The importance of the counting of the Omer
Parshat Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23
In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we encounter a timely mitzvah — the counting of the Omer. The Torah commands that starting with the second day of Passover, every Jew is responsible to maintain a personal count of seven weeks, culminating in the festival of Shavu’ot, traditionally identified as the celebration of the Revelation at Sinai.
The date of Shavuot is the only Jewish festival that is not determined by a calendar date, but rather by the elapse of time from Passover. In fact, in ancient times when the length of any given month on the calendar could fluctuate between 29 and 30 days, Shavuot could fall on the fifth, sixth or seventh day of the month of Sivan.
It is fascinating to note that while we will encounter a similar mitzvah of counting in next week’s parshah — the mitzvah to count 49 years to the twice-a-century Jubilee year — the count to the Jubilee is entrusted to the High Court by Jewish law, and it is not incumbent on individuals to make the count themselves. This individually driven mitzvah of counting is developed to its most radical conclusion by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who ruled that a person who crosses the International Dateline over the course of the counting, and hence finds his personal count of days off from his destination, should celebrate Shavu’ot based on his personal calculation rather that the local calendar. While this position is rejected by most contemporary halachists, it is fascinating to note how central the role of the individual is in this mitzvah.
Rabbi David Abudraham, the 15th-century Spanish exegete, proposed a simple explanation of this mitzvah. The period between Pesach and Shavuot for a farmer in ancient Israel was perhaps the busiest of the year, as it was in those crucial weeks that grain for the coming years would be harvested. It was labor intensive and time sensitive, as small fluctuations in weather had potentially calamitous consequences for prosperity or even survival in the coming year and hence was a time of great tension for our ancestors.
One could easily imagine awareness of Shavuot fading from the consciousness of our ancient ancestors against the backdrop of the physical and emotional pressures of the harvest. To protect against that, the Torah prescribes the count of the Omer — a daily obligation for each and every Jew to keep Shavuot and its message of Hashem’s revelation front and center even during the harvest season.
Most of us may not be farmers, but the pressures and anxieties of our professional lives are a perennial presence in our lives, not necessarily even limited to specific busy seasons. The counting of the Omer reminds us of the need to find ways to keep Torah and spiritual values as counterweight to the many distractions of our lives — a way of maintaining focus on the Ultimate in addition to the immediate.
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck.