In the Torah, G-d commands us to count the days starting from the second day of Pesach until Shavu’ot. Counting these days is known as “Counting the Omer”. An “omer” was a unit of measurement of barley that was presented as a sacrifice at the temple up until the day of Shavu’ot (the Giving of the Torah). This is a traditional time of partial mourning commemorating a plague during the time of Rabbi Akiba, and weddings, parties, and dinners that include dancing are postponed. We also refrain from cutting our hair. On the 33rd day of the Omer, we celebrate a temporary break in the plague, known as Lag b’Omer, and the restrictions are suspended briefly.
Traditionally we “count” the Omer at night using a special 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.”)
- You then state the day of the Omer:
- “Today is (the number of days) days, which is (number of weeks) weeks and (number of days) days of the Omer.”
The sacrifices made on Passover were of barley. The sacrifice made on Shavu’ot was of loaves of wheat. What is the significance of this? The Kabbalists tell us that the barley, a food normally consumed by animals, reflects our animal natures. Wheat symbolizes humanity, because it takes a person to make bread. The change to the sacrifice of wheat demonstrates our interior growth from animal to person, from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom to participate in the redemption of the world.
So, what does this all mean to us now? Well, it can mean many things. Counting the Omer can be used as a tool of self reflection. We can take this time to recognize the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt, from the gift of our freedom. The Sages tell us that G-d freed us from slavery in order to give us the Torah on Shavu’ot, so this should be a time of preparation. Counting the Omer gives us the time to learn from the gift of freedom G-d has given us and incorporate it into our lives, to grow one day at a time, taking a spiritual accounting, to make sure that we are heading in the right direction, to look at what we are doing that is right or wrong and to try to make ourselves ready to receive the honor of the Torah.
Counting the days is another way of directing our mindfulness to the passage of time. Be aware of the days as they pass, count them, give them meaning. We have been freed from slavery, rejecting the confusion and idolatry (philosophically, literally, and spiritually) of our own Egypt’s and are being made ready to re-focus our lives.
Most of all, use this time! Don’t let it go! Instead of some celebration of a sacrifice in a temple that happened thousands of years ago, we can turn it into something meaningful to us today. Not a static set of days, but a process. There is no payoff without preparation.