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Counting The Omer will be observed on April 20, 2019.

Counting The Omer

Sefirat HaOmer: 49 Days Of Spiritual Reflection

Forty-nine days separate the second night of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot. This special time is marked by a nightly counting of the Omer or “Sefira”. But why do we count the seven weeks from one holiday to the next? What spiritual significance does the Sefira hold?

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In Parshat Emor, we read through the laws and details of the Biblical holidays. But this section also includes a few other laws – like the Omer offering, and agricultural laws like Pe’ah and Leket. Why are those laws included with the Jewish holidays? Join Rabbi Fohrman and Rivky as they re-examine the Emor text, and discover its subtle shared language with a few other texts of the Torah.
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Why Do We Count The Omer?

The Counting of the Omer (Hebrew: ספירת העומר) is also known as Sefirat HaOmer, and sometimes abbreviated as Sefira. Counting Sefira is a biblical commandment, which is mentioned twice in the Torah.

The first commandment to count the Omer is found in Leviticus 23:15–16:

"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 new grain to the LORD."

This commandment is then repeated in Deuteronomy 16:9–10:

"You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for the LORD your God, offering your freewill contribution according as the LORD your God has blessed you."

“The Sabbath” mentioned in this context does not refer to the weekly Shabbat, but to the first day of Passover. Therefore, we start counting the Omer on the second day of Passover. The “Feast of Weeks” refers to the holiday of Shavuot.

As the verse states, both the start and end of Sefira are marked by the bringing of offerings. The first offering of the harvest, brought on the second day of Passover, was a sheaf of barley, or, in Hebrew, an “omer” of barley—which explains why we refer to this time as the Omer. The Sefira ends with an offering of two loaves of wheat bread.

These offerings hint at the agricultural significance of the Omer. Barley, the first grain to ripen, represents the earliest stage of the harvest, whereas wheat represents the completion and success of the harvest. These seven weeks are an incredibly critical time for any agricultural society, and our Sages explain that we count the Omer as a form of prayer for a healthy and robust harvest. We are thankful for each day that the harvest goes well, and look toward the end of the harvest and a bountiful year.

In addition to the agricultural significance of the Omer, this period has historical significance in the Jewish calendar. Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, while Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Torah on Har Sinai.

Essentially, what begins at Passover culminates at Shavuot. Much like the grain of the harvest, the Jewish people first ripened as a nation when they left Egypt, but their blossoming into a true nation was not complete until they received the Torah. In this video course, Rabbi Fohrman looks at the spiritual significance of seven weeks for preparing us as a nation to receive God's laws.

By counting the days between these two holidays, we recognize and relive the significance of this entire period. We also re-experience our yearning and desire for the Torah. Much as a child might count the days leading up to a birthday or summer vacation, we count the days leading up to when we, once again, will be gifted the Torah.

Given that the Omer bridges the time between the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah, two truly happy events, you would think that this time would be a seven week long celebration. In reality, the Omer is treated as a time of partial mourning. While different communities have different traditions regarding how much of the Omer period is spent in mourning, and what restrictions apply, for at least some portion of Sefira, acts such as listening to live music, holding weddings, shaving, and getting haircuts are generally put on hold. This mourning halts on the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag Ba’Omer, and this day is treated as a minor holiday, complete with singing, dancing, and even the lighting of giant bonfires.

According to the Talmud, the reason we mourn during the Omer is to commemorate a terrible plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students during the Sefira time period. The Talmud explains that this horrible tragedy was a punishment due to the fact that the students did not show each other proper respect. There is a very significant connection between this event and the time period during which it occurred: Rabbi Akiva’s students were extremely learned men who devoted their lives to Torah; nonetheless, their lack of respect for one another caused their downfall.

So too, as we prepare to receive the Torah, to take on this incredible spiritual commitment, it is quite appropriate that we be reminded of the importance of our personal commitments to one another. It is not enough to learn Torah and develop a relationship with God if we do not also connect to one another and build our communal relationships. Without maintaining a fundamental and foundational level of mutual respect, a community—even a community of scholars—cannot survive.

About Counting The Omer

In the Jewish calendar, the day begins at nightfall. Therefore, the Omer should be counted at night after sundown, i.e. at the start of the day. The first time we count the Omer is at the end of the second Passover seder. After that, Sefira is traditionally added into the evening prayers and can be found in most prayer books at the end of Maariv. In 2019, the Omer will begin the evening of April 20, and end the evening of June 8.

The following blessing is made before counting and should be recited while standing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעֹמֶר

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha’Olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tizivanu al sefirat ha’omer.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to count the omer.

The blessing is followed by the statement “Today is the ___ day of the Omer.” For example, “Today is the sixth day of the Omer.”

Starting on the seventh day of the Omer, we begin to count both the number of weeks as well as the number of days. For example, “Today is eleven days, which is one week and four days, of the Omer.”

The reason for counting both the days and weeks of the Omer is that both are mentioned in the Torah verses that command the Sefira. The Rabbis disagreed over how to interpret this, so a compromise was reached and both days and weeks were included in the official counting. Likewise, there is a disagreement over whether one should use the language “Ba’Omer,” or “La’Omer” in the Hebrew recitation of the count. Ba’Omer literally means “in the Omer,” while La’Omer means “of the Omer.” While different communities have different traditions, many people simply repeat the count twice using both wordings to be safe.  

There is also a Rabbinic dispute regarding whether the mitzvah to count the Omer applies to each day individually or to the forty-nine day period as a whole. This debate has practical consequences: If the commandment is to count each day individually, then if a person forgets to count one day, they are still obligated to count the Omer the following day. However, if the mitzvah is to count the period as a whole, once a person forgets for one day, this makes it impossible for them to fulfill the commandment. In this case, saying the Omer blessing the following day would constitute reciting a blessing in vain. In practice, most Rabbis hold that one who forgets to count with a blessing at night can make it up without a blessing the following morning. They then may continue counting at night with the blessing. However, if one forgets to count a day entirely, they may continue to count but only without the blessing.