In Leviticus (23:15), we are told “You shall then count seven complete weeks after the day following the (Passover) holiday when you brought the Omer as a wave offering”. In the diaspora, we begin counting the Omer on the second night of Passover and conclude our counting on the holiday of Shavuot.
The Commandment stems from ancient times and the offering – an Omer of barley – that was brought to the Temple on the second night of Passover. We no longer have the Temple and, therefore, no longer bring an offering, but the Counting of the Omer continues to bring to mind the connection of Passover (our physical liberation and Exodus from Egypt) to Shavuot (our spiritual readiness and accepting of the Torah). Once freed from slavery, there was still an unspoken task of readiness for the receiving of the Torah.
The Omer is counted each night, and a bracha (blessing) is recited when counting, along with an announcement of what day of the Omer we have reached. The Counting of the Omer is more than just mere counting. The Kabbalists connect this period to the Sefirot, pathways of Divine energy by which G-d is demonstrated to us. Each of the weeks, and each day within each week, are attached to a combination of the ten Sefirot. The Counting of the Omer is a time for in-depth exploration and soulful preparation as we begin to anticipate Shavuot.
Counting each night keeps us cognizant of the transforming changes taking place. We are mindful of the holiday of Pesach that is behind us and of the holiday of Shavuot that lies before us. The Counting of the Omer connects us to the process of moving from slavery to freedom and prevents us from getting swept back into daily life. It calls on us to be present to the internal process and external journey of moving from freedom to liberation.
There are additional customs that are observed during this time. The Talmud tells us of a great tragedy when over 20,000 students of Rabbi Akiva’s students died because - it is said - they did not treat each other well. nor act in unity. The days from Passover until Lag B’Omer (day 33 of the Omer) have become a mourning period for the Jewish people. As we spend our days and nights in introspection, we refrain from wedding celebrations, listening to music, from shaving, and from haircuts.
On the 33rd day of our count, we cease mourning and enter a day of celebration. It was on Lag B’Omer that the tragic deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased. Lag B’Omer is also the Yartzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, an important Kabbalistic literary work. We attend barbeques and light bonfires, which represent the light that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai introduced to the world through his teachings on mysticism. Following Lag B’Omer, we continue our counting of the Omer until we reach Shavuot.
The Counting of the Omer – from the second day of Pesach through Shavuot – is based on an ancient tradition that has been brought into the modern day to continue to bring us growth and inspiration.