You shall count for yourselves — from the day after the Shabbat, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving — seven Shabbats, they shall be complete. Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count fifty days… (Leviticus 23:15-16)
Sefirat Ha’Omer, or “the counting of the Omer,” is the Jewish tradition of counting the days from the day after Passover to the day before Shavuot — numbering seven weeks, or forty-nine days, in total. When the Temple was standing, the Israelites brought a barley offering the day after Passover. This was called “the Omer” (literally “sheaf” in Hebrew), and G-d commanded the Israelites to count the forty-nine days leading to the holiday of Shavuot. Today, counting the Omer is a mitzvah, done at nightfall following a blessing. If a Jew forgets to count on a night and does not compensate the day after, he may no longer count that year. Like all Jewish practice, this custom is perplexing and multifarious, offering many explanations, perspectives and lessons.
Counting the Omer instills a sense of anticipation. We count the days off to meaningful life events such as birthdays, weddings and childbirth. Just so, Sefirat Ha’Omer allows for the anticipation of the Israelites’ reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai — as marked by the holiday of Shavuot. This was the pivotal spiritual moment in Jewish history; it reveals the purpose of the Jewish people. Hence, the count recreates the anticipation of receiving the Torah, embedding the event with more value and appreciation. It serves as the bridge between the physical and the spiritual. The physical redemption of the Jewish people — the Exodus from Egypt — is recounted on Passover while the spiritual redemption — the giving of the Torah — is marked by Shavuot. During the Omer, the Israelites focused on preparing themselves spiritually in order to become worthy of the Torah.
Just as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur represent a sudden spiritual break of repentance and fresh beginnings, the Omer is a time of progressive change. The difference between fresh beginnings and progressive change is comparable to the difference between immersing oneself in a mikvah (ritual bath) and studying Torah. The former is a sudden purification while the latter is gradual and meticulous. Both are necessary as they carry over to many aspects of our lives.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at UCLA offered his insight to understanding this custom, comparing the spiritual mechanics of the Omer to the physical mechanics behind muscle growth. Like the seven-week period of the Omer, it takes about seven weeks for the labors of strength training to be noticed. By itself, each day matters little — but placed together, each part is necessary for the whole. A single day left unaccounted for ruins the whole final product.
This spiritual development period of the Omer was required to cleanse the Israelites of the moral defilement accrued during their time enslaved in Egypt. Today, our individual “Egypts” are more present in our lives than ever, and the custom of the Omer has evolved to recreate the spiritual escape from whatever may limit us. In addition to the counting itself, the Omer is a time for conscious spiritual refinement. The 49 days of the Omer represent the seven attributes of human emotion and each of their own seven attributes. For example, on the first day of the first week, the chesed of chesed (loving-kindness of loving-kindness) is examined, as its manifestation applies to the individual’s own life. The next day, the chesed of gevurah (the loving-kindness of discipline) is the focus, until every attribute is the object of meditation. This practice emerged with Kabbalah and incorporated a practical and directed spiritual practice to the Omer.
Before being remembered as the greatest rabbi of his generation, Rabbi Akiva was but a poor, illiterate and uneducated shepherd who descended from converts. He did not begin Torah study until age 40, when he began 24 consecutive years of immersion and eventually became one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation. The inspiration for this spiritual revival came when Rabbi Akiva walked past a well and witnessed a stone which had a hole carved into it by dripping water. He thought to himself, “Just as this rock is weathered by this water, so too can the Torah enter my heart.” The lesson of the Omer is apparent here. Each day is a drop of water and we — the receivers — if mindful of the power of small change, are the rocks. The water — left undirected — drips and molds our behavior like a wave striking a coarse seaside cliff. When we ourselves choose where the water drips, we mold ourselves to perfection — recreating within ourselves the spiritual beauty of the inspired Israelites standing below Mount Sinai on the greatest day of mankind. This is the lesson of the Omer.