If you are reading this before sundown Friday, you may yet have the opportunity to participate in the daily ritual of “counting the omer (“sefirat ha-omer”) – even if you neglected to do so last night.
The ritual of counting traditionally begins at the tail end of the second seder, a point at which many of us are exhausted. Indeed, if you had any role whatsoever in the seder – cooking, serving, teaching, or facilitating, or even just participating actively – you know how it can be both spiritually fulfilling and physically draining at the same time. Thus, many of our sedarim go out with a whimper rather than a bang, and it is often a challenge not to doze off before counting the omer even for the first night – that is, at the end of the second seder. However, the halachic sources specify that one is permitted to “make up” if one misses the opportunity to count in the evening by doing so during the daytime that follows, simply without reciting the blessing. If one misses an entire day, it is impossible to make up that day and thus to count off the full “seven complete weeks” that the Torah commands, but if you neglected to start counting the omer last night, you may still have the chance to do so today.
For those of us living in a non-agrarian society (despite the fact that farmers made up 90 percent of the American work force in the late 18th century, that number is probably closer to 1.5 percent in our time), the practice of counting the omer – marking the seven weeks between the barley-harvest and the wheat-harvest, which are also denoted by our festivals of Pesach and Shavuot – may seem far-removed from our world. Thus, the medieval kabbalists transformed the practice of counting the omer from one that focuses on the harvest to one that focuses on individual transformation and introspection, assigning to each of the 49 days a different aspect of the “divine emanation.”
Modern scholars have also re-focused the holiday upon the individual: Some suggest that each day of the first 48 days should be spent thinking about the “48 ways to acquire the Torah” described by the Mishna in the sixth chapter of Tractate Avot. Ultimately, these modifications in the way we view the period connect Pesach, the festival of our freedom, with Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, which presumably helps guide us in the judicious use of that freedom. Freedom without direction is meaningless, and so the period of the omer is one of anxious anticipation of the gift of Torah, which we understand to be the ethical rudder of Jewish society.
It is no surprise, then, that many of the traditions surrounding this period involve an attitude of gravity or even semi-mourning – despite the joy with which we commemorate Pesach, understanding that joy only comes to fruition with Shavuot. Other traditions turn the period into one of general mourning, remembering those who lost their lives to persecution throughout Jewish history.
This year, however, the ancient meaning of the omer period may well carry more weight for us than it has in years past because in ancient Israel, the period of agricultural growth between Pesach and Shavuot was undoubtedly one of great concern. With the economic wellbeing of the community hanging in the balance during this period, traditions developed that responded to the hopes, fears, and religious needs of that community. Afraid that excessive celebration would be met with a failed crop, practices developed that toned down festivities until the wheat harvest was mature and the first fruits of the new year’s labors were brought to the Temple on Shavuot. The atmosphere of seriousness that this cast upon the period is entirely familiar to us as we today experience anxiety about our own economic wellbeing.
The ritual of counting the omer can actually help us deal with this tension. Although the current economic crisis will surely not pass by the arrival of Shavuot, neither can we expect that it will be without end. Numbering our days gives us strength in remembering the rough seas we have successfully weathered as we face further rough waters ahead. It also gives us the opportunity to count the blessings we have received even amidst those rough waters. Finally, it focuses us as we look forward to Shavuot and the closeness to God that it symbolizes, helping us to see what is enduring and meaningful even in the face of our own changing fortunes.