Sacred Time

Why Do We Count the Omer?

Counting is a powerful practice, and a deeply human thing. We count lovers, birthdays, sheep at night when we can’t sleep. It comforts us when we’re anxious and excites us when we can’t wait for what comes next.

In a ritual known as sefirat ha-omer (Counting the Omer), the Torah instructs us to number off each one of the 49 days that separate Passover, our festival of freedom, from Shavuot, the day we celebrate receiving the Torah. Like many Biblical holidays, Passover, the Omer, and Shavuot all have agricultural connections. An omer is a sheaf of grain, and the Counting of the Omer measures the seven weeks from the wheat and barley harvest of Passover to the offering of the first fruits on Shavuot.

Why do we count these days?

The answer is found in the secret of the number seven.

The number seven holds special significance in the Torah. It represents both wholeness and holiness — it is the base unit of sacred time. The seventh day is the day of rest. When the priests ready the tabernacle to become the house of G-d, they prepare themselves with a  seven-day ritual. Harvest festivals last seven days, and a baby boy lives seven days in the world before undergoing circumcision.

When we count the Omer, we count seven sets of seven, each week building on the one before, like a spiral staircase, helping us to make the climb up to wherever it is that revelation happens for us.

To support us on our way, the 16th century Kabbalists offered a special intention for each week, each inspired by one of the sefirot, or attributes of the Divine.  

 

Week One — Chesed (Loving Kindness)

What would it feel like to look at your life through the lens of love, to love it all, no matter what?

Week Two — Gevurah (Heroic Discipline)

Gevurah is the week that you exercise the power of setting limits and practice knowing how and when it’s time to say “no.”

Week Three — Tiferet (Splendor)

Tiferet is the week to say, “Hineni — Here I am, World. I walk with love, I know my limits, and I’m here on a mission.”

Week Four — Netzach (Eternity)

Netzach is the week of wrestling with our egos, of feeling the ways that we are finite and the ways that we are limitless, an important step in claiming our power.

Week Five — Hod (Beauty)

Hod is the week for deep inner beauty. Hod teaches us humility and helps us find the courage to ask for help when we need it.

Week Six — Yesod (Foundation)

Yesod is the week of fire and of feeling our sexual power. Our journey will come together next week, with the divine union of spiritual and physical. In order to get there, we first spend this week honoring the yearning all creatures feel for connection.

Week Seven — Shekhinah (Divine Presence)

We’ve climbed the inner ladder to find Shekhinah awaiting us. This is the week we look for Her face in all things and in ourselves.

What is wholeness to you?

During this season of Counting the Omer, ask yourself: What does wholeness mean to you, and what’s keeping you from getting there? Can you use the ancient biblical practice of numbering off these first days of spring to plant seeds of wholeness? Can you water them every day, by counting that day and making it count, so that when the festival of first fruits arrives, it can be you who is harvested?

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.

Why Do We Count the Omer?
Rabbi Sara Brandes
Rabbi Sara Brandes

Rabbi Sara Brandes is a member of the Shekhina Council of At The Well, and Executive Director at the Or HaLev: Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation. She makes her home with her family on Kibbutz Hannaton, in the Lower Galilee and is author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems.

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