Omer: Working on a Holy Place

(This is the second post in a series about counting the omer. If you are looking for inspiration about this week’s double Torah portion, you can check out my previous blog posts on Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.)



Last week I wrote about the Jewish tradition of counting the omer—counting each of the 49 days between Passover/Pesach and the festival of Shavuot. (See my post “Omer: Counting 49”.) Most non-orthodox Jews who count the omer today simply read or recite two sentences (labeled as #2 and #3 below): a blessing for counting the omer, and the evening’s count—the number of days and weeks since the first day of Passover. But that way they miss all the juicy parts of the ritual.

In fact, the prayer service for counting the omer is full of Kabbalistic practices and symbolic meanings. I’ll repeat the orthodox order of the omer-counting service from last week’s post:

#1.  Opening prayer: a) the intention of the omer prayer service, b) Leviticus 23:15-16, 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 are 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 days a week for seven weeks, you get 49 different pairings.

Last week, I wrote about the first sentence, a breathtaking declaration from Kabbalah that this omer prayer service is for the sake of changing reality and uniting God. I also wrote about the quote from Leviticus in the middle of the first prayer, which tells us to bring the priests an omer-measure of barley on the second day of Pesach/Passover (day one of the omer count), count 49 days, then bring a new grain offering (wheat bread) on day 50.

The first prayer of the omer service concludes with a three-line sentence from Psalm 90:

May the no-am of the lord our God be upon us,

And the work of our hands konenah upon us,

And the work of our hands, konenah it. (Psalm 90:17)

no-am = pleasantness, delight, sweetness

konenah = establish, firmly found, build to endure

This is a good blessing to recite before any serious undertaking—and medieval Kabbalists considered counting the omer a serious undertaking. The blessing carries additional meaning within the context of Psalm 90. The theme of that psalm is that although God is permanent, humans are ephemeral. What can we hope for, when our lives are so fleeting? The answer lies the psalm’s conclusion, translated above. We pray that we will enjoy whatever gifts we receive from God, and that the works we create will endure for generations after us.

The “work of our hands” includes everything we make, in every field of endeavor. (For example, this blog is one of the works of my hands.) The word konenah is commonly used in the Torah for solid buildings, edifices that will stand for a long time. Malbim (the 19th-century rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michael Wisser) wrote that doing  mitzvot (ethical and religious behaviors required in the Torah) also counts as the work of our hands. The habit of doing mitzvot adds depth to a human’s personality, he said, so establishing that practice counts as establishing a solid edifice.

Other traditional commentators have written that Psalm 90 is speaking about the “work of our hands” in making the portable sanctuary in the Torah, and building the temple in Jerusalem.  We pray at the end of Psalm 90 for God to confirm the holiness of the Temple we built, and strengthen it so it will last.

Both the first and the second temples in Jerusalem lasted for centuries. But when the second temple fell to the Romans in 70 C.E., Jews were left with only the temple mount and the remains of the western wall. Since then, we have built synagogues and study houses all over the world, and have turned our own homes into places of prayer. I believe these are all holy places, and the “work of our hands”, our intentional creative actions, make them holy. But does a house of prayer or study count as a “house of the mikdash” ?

That phrase appears in step #4 of the omer service. Step #1 is the opening prayer, which ends with the blessing for the work of our hands from Psalm 90. Step #2 is the blessing for counting the omer: Blessed are you, God, our god, king of the universe, who has made us holy with Its commandments, and commanded us regarding the counting of the omer. Step #3 is the actual count of the day. Then comes step #4:

May the Compassionate One return for us the service of the house of the mikdash to its place, in a hurry, in our days. Amen, Selah.

mikdash = holy place, abode of holiness, sanctuary, holy precinct

In this prayer after the omer count, “the house of the mikdash” is usually translated as “the Temple”. Even during the first century C.E., the century after the fall of the second temple, praying for a third temple and the restoration of the service of priests was a political statement. Some sects thought the priests had wielded too much power, and these Jews did not want a return to the old status quo.

Today, I am one of many Jews who feels an aversion to praying for God to restore the service of the Temple. I certainly do not want the mosque that currently crowns the temple mount to be torn down and replaced with a Jewish building. I do not want a return to a hereditary priesthood running things. And I do not want a return to worship through slaughtering animals as offerings; I believe it is far better to serve God through prayers and good deeds, as we have been doing for the last two thousand years.

So some evenings when I am counting the omer, I skip this prayer. Other evenings, I recite it in Hebrew, but my inner English translation is different:

May the One of compassion return us to service in the places where holiness dwells, now, every day. Amen, Selah.

God may be everywhere, but we only notice the divine at certain times and in certain places. The Hebrew Bible asks people to pay attention to the divine on Shabbat and festival days, and at the Temple where God dwelled. Now, I believe, the divine dwells wherever humans recognize holiness. Sometimes the holiness of a place strikes us suddenly. More often, we make an effort to create a holy space, by arranging what we see and hear there, and then going there to pray and to engage in rituals. Thus holy places are the work of our hands—in Moses’ time, in Temple times, and to the present day.

May the delight of our God be upon us,

And make the work of our hands an enduring foundation for us,

And the work of our hands, may it endure.


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