Counting the Omer/Passover and the Harvest
The counting of the Omer, a Jewish practice of noting the days of the grain harvest, takes place this year from April 3 in the evening (the second night of Passover) until May 22.
The counting of the Omer takes place during the forty-nine days from the second day of Passover to the revelation holiday of Shavuot. Once, the first sheaf of the barley harvest was cut down on the second day of Passover. (A measure of grain was called an omer.) During the forty-nine days, the barley harvest and the wheat harvest was brought in, and on Shavuot, two loaves of bread were offered in the Temple in gratitude, along with the first fruits of all the farmers. The days were counted as part of the harvest process. After the destruction of the Temple, the command became simply to count the days sequentially: Today is one day of the Omer, today is two days of the Omer… today is one week and one day, that is eight days of the Omer, and so forth.
The Omer also represents the link between Passover and Shavuot. The forty-nine days symbolize the seven weeks the Hebrew ex-slaves wandered in the wilderness between freedom and revelation. Jews have often imagined these seven weeks as a time to prepare for receiving the Torah. Mystics have used each of the forty-nine days to meditate on particular divine characteristics: for example, each of the seven days of the first week is used to meditate on the nuances of chesed, or lovingkindness, while the second week is used to meditate on gevurah, or strength..
In Talmudic times, the Omer became a period of mourning because of tragedies that occurred during that time, including the death of many of the talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva’s students. Some people refrain from dancing, listening to music, cutting their hair, and celebrations like weddings during these seven weeks.
There is also the interesting midrash that Abel, son of Adam and Eve, was born on Passover and died on Shavuot:
“Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua disagree. Rabbi Eliezer says: the world was created in Tishrei. Rabbi Joshua says: In Nisan. He who says in Tishrei holds that Abel lived from Sukkot until Chanukah. He who says in Nisan holds that Abel lived from Passover until Shavuot. In either case, all agree Abel was only in the world for fifty days.”
Genesis Rabbah 22:4
In this midrash, Abel represents the life of the grain, which is “born” on Passover and “dies” (is harvested) on Shavuot. Abel’s name means “breath” or “emptiness.” By counting the days of the Omer as the days of Abel’s life, we remind ourselves how fragile we are, and how dependent we are on the humble grasses of the world.
Other cultures personify the grain as well: In Greece, Kore or Persephone represented the grain cut down each year and seeded the following spring. In Sumer, Tammuz was the dying and reborn god who represented the grain. In Scandinavia, Sif, the grain goddess, had her hair cut off (harvested) by the trickster god, Loki. In Britain, songs are sung to John Barleycorn.
All this lore has made me more aware of the ways our own calendar is connected to the harvest. I have recently wondered if the mourning practices some Jews observe during the Omer are partly to mourn the grain as it is cut down, and to offer respect as the harvest is brought in. While the harvest can be a wild and joyful season, it is also a time for reflection on our own lives and on our interdependence with all beings. Perhaps taking on an Omer practice (like refraining from cutting one’s hair) can be a sign of our awareness of all the earth sacrifices to feed us.
As we begin the counting of the Omer, may we use this time to reflect on the world’s resources and how we use them. May the matzah remind us that we can live more simply. May we be grateful for all we receive from the earth and strive to give back as much as we can.
The Blessing over Counting the Omer:
Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melekh ha’olam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetizvanu al sefirat ha’omer.
Beruchah at yah, eloheinu ruach haolam, asher kidshatnu bemitzvoteha vetizvatnu al sefirat ha’omer.
Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.
After the blessing, you should note the days and weeks of the Omer in a language you understand (for example: today is seventeen days, that is, two weeks and three days of the Omer). You can find out what day of the Omer it is on www.hebcal.com.
Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director of Tel Shemesh. She is the author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, and of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.
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