May 2008            
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What is the Omer?

By Menachem Mendelsohn

During the time that the Jews lived in the land of Israel and the holy Temple existed and functioned as the central point in all Jewish worship, on the night of the sixteenth of Nissan, the month of the Passover, (on the night that the Jews in the exile celebrate the second night of Passover), a solemn ceremony was performed – but not in the Temple, but for the Temple. It was the occasion of the 'ketzerat ha-Omer', the cutting of the omer. The omer itself was a measurement, something similar to a bushel. What was unique was the diligence in the performance of a special mitzvah.

The Torah (Leviticus 23:10) gives the Jews an obligation that states that:

    "When you will come to the Land which I give you, and you shall begin to cut the harvest that I give you, you must bring an omer of the first cutting to the priest. He will wave this omer before G-d that it be accepted for you on the day after the day of rest (Passover), the priest shall wave it."

In the ancient land of Israel, the first grain to ripen was barley. But the individual would not harvest it until the representative of the Beit Din (the court) of Jerusalem would meet together with the heads of the community and come out into the fields. There they would with a great and impressive ceremony cut the first omer of barley with scythes. This was done in a field outside of the city which had been selected and prepared before the Passover holiday.

At the time of the cutting, the kernels of barley were still green and soft. They were put into a baking pan and kept on the fire until the kernels were dry. Afterwards the dry kernels were milled and then sifted no less than thirteen times; this made the flour extremely clean and fine. It was from this flour that the omer was measured out and brought to the altar as a thank offering to G-d for the produce of the field.

Only after the omer of barley was sacrificed could the individual Jews partake of the new barley which they harvested from their own fields since it is written in Leviticus 23:14 that they may not eat from the new grain until they have brought this offering to G-d.

The Torah continues (Leviticus 23:15) stating that we are to count seven weeks, a full forty-nine days from the day that the omer was brought until the holiday of Shavuot, which is the fiftieth day. There was in addition to the bringing of the omer of barley, a mitzvah of counting the days; this is known today as 'counting the omer'. Today we cannot bring the omer as a sacrifice as the holy Temple has not yet been rebuilt. Nevertheless we are still obligated to count the omer. This we do from the second night of Passover.

There are many explanations of why we count the Omer. Some say that it is compared to a guest whom we eagerly await and count the days until his arrival. Similarly we began to count the days from when we left Egypt until we arrived at Mount Sinai and received the Torah. Thus the counting shows an appreciation and expresses our eagerness for the receiving of the holy Torah.

Although the time of the omer should be a time of eager awaiting and joy, many tragic events happened during these times and so this period has become a time of sadness. During this time thousands of the students of Rabbi Akiva died in a terrible plague. In later years the evil crusaders massacred Jews wherever they found them. Jews in the European lands suffered at this time from the ridiculous blood libels which were in addition to other terrible accusations that resulted in loss of many innocent Jewish lives and the destruction of much Jewish property. Therefore this period has taken on an aspect of mourning and somberness.

Only one day in this period, the thirty-third day of counting, which is known as Lag B'Omer, (lag being the alpha-numeric equivalent of 33) is an exception to the semi-mourning period and the mourning-like feeling is lifted. This date is also the anniversary of the death of the great teacher Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who together with his son Rabbi Eliezer hid in a cave for thirteen years because of the persecution of the Romans of any one who taught Torah. In Israel, it is a very festive day and the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, known by the acronym of Rashbi, is visited amidst much happiness and song. In the Jewish communities of old Europe it was celebrated by going out into the forests and picnics.

The period of the Omer is a time for self improvement. Many have the custom to learn the tractate of Mishna called Pirke Avot, known as Ethics of the Fathers. Pirke Avot is a collection of ethical teachings of most of the greatest rabbis from the time of the Talmud. There are many excellent translations with interesting commentaries in English. It is highly recommended that everyone join in this custom of reading the Ethics of the Fathers.


from the May 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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