Why Count the Omer? Five Reasons (and Counting!)

Counting the Omer is a mitzvah (commandment) through which we count the days from Passover to Shavuot. It’s an ancient custom that takes us from the giddy joy of Passover to the serious business of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. It begins on the second night of Passover and continues for 49 days until the Festival of Shavuot.

But why count the Omer?

In my effort to get myself to do it properly and on time, I have asked this question and looked for answers. Here are some ideas about why we count the Omer.

  1. God said to: We read in Leviticus 23:15-16, “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer [barley sheaf] of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make 50 days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God.” In other words, God said to make sacrifices to mark these days. We don’t have the Temple anymore, so instead we count after dinner each night.
  2. It connects Passover to Shavuot: Passover is a big holiday of celebration. We celebrate freedom, which is mostly a happy thing (no more slavery, yay!) By preserving the count of the Omer, even without the Temple, the rabbis are reminding us that the Passover is not truly complete until we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot. Freedom without responsibility is incomplete and unreal. By counting, we remind ourselves that the process is not yet finished.
  3. It fosters self-improvement: In preparation to receive the Torah, we work to become better Jews. The Kabbalists point out that the Omer is counted for seven weeks of seven days, and they match them with the seven sefirot through which God interacts with the world. Each of the seven days within those weeks are matched with the sefirot, also, and those various permutations of Godliness provide an opportunity for study and self improvement. Another tradition is to read and study Pirkei Avot (the first chapter of the Mishnah, which consists mostly of advice on proper behavior and attitude) during this season.
  4. It’s an expression of anticipation: When we are excited about something, we count the days to that event. It is also true that when we behave a particular way, we cultivate the emotions and the thoughts that go with that behavior. When we count the Omer, we cultivate excitement about Torah in our lives.
  5. It creates mindfulness: This one is my own, as far as I know. I know that the reason I never make it through the Omer is that I get distracted. It’s as if I have ADD of the soul. Forty-nine days is a long time to do anything, especially something as small and easy to forget as an additional blessing after eating. This year, I want to improve my attention span for Torah. I want to be mindful of Jewish time, and in the process, perhaps make better use of my time.

If you count the Omer, why do you do it? Do you know any additional reasons for counting?

Rabbi Ruth Adar is passionate about making the wisdom of Judaism accessible to beginners from all backgrounds through teaching and home hospitality. She holds a B.A. in economics from the University of Tennessee, an M.A. in religious studies from the University of Chicago, and an M.A. in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She is a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Adar blogs at Coffee Shop Rabbi.
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