Omer: Counting 49

I have been counting the omer every evening for two weeks now, and we have five more weeks to go. The omer count begins on the second day of Passover and goes on for 49 days. On the 50th day, we celebrate the holy day of Shavuot (“Weeks”).

Barley sheaf

In the Torah, the priest waves a sheaf of barley each day for 49 days. But after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the omer-counting became a prayer service, and acquired new  meanings. This is the first of several posts I am writing about the fascinating prayers from Kabbalah that come  before and after the daily count in orthodox Jewish prayers.

But first, what does “counting the omer” mean?

The Hebrew word omer first appears in the book of Exodus/Shemot (in the Torah portion  Beshallach), as a measure for manna; one omer of manna feeds one person for one day.

The word omer does not show up again until Leviticus/Vayikra, in the Torah portion Emor. The Torah sets the time for the Festival of Matzah, i.e. Passover, then gives instructions for the next day:

…then you shall bring an omer of the first of your harvest to the priest. And he will wave the omer before God so you will be acceptable; [starting] from the day after the rest-day the priest will wave them. (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:10-11)

And you shall count for yourselves, from the day after the rest-day, from the day you bring an omer of the waving, seven tamim weeks. Until the day after the rest-day of the seventh [week] you shall count [to] the 50th day; then you shall bring close a new grain-offering to God. (Leviticus 23:15-16)

omer (עֺמֶר) = a measure for barley.  

tamim (תָּמִים) = whole, entire, intact, unblemished, blameless, sincere.

When the word tamim refers to a sacrificial animal, it means blemish-free. When it describes a human being, it can mean either that the person’s body is unblemished, or that the person is innocent, blameless, honest. So I think the text in the Torah itself invites us not merely to count the days for seven weeks, but to make the days count—by checking for blemishes in our souls.

The culmination of the 49 days of counting is Shavuot, the 50th day. Until the fall of the second temple, Shavuot was a harvest festival. People brought their “new grain-offering” of two loaves of wheat bread to the temple, along with the first fruits from seven kinds of plants (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates).

After the fall of the temple, the rabbis soon found a new meaning for Shavuot, deciding that it marked the anniversary of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. So for the last 2,000 years, the 49-day count has been linked with preparing, day by day, to be worthy of receiving the divine revelation of Sinai.

Naturally, rabbis over the millennia have enriched counting the omer with other prayers that have a count of  7 or 49. The orthodox omer-counting procedure as it stands today follows this order:

#1.  Opening prayer: a) a sentence declaring the intention of the omer prayer service, b) Leviticus 23:15-16 (translated above), and c) a blessing from Psalm 90.

#2.  Blessing for counting the omer.

#3.  Statement of which day it is in the count.

#4.  A one-sentence prayer about restoring the service of hamikdash = the holy place (usually translated as “the Temple”).

#5.  Psalm 67, which has 49 words.

#6.  Ana Bekhoach, a 7-line poem of supplication written by Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah, a Kabbalist who lived in the first century C.E.

#7.  Closing prayer framing the count in terms of Kabbalah, including the 7 lower sefirot. (Sefirot is the plural of sefirah, a word from the same root as sofeir = counting. Sefirot area categories of creative power, or forces ruling the universe and the human soul.) In the middle of this closing prayer, you fill in the blank with the  the sefirah of the day and the sefirah of the week. Over the course of seven weeks, you get 49 different pairings.

Most non-orthodox Jews who count the omer today simply read or recite two sentences, labeled as #2 and #3 above. That way they get it done quickly—and miss all the juicy parts. Some people, especially in Jewish Renewal, go on to consider the essence of #7, and try to find a personal meaning in the pair of sefirot for the day. There are many books and blogs about what each of the 49 sefirot pairs might mean.

My posts will look instead at the often overlooked prayers in the omer-counting procedure: numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 in the list above.  This week, let’s zoom in on just the first prayer in number 1:

For the sake of the unification of the Holy One, blessed is He, and His shekhinah, in fear and love to unify the name Yud Heh with Vav Heh, in complete unity, in the name of all Israel.

shekhinah (שְׁכִננָה) = the indwelling presence of God in our universe (literally, the feminine form of “dweller”)

This opening prayer sets the intention of the rest of the omer-counting prayer service. We are not just counting the days; we are doing spiritual work that helps to change the nature of reality.

This introduction was written (in Aramaic) by the disciples of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Luria taught from 1569 to 1572 in Sfat, a town full of Kabbalists about 80 miles north of Jerusalem. In those three years before his death, he founded a major branch of Kabbalah. One of the core Lurianic ideas is that in order to create our universe, God first withdrew a measure of divine “light” to make space, then created ten sefirot, ten forces of creative power, which Luria saw as vessels for the divine light. The first three vessels, the three upper sefirot, could contain the light  poured into them. But the next six vessels shattered. The tenth and the lowest sefirah, Malkhut, cracked.

After the “shattering of the vessels”, the rest of the creation of the universe proceeded differently from God’s original plan, and included evil as well as good. Yet everything in our universe contains a spark of divine light. And human beings have the ability, through good deeds and prayers, to “raise the sparks” and repair the universe. Therefore the Lurianic Kabbalists preceded many prayers with the sentence above, to remind the person praying that the purpose of the prayer service is to unify God Itself with the shekhinah, the divine presence in our world. According to Kabbalah, the shekhinah is in the sefirah of Malkhut, the lowest one, the one closest to our daily physical life on earth. So uniting the Holy One with the shekhinah is also uniting the upper three sefirot with the lower seven  sefirot, and it also uniting the first two letters of God’s most holy Name, yud and heh, with the last two letters of the Name, vav and heh.

Every evening, during the 49 days of counting the omer, when I recite that intention to unify God with my prayers, I feel hollow with awe inside. What nerve! How could anything I do affect God, reality, the nature of being? And anyway, I’m not much of a mystic compared with most of my Jewish Renewal friends. I find the images of Kabbalah powerful, and they feel significant; but my rational mind does not believe any of this stuff.

And yet … if I pray for the sake of the unification of the Creating and the creation…if I pray for the sake of making whole the holiness I glimpse in the world…then maybe this little ritual of counting the omer  has a deeper meaning than I think. Maybe everything I do, everything each of us does, has a deeper meaning than we think.

4 thoughts on “Omer: Counting 49

  1. Great summary Melisssa, answering the very questions I’ve been wondering about: the history, why we do it (if we do it). I’ve never been able to relate to this practice as I need some background. I also downloaded a free app created by Rabbi David Cooper, which is helpful too. Thanks!

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