Counting of the Omer
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Passover · The Omer
|In contemporary Judaism|
|Baal Teshuva movement
Counting of the Omer (Hebrew: ספירת העומר, Sefirat HaOmer, sometimes abbreviated as Sefira or the Omer) is a verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot as stated in the Hebrew Bible: Leviticus 23:15-16.
This mitzvah ("commandment") derives from the Torah commandment to count forty-nine days beginning from the day on which the Omer, a sacrifice containing an omer-measure of barley, was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, up until the day before an offering of wheat was brought to the Temple on Shavuot. The Counting of the Omer begins on the second day of Passover (the 16th of Nisan) for Rabbinic Jews (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform), and after the weekly Shabbat during Passover for Karaite Jews, and ends the day before the holiday of Shavuot, the 'fiftieth day.'
The idea of counting each day represents spiritual preparation and anticipation for the giving of the Torah which was given by God on Mount Sinai at the beginning of the month of Sivan, around the same time as the holiday of Shavuot. The Sefer HaChinuch (published anonymously in 13th century Spain) states that the Hebrew people were only freed from Egypt at Passover in order to receive the Torah at Sinai, an event which is now celebrated on Shavuot, and to fulfill its laws. Thus the Counting of the Omer demonstrates how much a Hebrew desires to accept the Torah in his own life.
The commandment for counting the Omer is recorded in Leviticus 23:15-16:
15. And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that ye brought the omer of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete;
16. even unto the morrow after the seventh week shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall present a new meal-offering unto the LORD.
However, the obligation in post-temple destruction times is a matter of some dispute. While Rambam (Maimonides) suggests that the obligation is still biblical, most other commentaries assume that it is of a rabbinic origin in modern times.
The omer ("sheaf") is a Biblical measure of volume of grain. On the second day of Passover (The Feast of Unleavened Bread) on Day 16 of Hebrew Month 1, which is also known as "First Fruits", an omer of barley was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem, signalling the allowance of the consumption of chadash (grains from the new harvest). On the 50th day after the beginning of the count, corresponding to the holiday of Shavuot, two loaves made of wheat were offered in the Temple to signal the start of the wheat harvest.
The origins of the omer count (i.e. the Sefirat HaOmer), as enumerated in the Midrash Rabba Parashas Emor, explains that when the Children of Israel left ancient Egypt they were told by Moses that 49 days after the Exodus, they would be given the Torah. The populace was so excited at the prospect of a spiritual liberation, following the physical emancipation from Egypt, they kept a count of the passing days that ended with the giving of the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai. The Torah itself, in Leviticus 23:15-16, and Deuteronomy 16:9, states that it is a commandment to count seven complete weeks from the day after Passover night ending with the festival of Shavuot on the fiftieth day. Shavuot is the festival marking the giving of the Torah to the Hebrew nation on the 6th of the Hebrew month of Sivan.
In keeping with the themes of spiritual growth and character development during this period, the Rabbinic literature compares the process of growth to the two types of grain offered at either pole of the counting period. In ancient times, barley was simpler food while wheat was a more luxurious food. At Passover, the children of Israel were raised out of the Egyptian exile although they had sunken almost to the point of no return. The Exodus was an unearned gift from God, like the food of simple creatures that are not expected to develop their spiritual potential. For the next forty-nine days, however, the Hebrew people worked on themselves to be able to receive the Torah on their own merit. The receiving of the Torah required spiritual elevation and active cooperation. Thus the Shavuot offering is "people food".
As soon as it is definitely night (approximately thirty minutes after sundown), the one who is counting the Omer recites this blessing:
Baruch atah A-donai E-loheinu Melekh Ha-olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al S'firat Ha-omer.
(Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.
Then he or she states the Omer-count in terms of both total days and weeks and days. For example, on the 23rd day the count would be stated thus: "Today is twenty-three days, which is three weeks and two days "of [or] "to" (לעומר) [or] "in" (בעומר)] the Omer". The count is said in Hebrew.
According to the Halakha, a person may only recite the blessing while it is still night. If he or she remembers the count the next morning or afternoon, the count may still be made, but without a blessing. If one forgets to count a day altogether, he or she may continue to count succeeding days, but without a blessing. The Omer may be counted in any language, however one must understand what one is saying.
