Sefirat Ha-Omer--Time As Text
Our changing observance of the period between Passover and Shavuot reflects our sensitivity to the realities of our history.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
In this week's parashah, Emor, we read about the Jewish calendar--the various holidays and their rituals. One of the periods of the year which we are commanded to pay special attention to is the one in which we currently find ourselves--the period of Sefirat Ha'Omer--the counting of the Omer. The Torah tells us that from the second day of Passover we are to begin counting seven weeks--forty-nine days. At the start of this period we bring a grain offering, consisting of a measure of barley, called an "omer." Fifty days later, at the end of the period, on the holiday of Shavuot, we bring another grain offering, called the two loaves, made of wheat.
The bringing of the grain offerings, and the counting of the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot, clearly seem to be some sort of agricultural festival; a way of thanking God, during the period of the spring grain harvest, for the food he has given us.
Anticipation for the Harvest
The counting seems to correspond to a sense of anticipation, to our looking forward, from the beginning of this period, to a good harvest. The Torah seems to want us to not only relate to the grain, and the food we will produce from it, but to the time-frame in which this all happens--to count the days, thereby including the dimension of time itself in the experience of the harvest and the thanksgiving.
The Rabbis, however, overlaid this period with another meaning. If you count the fifty days from Passover--the Exodus from Egypt--you come to the day when the nation of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai. So, the Rabbis declared that that day, Shavuot, is not only a grain festival, and the forty-nine day Omer period is not only a period of agricultural anticipation and thanksgiving, but, in addition, this is the period in which the Jewish people, after leaving Egypt, looked forward with anticipation to arriving at Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah.
We, too, in the days between Passover and Shavuot, are meant to look forward to, and ready ourselves for, a receiving of the Torah, which we celebrate on Shavuot. Thus, the experience of these 50 days was altered, from one that was totally agricultural in nature to one that also focused on issues of the spirit--the divine revelation and the receiving of the law on Mount Sinai.
For centuries, this was the double nature of the Omer period--the agricultural aspect, as well as the connection to the receiving of the Torah. Then, in the year 135 C.E., some sixty-five years after the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans, the Romans crushed the rebellion led by Shimon bar Kochba.