Why Does the Torah Call This Period 'Counting the Omer'?

We find ourselves now in the period of the Jewish calendar called sefirath ha‘omer (literally “the counting of the ‘omer”), the period between the first day of Passover and the holiday of Shavu‘oth. Shavu‘oth is unique among the Biblical holidays in that it is not assigned a specific date (unlike, for example, Passover, which begins on Nisan 14). Instead, we are told that it takes place fifty days after the first day of Passover, hence its name: shavu‘oth means “weeks,” since we count seven groups of seven days each on the way to the holiday.

This count is a Biblical commandment (cf. Leviticus XXIII, 15-16), in which we are told to count the ‘omer. The ‘omer is a unit of volume equivalent to 5.2 American pints or 5.2 liters. It is a very solemn season, given over to intense self-reflection.

Why, then, does the Torah relate this counting to the ‘omer? What, specifically, are we to learn from this association?

What follows is based on a thought by the Chiddushei haRim, the first Gerer rebbe, a major Chassidic thinker who lived in the southern Polish town of Gora Kalwaria in the 19th century (1799-1866):

The first Passover was a time of a tremendous ith‘arutha dileila (literally, “an awakening from Above”), an outpouring of Divine kindness and grace which was completely undeserved; the benei Yisra’el, through their exposure to the depraved, hedonistic culture of the ancient Egyptians, had sunk to the 49th level of tum’a, a term denoting metaphysical or spiritual defilement, barely better than the Egyptians themselves; yet, G-d saw fit to rescue them from the bottom of the pit despite all, because of the promise He had made to the Patriarchs.

This period of sefirath ha‘omer begins, as we noted above, with the second day of Passover; it thus begins with the tremendous outpouring of Divine chesed (“kindness”) of the deliverance of the benei Yisra’el from the Egyptian yoke. But chesed cannot be boundless. If it is completely unbridled and unbound, it can become wild, wanton, and ultimately destructive; its object comes to act like a spoiled child, undisciplined, and the chesed becomes actually harmful.

Therefore, the great Talmudic sages tell us, chesed must be tempered by gevura, the strength to overcome and constrain it. As a unit of measure, the ‘omer is thus a symbol of gevura in that it defines, limits, and constrains whatever commodity fills it (in this case, an initial harvest of barley, offered as a sacrifice).

In other words, our ahavath Ha-Shem (“love of G-d”) must be tempered by yir’ath Ha-Shem (“fear or awe of G-d”). The two concepts are known in classic Jewish literature as as the trei gadfin (literally, “two wings” in Aramaic) of Divine service. On the two wings, one can soar ever upward, climbing to higher and more rarified levels of Torah knowledge and service. One cannot fly with only one wing; it flutters uselessly, and one stays on the ground.

The holiday of Shavu‘oth marks the anniversary of Moshe’s first ascent up the mountain to receive the Torah. This is what the benei Yisra’el were counting their way towards during that first sefirath ha‘omer, and it is what we should have in mind as we follow in their footsteps: the great act of Divine chesed with which the Torah-nation was brought into being, tempered by the gevura of the Torah itself with its 613 mitzvoth, the Divinely given blueprint of a civilized life in service of the Al-Mighty.

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