"Omer-counters" are typically offered for sale during this time, and are displayed in synagogues for the benefit of worshippers who count the Omer with the congregation at the conclusion of evening services. Omer-counters range from decorative boxes with an interior scroll that shows each day's count through a small opening; to posters and magnets in which each day's count is recorded on a tear-off piece of paper; to calendars depicting all seven weeks and 49 days of the Omer, a small pointer is advanced from day to day; to pegboards that keep track of both the day and the week of the Omer. Reminders to count the Omer are also produced for tablet computers and via SMS services for cell phones.
As a period of semi-mourning
The period of counting the Omer is also a time of semi-mourning, during which the Halakha (Jewish Law) forbids haircuts, shaving, listening to instrumental music, or conducting weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing. Traditionally, the reason cited is that this is in memory of a plague that killed the 24,000 students of Rebbi Akiva (ca.40–ca.137 CE). According to the Talmud, 12,000 chavruta (pairs of Torah study partners), 24,000 in all, were killed (they were either killed by the Romans during the Bar Kokhba revolt 132–136 CE or they died in a "plague") as a sign of Divine anger during the days of the Omer-counting for not honoring one another properly as befits Torah scholars.
Lag BaOmer, the thirty-third day of the Counting of the Omer, is considered to be the day in which the plague was lifted, (and/or the day in which the rebellion saw a victory during the uprising of Bar Kochba) so on that day, all the rules of mourning are lifted.
Some Sephardi Jews however, continue the mourning period up until the 34th day of the Omer, which is considered by them to be the day of joy and celebration. Spanish and Portuguese Jews do not observe these customs. Some religious Jews shave each Friday afternoon during the mourning period of the Omer in order to be neat in honor of the Shabbat, and some men do so in order to appear neat in their places of employment.
In practice, different Jewish communities observe different periods of mourning. Some families listen to music during the week of Passover and then commence the period of mourning until Lag Ba'omer. Some Sephardic Jewish families begin the period of mourning from the first day of the Hebrew month of Iyar and continue for thirty-three days until the third of Sivan. The custom among Jerusalemites (minhag Yerushalmi) is to follow the mourning practices during the entire Counting of the Omer, save for the day of Lag Ba'omer and the last three days of the counting (sheloshet yemei hagbalah) prior to the onset of Shavuot. The extent of mourning is also based heavily on family custom, and therefore Jews will mourn to different degrees.
Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908), author of Aruch HaShulchan, postulates that the mourning period also memorializes Jews who were murdered during the Crusades (the 11th, 12th and 13th century religious military campaigns), pogroms (19th and 20th-century attacks on Jews in the Russian Empire) and blood libels that occurred in Europe. In modern times, the Holocaust is generally included among those events which are memorialized, in particular Yom Hashoah is observed during the Omer.
The Jewish calendar is largely agricultural, and the period of Omer falls between Passover and Shavuot. On Passover there is a shift from praying for rain to praying for dew and this coincides with the growth period for the fruit of the season. Shavuot is the day of the giving of the first fruits (bikkurim). The outcome of the season's crop and fruit was still vulnerable during this period. Over these seven weeks, daily reflection, work on improving one's personality characteristics (middot) and potential inner growth from this work on one self was one way to pray for and invite the possibility of affecting one's external fate and potential - the growth of the crop and the fruit of that season.
Although the period of the Omer is traditionally a mourning one, on Lag BaOmer Jews can do actions that are not allowed during mourning. Many Religious Zionists trim their beards or shave their growth, and do other actions that are typically not allowed during the mourning period on Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).
Besides being the day on which the plague affecting Rabbi Akiva's students ceased, Lag BaOmer is traditionally observed as marking the commemoration of the death (Yahrzeit in Yiddish) of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, a famous 1st-century Jewish sage in ancient Israel. After the death of Rebbi Akiva's 24,000 students, Rebbi Akiva taught five students, among them Rebbi Shimon. The latter went on to become the greatest teacher of Torah in his generation. According to tradition, on the day of his death, he revealed the deepest secrets of the Torah in a Kabbalistic work called the Zohar.
According to the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon's house was filled with fire and light that entire day as he taught his students. At the end of the day, the fire subsided and Rabbi Shimon died. On successive years, his students sought to recreate that experience of light and mystical revelation by kindling bonfires and studying the Zohar in the light of the flames.
Although the anniversary of the death of a righteous person (tzadik) is usually a mournful day, the anniversary of Rebbi Shimon's death on Lag BaOmer is a festive one. Bonfires are lit and people sing and dance by the flames. Weddings, parties, listening to music, picnics, and haircuts are commonplace.
