Counting the Omer

Dear Rabbi,
I recently learned that the period after Pesach is called the “counting of the Omer,” counting the days from Passover until the holiday of Shavuot.
What is the point of this counting, now that we have calendars and can simply look up the date of Shavuot? Is it one of those things we do just because they used to do it, or is there some other reason for doing this count? (I’m also surprised that for the first 45 years of my life I’ve never heard of this!)
— Kathy W.
Dear Kathy,
Sefirat ha’omer, the “counting of the Omer,” is one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. “You shall count for yourselves — from the morrow of the rest day (Pesach), from the day when you bring the Omer (offering) … seven weeks …” (Leviticus 23:15)
There are multiple understandings of this mitzvah. When one anticipates an event that she is truly excited about and looking forward to, she counts the days until that time arrives. For the Jewish people, the most exciting and meaningful time in our history was receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. That was where we achieved our greatest connection and intimacy with the Almighty. At that moment, we became an eternal nation and received our marching orders for all time; we were taught how to be a light among the nations and elevate ourselves to unique spiritual greatness. This was the ultimate purpose of the freedom we were granted on Pesach.
Although this transpired more than 3,300 years ago, our tradition teaches that our holidays are not mere celebrations of historical occurrences. We have often explained in this column that our holidays recur yearly. The same spiritual light revealed by the Almighty at that time of our history returns when we arrive at the same time of the year. The Torah is regiven yearly on Shavuot to all those who are prepared to receive it. Hence, year after year, we count the days from our freedom (Pesach) until the purpose of that freedom (Shavuot). This exhibits our anticipation and excitement to again experience those spiritual heights on Shavuot. It also connects Pesach and redemption to its ultimate purpose.
Going a step deeper, the period of sefirat ha’omer is one of spiritual growth. In order to receive the Torah, we need to transform ourselves to be worthy receptacles fit to receive the intense spiritual energy contained within it. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot, ch. 6) enumerates 48 study habits and positive character traits through which one merits the acquisition of Torah. The 49 days of counting are a period of acquiring these “48 ways,” on the last day inculcating all of them into oneself. This prepares one to be ready to receive the Torah on Day 50, the day of Shavuot. (To study these “48 ways,” see, press “spirituality,” and choose “48 ways.” It promises to be very enlightening!)
The Kabbalistic sources provide yet another vehicle for growth through the sefiras ha’omer, based upon the concept of sefirot, or seven levels of existence. During these 49 days of sefirat ha’omer, it is a time to perfect ourselves in relation to the seven lower sefirot, those sefirot which reflect God’s interaction with the physical world. These seven sefirot interact with each other, like DNA, where every cell of the body has within it the DNA of every other part of the body. Each sefirah contains all the aspects of each other sefirah within itself, hence the seven multiples of seven, or 49 days of counting.
In order to tap into this spiritual energy, we actually count, saying “tonight is the third night of the Omer,” etc. To do so connects us to the day, marking it as a time of growth and introspection, taking us forward and upward toward Shavuot!

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