the Temple and the end of sacrificial worship, were able to reinterpret Sefirat HaOmer as a symbol of anticipation for the better days ahead, then we too should be able to summon the strength to look ahead in the hope and anticipation that tomorrow will be better than today.

If you are interested in more articles of this nature please follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Rabbi.Dr.David.Harbater and if you would like to invite me to speak at your synagogue or community please contact me at [email protected].

Rabbi Dr. David Harbater

Author | Public Speaker | Jewish Educator

For speaking engagements in your synagogue or community, please contact me: [email protected]


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