The significance, customs and mechanics of counting the Omer
What is the Omer?
In the days of the Holy Temple, the Jewish people would bring a barley offering on the second day of Passover (Leviticus 23:10). This was called the “Omer” (literally, “sheaf”) and in practical terms would permit the consumption of recently-harvested grains.
Starting on the second day of Passover, the Torah (Leviticus 23:15) says it is a mitzvah every day to “count the Omer” – the 50 days leading up to Shavuot. This is an important period of growth and introspection, in preparation for the holiday of Shavuot which arrives 50 days later.
Shavuot is the day that the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and as such required a seven-week preparation period. The commentators say that we were freed from Egypt only in order to receive the Torah and to fulfill it. Thus we were commanded to count from the second day of Pesach until the day that the Torah was given – to show how greatly we desire the Torah.
How to Count the Omer
The Omer is counted every evening after nightfall (approx. 30 minutes after sunset), which is the start of the Jewish ‘day.’ (In the synagogue it is counted toward the end of the Maariv service.) If a person neglected to count the Omer one evening, he should count the following daytime, but without a blessing.
To properly ‘count the Omer,’ you must say both the number of days and the weeks. For example:
On days 1-6, we say only the number of days. For example:
“Today is 4 days of the Omer.”
On days which are complete weeks – e.g. 7, 14, 21 – we say as follows, for example:
“Today is 21 days, which is 3 weeks of the Omer.”
On all other days, we say, for example:
“Today is 33 days, which is 4 weeks and 5 days of the Omer.”
Since you must recite the blessing before you count, don’t mention the count for that night beforehand.)
Before counting, stand and say the following blessing:
Baruch ata Adonoy, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kid’shanu be’mitzvo’sav ve-tzivanu al sefiras ha’omer.
Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, Who made us holy with His commandments, and commanded us on the counting of the Omer.
The Omer may be counted with a blessing only if both of the following conditions have been met:
1. you count the Omer during the evening, and
2. you have not missed counting any of the days so far
This means to say that if a person neglected to count the Omer for an entire day and did not recall until the following evening, he should continue counting on subsequent days – but without a blessing.
Why can’t you “continue counting with a blessing” if you miss counting one day?
The reason is because regarding the Omer, the Torah writes: “Seven weeks, they shall be complete” (Leviticus 23:15). Thus according to many authorities, if one missed counting any day, the 7-week period can no longer be considered ‘complete’.
Restrictions During the Omer
The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students who tragically died during the Omer period, because they did not treat each other with sufficient respect. Therefore, for the 33 days from Passover until Lag B’Omer, we observe these signs of mourning:
1. no weddings
2. not listening to instrumental music, either live or recorded (vocal music is permitted)
3. no haircuts or shaving, unless for business purposes
[Note: According to some customs, the 33-day mourning period begins a few weeks later on the first of Iyar, and ends on the third of Sivan.]
Each day of the Omer is related to a different level of the kabbalistic “Sefirot,” the emanations through which God interacts with the world. (see: Kabbalah 101) Each of the seven weeks is associated with one of seven Sefirot, and each day within each of the seven weeks is associated also with one of the same seven Sefirot – thus creating 49 permutations. Each day during the Omer, we focus on a different aspect of the Sefirot, with the hopes of attaining spiritual improvement in that specific area.
Specifically, since Rabbi Akiva’s students showed a lack of proper respect, during the Omer period we try to look for the best way to treat our family, friends and acquaintances, so that we may make a “tikkun” (spiritual correction) on the mistakes of the past.
The Talmud (Avot 6:5) says that “Torah is acquired through 48 ways.” Thus during the weeks leading up to Shavuot, many have the custom to prepare to “receive the Torah” by studying the 48 Ways. One popular method is to learn a lesson each day of Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s series, the “48 Ways”; there is both a text and audio version available online.
Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer (‘Lag’ has a numerical value of 33), marks the date of death of one of the greatest Talmudic sages, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. This is a day of great celebration, because tradition says that on his death bed Rabbi Shimon revealed the secrets of the Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah).
For centuries, Lag B’Omer has been a day of pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon in the Galilee town of Meiron. In one day, an estimated 250,000 Jews visit Meiron – dancing, praying, and celebrating the wonderful spiritual gifts that Rabbi Shimon bequeathed to us. Many people camp out for days beforehand in anticipation.
To celebrate Lag B’Omer, Jews from around Israel light bonfires, to commemorate the great mystical illuminations that Rabbi Shimon revealed. For weeks before, Israeli children scavenge wood to arrange as impressive sculptures – often 20 and 30 feet high. Great public celebrations are held and the wood towers are burned on Lag B’Omer.
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