COUNTING THE OMER

alternate textThe time between Pesach and Shavuot is also known as the time of the Counting of the Omer. This designation, Counting the Omer, is based upon the following Scriptural passages:

Lev 23:15-16 And from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the omer of the wave offering, you shall count for yourselves: seven completed Sabbaths. Until the morrow after the seventh Sabbath you count fifty days …

Deut 16:8-9 Six days you eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there is a closing festival to Yahweh your Elohim – you do no work. Count seven weeks for yourself. Begin to count seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the grain.

Num 28:26 And on the day of the first-fruits, when you bring a new grain offering to Yahweh at your Festival of Weeks (Hebrew: “Shavuot” – implying that the timing of this day is based upon the counting of a certain amount of weeks), you have a set-apart gathering …

So, strictly speaking, we see that it is NOT the omer that is being counted – it is the number of days and weeks that is being counted, starting on the Day of the Waving of the Omer, which is the day following the weekly Shabbat that falls within the Week of Unleavened Bread. The reason why these days and weeks are to be counted, is because the Scriptural feasts are based upon agricultural conditions in the land of Israel. Therefore no fixed date is given for the Feast of Shavuot (or Pentecost). The date is determined by counting exactly 50 days, beginning on the first day of the week (better known as “Sunday”) that falls within the 7 days of Unleavened Bread.

Because it is a Scriptural command to “count the Omer” the Jews have traditionally made something special of this counting and they even have certain added commandments with regards to the counting that in some circles are enforced quite strictly. There is of course a special blessing that applies to the Counting of the Omer that begins with exactly the same phrase as other well known Jewish blessings: “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam …” which is the Jewish way of saying “Blessed are You, Yahweh our Elohim, King of the Universe …”. The blessing continues: “… Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.” The person counting the omer will state the omer count in terms of both total days and the number of weeks and days. If it is the 12th day, he or she will say in Hebrew: “Today is 12 days, which is one week and 5 days of the Omer.” According to Jewish writings, a person may only recite the blessing while it is still night. If he or she remembers the count the next morning or afternoon, the count may still be made, but without a blessing. If one forgets to count a day altogether, he or she may continue to count succeeding days, but without a blessing. All kinds of omer-counters may be bought or ordered during this time of the year – some of them typically working like a calendar, with a tear off page for each day, and others in more modern formats, like subscribing for SMS reminders or even downloading an omer-counting application for cellphones and other devices.

Why would one do a seemingly meaningless thing like spending 49 days of a year counting the days and the weeks? Does it change anything if we count them? Will the feast of Shavuot become less effective if we don’t literally count the days leading up to the feast? One could, of course, apply this very same question to other areas of the Torah, too. Part of this week’s Torah reading is Wayyikra (Leviticus) 11 where the followers of Yahweh are forbidden to eat all types of meat like pork, mouse, ostrich and crayfish. Why would one take seriously a seemingly senseless commandment like this, in a world where eating exotic and unusual meat types is the popular thing to do? For that matter, why would one keep the Shabbat when almost everyone else is just going crazy on this day? Why would one even bother to observe the Scriptural feasts when there are so many other feasts and celebrations and family traditions that provide a far greater sense of belonging and unity with the rest of the world?

There are, of course, many possible answers to all of these questions. I like the answer coming from a Jewish tradition with regards to the period of Counting the Omer. This tradition is contained in the Mishnah where mention is made of 48 Ways in which to acquire the Torah. It has become somewhat of a Jewish custom to study each of these 48 ways on the first 48 days of the Counting of the Omer and to review all of them on the 49th day. According to our reckoning, today is 7 days, which is exactly one week of the Omer. The Mishnah states that the seventh Way to acquire the Torah is called Anavah – Humility. Although we do not follow Mishnah, there is certainly a great deal of truth in this statement that Torah is acquired through humility. If we return to the questions we have asked in the previous paragraph, we can come very close to an answer by looking at this quality of humility.

Let us repeat the first question that we have posed earlier. Why would we do a seemingly meaningless thing like spending 49 days of a year counting the days and the weeks? One answer would be: Because we are humble enough to recognize that Yahweh has been faithful in so many areas in the past and that his ways and his commandments therefore remain valid and good for us, even if they do not fit in with the patterns of this world or the preferences of our own minds. Mosheh (or Moses) is the person who was instrumental in the entire process of acquiring the Torah. We hardly have any direct reference to the character of this man, Mosheh, in Scriptures. There is, however, one clear exception: The reference in Bemidbar (Numbers) 12:3 “The man Mosheh was very humble (Heb: “anav”), more than all men who were on the face of the earth”. I think it is extremely meaningful that the one quality that is highlighted with regards to Mosheh, the champion of the Torah, is the quality of humility. Maybe it is this quality of humility that we need too, more than anything else, in order to embrace Torah, without constantly looking for escape routes and excuses why not to keep Torah.

The opposite of humility is arrogance. Arrogance is the quality that makes one say: I am the only one that matters. An arrogant person is mostly concerned with his own ego, his own pride and his own interests. And because his focus is mainly upon himself, he is constantly preoccupied with how he appears in the eyes of others. Even though he appears friendly and charming, he’s really manipulating things and going out of his way to make a good impression. An arrogant person is therefore not a free person. A humble person, on the other hand, is only concerned about truth, and living by it. One definition is that humility is “living with the reality that nothing matters except doing the right thing”. A humble person’s self-esteem is not dependant upon the approval of others. He has the complete freedom to choose the right thing even when it’s not popular or politically correct. He knows his place in life and can help others to find theirs. A humble person like Mosheh also understood Yahweh’s place in his life and was therefore able to help others making place for Yahweh in their lives, too. Let us have a look at a few more places in Scriptures where this quality of humbleness (“anavah”) is highlighted.

Ps 25:9 He guides the meek ones (“anavim”) in right-ruling, And He teaches the meek ones His way.

Ps 37:11 But the meek ones (“anavim”) shall inherit the earth, and delight themselves in plenty of peace.

Ps 147:2-6 Yahweh builds up Yerushalayim, He gathers the outcasts of Yisrael – He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. Great is our Master and mighty in power, There is no limit to His understanding. Yahweh lifts up the meek ones (“anavim”), He throws the wrong ones down to the ground.

1 Pet 5:5 Gird yourselves with humility (Hebrew New Testament: “anavah”) toward one another, for “Elohim resists the proud, but gives favour to the humble.”

Mat 11:29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek (Hebrew New Testament: “anav”) and humble in heart, and you shall find rest for your beings.

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