Sefirat HaOmer: 49 Steps Upward

The 49 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot are a stairway to spiritual renewal.

Sefirat HaOmer – the literal counting of seven week’s days in Jewish tradition- is drawing to a close with the upcoming Shavuot holiday (Tuesday night). Reflecting the Biblical commandment to sacrifice a measure of the new barley harvest at Shavuot, the period is rich in mystical, historical, and material significance. It’s a time of meditation, of  self-refinement. See our eco-rabbi’s insights on how to raise your spiritual level, in his post on Parshat Naso. A time of mourning cut through with rejoicing. A time to remember the past and to plan ahead. A significant period in the Israeli agricultural calendar.

On Passover, the Jews experienced the redemption from slavery in Egypt. During the following 49 days, the nation prepared itself for redemption from idol-worship and other spiritual traps. The culmination of this period came on Shavuot, when Moses brought down the Torah from Mt. Sinai.

In the Torah is written the commandment to bring an omer sacrifice of barley flour from the first harvest to the High Priest.  (An omer is a a dry measure whose volume is about that of 42.5 eggs. “Omer” also refers to this offering.) This took place on the second day of Passover.

Barley, in ancient times, was animal fodder. Wheat, which was brought as a sacrifice in the shape of bread on Shavuot, is supremely a human food. The comparison is that of raising our animal nature to the human, who yearns to connect with the Creator by refining himself through the commandments.

A mixture of sadness and joy run through the Omer period. We remember the deaths of Rabbi Akivah’s 24,000 Torah students from a plague and the pivotal fall of Beitar to the conquering Romans. Less talked of were the pogroms of the First Crusades in Germany, 1046, and the Chmielnicki Massacres in Russia, 1648-49. They also occurred during the Omer. Until the 33rd day of the Omer (Lag B’Omer), Jews neither  listen to live music, hold weddings, or shave and get haircuts.

Suddenly, on Lag B’Omer, joy reigns. The plague that killed the Torah students was lifted on that day. The death anniversary of the great Kabbalist Rabbi Shimoh Bar Yochai also occurred on Lag B’Omer – it is said that on the day he died, he taught the Kabbalah the entire day, and his house was filled with an extraordinary light. The light died at the end of that day, and the great Rabbi’s spirit traveled to its reward.

To mark those events, all mourning is over and people pour out in their thousands to Mt. Meron, where Bar Yochai is buried. Bonfires, music and dancing and rejoicing rule. Little boys get their first haircuts and brides and grooms joyfully  stand under the huppa.

I’ve gone to many Lag B’Omer weddings, and will not forget my own son’s first haircut on Lag B’Omer, when my late father settled his little grandson on his shoulders and danced.

The remaining time of the Omer are marked, as on every night, with reciting a blessing and counting the days and weeks of the period. Come Shavuot night, those able to stay up all night attending Torah classes – men and women. (I confess I haven’t done a Shavuot all-nighter in many years.)

In the morning, there are prayer services followed by a hearty dairy meal, in memory of the Jews abstaining from meat those 49 days that they anticipated the Torah. (For a dairy meal idea, see our spinach and mushroom quiche).

The ever-useful Wikipedia has more information on Sefirat HaOmer. And for in-depth articles, go to Torah.Org.

More on Jewish holidays at Green Prophet:

:: Wikipedia

:: Torah.Org

Photo by uberculture via Flickr.



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