When anticipating an important event, we customarily count down — whether it’s an upcoming birthday or the launch of a rocket into space. Judaism usually counts up. We count the days of the week, culminating in Shabbat, and, most significantly, we count the Omer between Passover and Shavuot.
The origins of this ritual are described in the Book of Leviticus 23: “From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the omer [sheaf] of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh week, and then present an offering of new grain to the Eternal” (“Sabbath” in the first verse means the Passover holiday, which was observed with Shabbat-like rules).
In ancient Israel, the barley harvest started the day after Passover. The Omer period marked the time from the beginning of the barley harvest to the start of the wheat harvest on Shavuot, seven weeks later.
Long ago, our tradition mapped the Torah’s central story onto these ancient agricultural celebrations. Passover, the celebration of freedom and new beginnings, was linked to the beginning of spring, and Shavuot, in turn, was celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah.
The counting of the Omer is a time of anticipation, leading up to the most exciting moment of Jewish sacred history, the revelation at Sinai. Traditional practice is to recite a blessing every evening for these seven weeks, and then to declare what day of the Omer it is.
Like so many other Jewish spiritual practices, the counting of the Omer is an invitation to wakefulness and awareness; it is a Jewish version of carpe diem, or making each day count. By linking Passover and Shavuot, it also emphasizes that the Exodus had a greater purpose and was not merely an exit or escape from where we were — an idea we might easily entertain if our observance concluded with Passover. (Did you sing at your seder, like we did at ours, “Tell old Pharoah … Let my people go!”?)
The counting of the Omer teaches us that our liberation — while entirely valuable as an end in itself — also was the beginning of the path to Sinai, a summons to assume responsibility. The tasks that began Sinai, though, could only be understood after the Exodus: “You know the heart of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
According to Jewish mystics, each week of the Omer corresponds to one of the sefirot, the manifestations of God that we can know in the world. Each of the seven weeks is dedicated to the preparation of the soul, in which we seek to concentrate and improve the Godly dimension within ourselves. We focus each week on a different dimension, from chesed, lovingkindness, through malchut, awareness of the presence of the sacred.
This work of repair and growth is called tikkun. When directed to outward acts of social justice, we speak of tikkun olam, or repairing the world; the internal work of spiritual growth is tikkun hanefesh, or repairing the soul. It is only after these seven weeks of spiritual concentration and reflection that we are ready to assume the responsibility of the encounter at Sinai.
The transformation of the counting of the Omer from an agricultural almanac into a program for spiritual reflection and rejuvenation is one of the many different vehicles by which the Jewish tradition takes a superficially mundane ritual task and infuses it with deep spiritual significance.
While Judaism certainly is, in Mordechai Kaplan’s famous formulation, “a religious civilization,” it also is fundamentally a spiritual practice. Like any true spiritual practice, the activity is the end in itself; the “reward of the mitzvah is a mitzvah.”
Thus, our practice of tikkun is never completed; and this is why we re-enact both the Passover seder and the journey to Sinai year after year. Even though last year I left the mitzrayim, the narrow places, I discover through my practice that I am still enslaved or have come to a heightened awareness of how I am stuck, and Passover is fresh for me again every time it comes around.
Similarly, the work of cultivating the qualities of character that bring me closer to God — to becoming more the person I yearn to be — is not a one-time event but ever unfolding. Thus, each spring, we count the Omer.
Rabbi Yoel Kahn is the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth El of Berkeley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.