JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review May 16, 2003 / 14 Iyar, 5763

What is the 'counting of the Omer'?

Holiness is objective. Narrowly, holiness is the cessation from 39 acts of creative labor on the Sabbath and the three festivals. Broadly, holiness is the restraint prescribed by any "thou shalt not" of the Torah. Still more broadly, holiness is an all encompassing aspiration. Perhaps most objectively, holiness is the Holy Land, but holiness is more than objective.The three festivals nurture individual tonalities of holiness that illuminate the sacred spaces of the human soul.

By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Most people "get" Passover. Fewer "get" Shavous (seven weeks later), but very few "get" the period in between — the "counting of the Omer." How is the "counting of the Omer" an experience of holiness?

The Omer — the arithmetical link of Passover to Shavous —is a fact of religious consciousness for seven weeks. Shavous is identified by counting aloud from the second day of Passover, one day at a time, for 49 days. This is the "counting of the Omer."

The prescribed count is in the evening. One recites, "Today is one day of the Omer." Because the count is in both weeks and days (seven weeks, 49 days; Lev. 23:15-16), each day after the sixth is counted in two parts — for example, "today are eight days, which are one week and one day, of the Omer" — until the 49th day. One does not count the 50th day; this is Shavous itself.

The terminology of the 49-day count — the "Omer" period — grounds Shavous in Passover, since the unique offering of Passover is the omer (Lev. 23:9-14). The omer offering is a dry measure of flour brought by each farmer to the Temple, offered there on the second day of Passover.

The offering, a precondition to the use of the year's first harvest, marks the beginning of the consumption thereof and coincides with the origin point of the Jewish people. The "counting of the Omer," therefore, is the extension of Passover into the single festival, Shavous, which has no fixed date and no initial name, which is but a day counted from the offering of the omer on the second day of Passover.

Unconventional questions:

Conventional answers:

The holiday of physical liberation, Passover, needs the holiday of spiritual discipline, Shavous, the anniversary of the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai (Rashi, Exod. 19:15). Conventional wisdom has spiritual Shavous completing physical Passover. In the relationship between the two festivals, Shavous is dominant.

But it is not so. Pointedly, Nachmanides terms the entire Omer period a long chol ha-mo'ed (Lev. 23:36). "Chol ha-mo'ed" connotes the middle days of Passover and of Sukkos, the days between the "holy convocations" (the festivals' first and last days). By extending the term chol ha-mo'ed to the 49-day Omer period between Passover and Shavuos, Nachmanides emphasizes Shavuos as the last day of Passover. The count is from Passover, not to Shavuos.

Shavuos is the extension of Passover, not its culmination, not its completion. Passover is intrinsically whole, not in need of Shavuos to complete it.

In what sense is Shavous an extension of Passover?

The specific tonality of Shavous's holiness is the spiritual discipline and growth that comes from the acceptance of the Torah.

Inasmuch as the Torah commands daily acts of holiness, Shavous celebrates the potential spirituality of everyday life.

Shavous's celebration is not the gift of being but the blessing of time, not the reexperience of the origin point but its extension into life.

Shavous is not Passover's pristine holiness of sheer existence in safety and freedom, but the layered holiness of ascent to G-d through observance of the Torah. For all this, the prescribed response is gratitude.

This is reinforced in the agricultural gestures associated with Shavous. Just as the omer reflects the ontological tonality of Passover, other agricultural commandments do the same for Shavous. Two of them, pe'ah and lekket, are juxtaposed to the laws of Shavous (Lev. 23:22).

Pe'ah is to leave the corner of the field for the poor and lekket is to leave the gleanings of the harvest for the poor.

A third, bikkurim, is an offering on Shavous itself (Deut. 26:1-11). Bikkurim is to give the first ripened fruits to the priest in the Temple — to give them to G-d, so to speak — in order to express gratitude for one's harvest.

Pe'ah, lekket, and bikkurim induce gratitude for G-d's bounty. Gratitude for the physical is included in the spiritual, in Shavous.

This is a reminder that the spiritual quest may never overshadow physical freedom — Passover's imperative to defeat oppression and poverty, to conquer those who conquer others.

The spirituality of Shavous builds on Passover by affirming gratitude and livelihood. In this sense Shavous is the extension, the last day, of the festival of physical freedom, Passover.

The Omer count makes this clear. If the count were a countdown to Shavous, we would first count "the 49th day until Shavous," then the "48th day," "the 47th day," etc. We would count down to Shavous. We do not. We count, "Today is the first day, the second day," etc. — the first and second day of what? Of linkage to Passover.

The Omer count extends Passover and its lesson of physical well being, the sina qua non of existence. This is the message: Holiness is not only ritual and religious consciousness. Holiness is freedom. It is justice. It is material sustenance. It is a sacred space in the human soul illuminated by the Omer count — the sustained majesty of Passover's physical freedom.

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Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News. Comment by clicking here.


© Rabbi Hillel Goldberg