According to the Talmud, Rebbi Shimon bar Yohai criticized the Roman government and was forced to go into hiding with his son Elazar for thirteen years. They sheltered in a cave (which local tradition places in Peki'in). Next to the mouth of the cave a carob tree sprang up and a spring of fresh water gushed forth. Provided against hunger and thirst they cast off their clothing except during prayers to keep them from wearing out, embedded themselves in the sand up to their necks, and studied the Torah all day long. He and his son left the cave when they received a Heavenly voice saying that the Roman Emperor had died and consequently all his decrees were abolished. According to tradition, they left their place of hiding on Lag BaOmer, and while when they were in hiding in the cave they studied Torah together in their cramped space accepting each other's presence and from that study there came forth the basis of the Zohar's mystical revelations which in a sense was regarded as a "replacement" for the Torah that was "lost" as a result of the death of the 24,000 disciples of Rebbi Akiva. This is another reason to celebrate the "light" of the Zohar which means "splendor" or "radiance" in Hebrew.
The period of Omer is considered to be a time of potential for inner growth - for a person to work on one's good characteristics (middot) through reflection and development of one aspect each day for the 49 days of the counting.
Each day of each week is also associated with one of these same seven sefirot, creating forty-nine permutations. The first day of the Omer is therefore associated with "chesed that is in chesed" (lovingkindness within lovingkindness), the second day with "gevurah that is in chesed"; the first day of the second week is associated with "chesed that is in gevurah," the second day of the second week with "gevurah that is in gevurah," and so on.
Symbolically, each of these 49 permutations represents an aspect of each person's character that can be improved or further developed. Rabbi Simon Jacobson (b. 1956), a Chabad Hasidic teacher, explains these 49 levels in his book, The Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer, as do Rabbi Yaacov Haber and Rabbi David Sedley in their book Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement through Counting the Omer. A meditative approach is that of Rabbi Min Kantrowitz in Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide which includes meditations, activities and kavvanot (proper mindset) for each of the kabbalistic four worlds for each of the 49 days.
The forty-nine-day period of counting the Omer is also a conducive time to study the teaching of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avoth 6:6, which enumerates the "48 ways" by which Torah is acquired. Rabbi Aharon Kotler (1891 - 1962) explains that the study of each "way" can be done on each of the first forty-eight days of the Omer-counting; on the forty-ninth day, one should review all the "ways."
Karaite Jews begin counting the Omer on the day after the weekly Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread-- Passover, rather than on the second day of Passover (the 16th of Nisan). There are several reasons for this. On the one hand, Shavuot is the only holiday for which the date is not expressly given in the Torah. Instead, the Torah tells us to determine the date of Shavuot by counting 50 days from the "morrow after the Sabbath" until the "morrow after the 7th Sabbath" (Leviticus 23:15-16). 
The main difference between Karaites and Rabbanites is the understanding of "morrow after the Sabbath." Rabbanites take the Sabbath as the 1st day of Passover although Passover is never referred to as a Sabbath in the Torah. Contrarily, Karaites interpret this Sabbath to be the first weekly Sabbath that falls during Passover. As a result the Karaite Shavuot is always on a Sunday, although the actual Hebrew date varies (which compliments the fact that a specific date is never given for Shavuot in the Torah, the only holiday for which this is the case).  
- Bible code, a purported set of secret messages encoded within the Torah.
- Biblical and Talmudic units of measurement
- Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days during Passover and Sukkot.
- Chronology of the Bible
- Gematria, Jewish system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase.
- Hebrew calendar
- Hebrew numerals
- Jewish and Israeli holidays 2000–2050
- Lag BaOmer, 33rd day of counting the Omer.
- Notarikon, a method of deriving a word by using each of its initial letters.
- Sephirot, the 10 attributes/emanations found in Kabbalah.
- Significance of numbers in Judaism
- Weekly Torah portion, division of the Torah into 54 portions.
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- Yaacov Haber with David Sedley (2008). Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement Through Counting the Omer. TorahLab. p. 160. ISBN 978-1-60763-010-4.
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- neohasid.org – liturgy, Omer counting widgets and iOS apps, songs for the Omer
- Spiritual practices and reflections for each day from Mishkan Tefilah
- The traditional liturgy from Chabad
- Rabbi Eliezer Melamed - Peninei Halacha - Counting the Omer