Counting the Omer

omer of barley

Counting the Omer
ספירת העומר
by Eran Hornick

From the second night of Passover until the night before the holiday Shavuot, we add a blessing to the end of each day's evening prayer.  This blessing and the verses, psalms, and mystical words that accompany it mark the Counting of the Omer. 

Literally, an omer is a measure of weight used during the times of the holy Temple in Jerusalem.  For each of the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot, citizens of Israel would bring an omer of barley to Jerusalem and donate it to the priests and Levites living there.  Shavuot marked the beginning of the wheat harvest and the end of the barley harvest. 

There are many interpretations of the spiritual meanings of the Counting of the Omer.  Its significance originally corresponded to the Israelites' ascension from slaves in Egypt (at the time before the first Passover), to their heightened state of spiritual closeness with God, seven weeks later, at the time of the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.  After the liberation from Egypt, the Israelites spent the next forty-nine days approaching Mount Sinai.  Each day represented a further step of spiritual ascension.  Like rungs on a ladder, each day brought the Israelites closer to God.  On the fiftieth day they were pure and cleansed and prepared to receive the Torah.

Today, we count the Omer to recreate the tremendous voyage, both physical and spiritual, that the Israelites undertook in order to receive the Torah and fulfill their purpose in becoming servants of God.  Just as they progressed through the forty-nine degrees of spirituality, we too are charged with exploring our spiritual relation to the Torah and our readiness to renew our acceptance of God's word.

The Kabbalists added another layer of meaning to the Omer.  They set each of the seven weeks of the Omer to correspond to the seven earthly sephirot/ספירות, or spiritual spheres of Godliness that exist in this world.  These sephirot are chesed/חסד, gevurah/‫גבורה‬, tif'eret/תפארת, netzach/נצח, hod/הוד, yesod/יסוד, and malchut/מלכות, which mean Kindness, Might, Glory, Eternality, Resilience, Foundation, and Kingliness.  Each of the week's seven days are then correlated to the same seven sephirot, giving forty-nine permutations. The sephirot represent God's various qualities which manifest themselves in our world and in ourselves, and the Omer's progression through the sephirot levels gives us an opportunity to work on those qualities in each of us. 

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