Counting the Omer: Abel and the Grain

The counting of the Omer (literally, a sheaf of grain) is a Jewish custom, first mentioned in Leviticus, that takes place between Passover and Shavuot.

From Passover to Shavuot, Jews count the forty-nine days that fall in between the early spring festival of freedom and the early summer festival of Shavuot, using a daily ritual of counting and blessing. Passover used to be the occasion for the offering of the first sheaf of barley, while on Shavuot loaves of bread were offered as a sign that the harvest had come in. The counting of the Omer, once a tangible sign of gratitude for the growth of the spring crops, has become a period when Jews seek spiritual growth. It is also a time of mourning when some Jews do not cut their hair or perform weddings. How do mourning and growing go together?

First, the Omer is a time of reflection. The seven weeks of the Omer are often related to seven sefirot or Divine realms, each representing a spiritual quality (love, strength, compassion, endurance, etc.). Some meditate on a different combination of these qualities each day of the Omer. Counting the Omer using these kabbalistic meditations can be powerfu, and can remind us of the necessity of examining and repairing our flaws. However, there are other little-known meanings to the Omer which point us back toward the Omer as an extended contemplation of the seasons, of harvest, and of time itself: a ceremony of grief and gratitude.

In Japan, the flowering cherry tree, which blooms at this season, is a sign of the ephemerality of life. Interestingly, in one midrash, the forty-nine day period of the Omer is also a sign of life’s fleeting beauty. In Genesis Rabbah 22:4, Abel, son of Adam and Eve is born on the first day of the Omer. Cain murders him on Shavuot, the day after the Omer ends. In this surreal telling of the Genesis story, Abel grows to manhood in a few hours, and only lives fifty days. His life is brief yet precious. Perhaps this is the reason the Omer is a period of semi-mourning among many Jews: during this time we are grieving the death of Abel, the first death in the world. We are remembering that we are like the cherry blossoms that bloom and fall. “Omer” means “measure”—an omer is a measure of grain. The story of Abel’s life reminds us to measure our days, and be grateful for the blessing of human experience.

Another Omer tradition I use at this time of year comes from the mystical tradition that the Omer is the period when both the Hebrews and the Shekhinah (the Divine feminine presence dwelling on earth) were purifying themselves from slavery in Egypt, while getting ready for the giving of the Torah. I had never liked the thought that the Shekhinah somehow got “impure” in Egypt, but there was something powerful about the Omer as days of seclusion or separation. A few months ago, while studying the section of the Torah pertaining to childbirth rituals, I noticed that a woman is secluded, away from the Temple, for thirty-three days after the birth of a boy, and sixty-six days after the birth of a girl. The number exactly between thirty-three and sixty-six is forty-nine. If the Exodus is a birth, and the Hebrews are both male and female, then forty-nine days is the right amount of time for the Shekhinah to seclude herself with Her new infant people before re-entering public space.

In this way of thinking, the mourning traditions some Jews practice during the Omer (no weddings, no parties, etc.) are not mourning traditions at all, but rather they are “seclusion” away from public space. After Passover, each of us is a newborn of the Shekhinah and each of us is entitled to some private time before we must become full members of the community. From this point of view, the Omer custom of not cutting one’s hair (also associated with mourning) makes perfect sense: just as in very traditional families, the hair of children is not cut until they are three, we refrain from cutting our hair during this period as a reminder of our spiritual infancy and vulnerability at this time.

And what does this have to do with apple and cherry blossoms? They too are symbols of childhood: they are the trees’ spring beginning as it makes its annual journey from flower to fruit to seed. The blossoming trees show us how beautiful we are in our young, fragile state, and remind us of how much growth lies ahead. As spring turns to summer, we will move through the seven weeks of the Omer, counting the days like falling petals.

—Rabbi Jill Hammer

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director of Tel Shemesh and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.

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