Counting the Omer


By Sarah L.

The Counting of the Omer, or Sfirat haOmer in Hebrew, is a 49-day period which begins on the second night of the festival of Passover, celebrated beginning on the 14th of Nissan, and culminates with the harvest festival of Shavuot, the 50th day, celebrated on the 6th of Sivan. God commands Israel to count the Omer in Leviticus 23, saying:

15 “‘From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering [Omer], count off seven full weeks. 16 Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord. 17 From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of first fruits to the Lord. 18 Present with this bread seven male lambs, each a year old and without defect, one young bull and two rams. They will be a burnt offering to the Lord, together with their grain offerings and drink offerings—a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. 19 Then sacrifice one male goat for a sin offering[c] and two lambs, each a year old, for a fellowship offering. 20 The priest is to wave the two lambs before the Lord as a wave offering, together with the bread of the first fruits. They are a sacred offering to the Lord for the priest. 21 On that same day you are to proclaim a sacred assembly and do no regular work. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live.

According to Leviticus, the Counting of the Omer occurred during the harvest season, a period full of hope, expectation, and probably anxiety for healthy, plentiful crops which could be offered at the Temple.  The Omer period therefore connected not only between two major holidays but also between two major offerings to God at the Temple. Since Passover and Shavuot were both pilgrimage holidays, meaning that all the males of Israel were required to present themselves with their offering at the Temple, this period would have also been a festive (and crowded!) time in Jerusalem!

Shavuot is also called the “Feast of First Fruits,” referring to the Temple offering. “First fruits,” in Hebrew “bikurim,” were the first harvest from a specific crop – in this case either wheat or barley. Since barley ripens more quickly than wheat, barley was probably brought as the first fruits offering for Passover, while late-ripening wheat would have been ready fifty days later to bring as first fruits to the Temple for Shavuot. Thus, during the Omer, farmers and landowners would specifically have had their eyes on the wheat crop; a good crop would have brought relief and celebration on Shavuot.

After the fall of the Second Temple, it was no longer possible to keep any part of the Counting of the Omer or Shavuot as they were initially given at Mt. Sinai. Although the Jewish people continued to observe the Omer, many rabbis now argued that without the Temple, it was no longer a “deorita” commandment, meaning that it was no longer directly derived from the Torah.

Despite this, the Omer came to represent a spiritual journey for the Jewish people which culminated with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  According to tradition (and some historians) it took Israel 49 days to travel from Goshen to Sinai, and over this period, Israel slowly transitioned from the exodus from slavery in Egypt (represented by Passover) to accepting the responsibility of nationhood at Sinai (represented by Shavuot).

During this period of transition, Israel lost sight of their purpose; they complained about food, about water, and they even wanted to return to Egypt. Although they were physically freed from slavery, they held on to victimhood and a lack of self-sufficiency; they had not yet accepted responsibility for their own lives. (This is not to belittle them; Israel’s reaction to freedom was actually a very natural one. Studies show that released prisoners will often commit a second crime with the intent of returning to a life in prison that is familiar and does not require much effort.)

At Sinai, although Israel’s journey was not yet complete, they became an organized nation with clearly defined laws and a unifying tradition and way of life. Sinai was a major step towards national and psychological emancipation, and the journey from Egypt to Sinai, which parallels the counting of the Omer, is the day-by-day progress which connects physical freedom to true independence through the acceptance of responsibility for one’s choices and walk with God.

Both meanings and celebrations of the Omer and Shavuot can be connected to the events at the beginning of the book of Acts. Acts 2:1 says, “And in the day of the Pentecost [Shavuot] being fulfilled, they were all with one accord at the same place.” (YLT) The phrase “being fulfilled” in Greek is often translated as “when the day had come” but a more accurate translation reflects the completion of a certain period, in this case the Counting of the Omer. Additionally, the Greek word “Pentecost,” although it generally is connected with Christian tradition, actually means “fifty” referring to the fiftieth day of the Omer! On Shavuot, the 50th day of the Omer period, the disciples received the Holy Spirit and Scripture says that about 3,000 Jews became believers.

In 1 Corinthians 15:20, the apostle Shaul (Paul) referred to Yeshua as the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” In this way, Yeshua’s resurrection lines up with the first fruits of barley offered during Passover. It would be natural to continue the comparison and draw a parallel between the 3,000 who became believers during Shavuot to the first fruits of wheat also offered at Shavuot in the Temple.

Although extra-Biblical, the focus on the giving of the Torah at Shavuot also strengthens parallels between the Torah and New Covenant. The 40 days that Yeshua spent with His disciples after His resurrection would have occurred during the Omer.  In many ways, this post-resurrection period mirrors the period before Sinai. While Israel lost their purpose on their way to Sinai, Yeshua would have equipped and empowered His disciples during His time with them. In Judaism, this is called a “tikkun,” a correction for a past error in similar circumstances. On Shavuot, the culmination of the Omer, the disciples received the Holy Spirit, fulling the words of the prophet Jeremiah that God would write the Torah on the hearts of the people of Israel.

Today, the first half of the Omer is marked by a period of partial mourning, during which religious Jews don’t cut their hair, marry, buy new clothes or listen to music. This period ends (according to most traditions) on the 33rd day of the Omer, called in Hebrew “Lag b’Omer.” It is unclear why this time became a sorrowful one; some have connected it to the Bar Kochva revolt, others to a plague which reportedly killed tens of thousands of rabbinical students due to their lack of respect for each other, and still others to the anxious period of waiting for the wheat harvest.

Many Jews also see the Omer as a period of introspection, a sort of “preparation” for the reception of the Torah on Shavuot. Some traditions attribute a human emotional characteristic to each one of the seven weeks of the Omer to facilitate this introspection.

In conclusion, the Counting of the Omer is one of many Jewish observances which have changed dramatically over the years, especially following the destruction of the Temple. However, the Jewish people has always been able to adapt to their new circumstances and reapply the precepts given to them at Mt. Sinai. Additionally, we as believers also continue to be able to find meaning and connection to Messiah through the understanding and observance of traditional Jewish practices.

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