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.
According to the biblical commandment, the days and the weeks between the second day of Passover (“the day after the Sabbath”) when an Omer (a sheaf, or measure of grain) from the new barley harvest is brought to the Temple, until the festival of Shavuot, must be numbered. The Halacha (ritual law) describes in detail how the barley offering must be gathered and presented at the Temple, as well as the formula for counting: it must be done in the evening, it must mention both the days and weeks which have passed, and if one has forgotten to count for more than one full day, the counting may not be formally resumed.
Rabbis and scholars have pondered the relationship between these two holidays and the significance of the interval between them. During the time of the Temple, when Jewish ancestors lived in an agricultural society, barley was offered in gratitude for, and celebration of, its harvest in early spring, when the late spring wheat harvest was still anxiously awaited. The 14th century rabbi, David Abudarham, wrote that it is a great distress to the world if there is no grain: “if there is no flour, there can be no Torah,” while the contemporary Conservative movement prayer book Sim Shalom emphasizes the “close connection with the soil of the Land during centuries past, as well as in modern Israel.”
With the development of Rabbinic Judaism, Shavuot became identified as the time of the Revelation on Mount Sinai. The giving of the Torah was considered the ultimate goal of the Exodus, the reason for the liberation from Egypt. Thus, the period between Passover and Shavuot – the Omer counting period – was a time of spiritual preparation for receiving God’s Law, and the Jews counted the days as a demonstration of their desire to reach this goal.
The liturgy for counting the Omer reached its full flowering in the Kabbalistic tradition, beginning in the 11th century and culminating in the school of Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed in the 14th century. The Kabbalists stressed the importance of spiritual preparation for Shavuot each year. To them, the Jews rose from the depths of depravity during their slavery to the heights of holiness when they received the Torah. The serious consequences of forgetting to count express the idea that if we lapse from this spiritual preparation, we are going back morally to slavery.
From early times, mystics have been intrigued by the letters and numbers contained in various prayers. The Omer period is composed of particularly significant numbers – seven weeks times seven days each – so the Kabbalists were especially inspired by a period of anticipation in which careful track must be kept of each day. They introduced into the counting service prayers, kavvanot (meditations on the mystical intention that accompanies each prayer and commandment), and texts, such as Psalm 67, which reflect the number of days in the Omer period, as well as penitential rituals and the practice of studying Mishnah tractates such as Ethics of the Fathers.
Especially important to the Kabbalists was the concept of the ten Sefirot, or Divine Emanations (aspects of the hidden God as He reveals Himself in Creation), of which seven are accessible to human prayer and practice. Each week and each day of the Omer period was associated with one of these seven Sefirot. By contemplating combinations of these Emanations and the Biblical figures who embodied them, by striving to emulate their associated ethical qualities and subdue their associated vices, by performing good deeds and obeying the commandments, people could achieve tikkun (repair), not only of their own souls, but of Creation as well.
In recent times Kabbalistic practices for counting the Omer have seen a rebirth. The trend known as Jewish Renewal, which draws inspiration from old and new Jewish traditions, has embraced Kabbalistic meditations on the Sefirot and combined them with contemporary ideas about personal spiritual growth in creative and innovative ways. Indeed, modern understanding of concepts like Tikkun Olam – often translated as ‘repair of the world’, along with new interest in ethnic and religious roots, traditions, and spiritual values, have permeated all branches of Judaism.
How is it possible to keep track of the Omer count, much less of the ideas appropriate to contemplate each week and day? Omer counters – devices and calendars – have been fashioned for centuries. They include folk art, such as simple wooden frames enclosing rotating paper rolls inscribed with the numbers and blessings for each day, as well as ornate silver frames with parchment inserts. Large illuminated manuscripts were embellished with Kabbalistic prayers and texts, while little books, illustrated with biblical scenes, were designed to be carried in one’s pocket.
Recently, Jewish ceremonial art has undergone a transformation similar to the innovations in prayer and practice described above. Inspiration for new Omer counters has come from many sources, including a renewed interest in crafts in general, such as embroidery and quilting, and Jewish crafts, such as micrography and papercutting, in particular. Silversmiths and glass blowers have used traditional methods to create art in contemporary styles. Many women artists have been in the forefront of this movement just as their role in Jewish practice has grown significantly, especially in movements such as Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism. Today’s artists use a wide range of materials, including “found” art, to express their own spirituality in provocative and personal ways.
All of these liturgies and art, old and new, share the idea that Omer counting is a long period – with a fixed beginning and end – of inner preparation and growth. Perhaps it is a timeless human impulse to create art in order to express anticipation: We seek beautiful ways to organize and endure waiting for a goal as exalted as the gift of Divine Law and Revelation.
“And you shall count for yourselves” implies introspection and stock-taking in order to choose the true good… Hence, the expression [“complete”] which refers to spiritual integrity…
Ha-Ketav Veha-Kabbalah, 19th century biblical commentary by Rabbi Jacob Zvi Mecklenburg, quoted in New Studies in Vayikra, Nehama Leibovitz.
This article first appeared as the catalog introduction for the exhibit “Counting and Recounting – Omer Calendars by Community Artists,” which I curated at the Jewish Community Library San Francisco in June-August 2002. You can see the show, including selected images, bibliography, and related links, here.