Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Omer: It's not a sad time!

From time to time, I hear people call the Omer a "sad time". Of course, this is a reasonable conclusion from the absence of music during the days between Pesach and Lag ba'Omer, but in truth, sadness is not what the Omer period should represent.

True, we commemorate the death of Rabbi Akiva's students (Talmud, Yevamot 62b), as well as other historic catastrophes which occurred during a period of time that coincides with the Omer. Nonetheless, as presented in the Torah, the Omer is something entirely different.

There is a second popular misconception regarding the Omer: that we are counting the days until we receive the Torah at Sinai. True, the Omer count concludes, on our calendar, with the fifth of Sivan, and we received the Torah on either the 6th of 7th of Sivan. (Talmud, Shabbat 87a-88a) However, the Torah (Vayikra 23:9-22) does not present this as the reason for counting.

As commanded in the Torah, from the time we first settled the land of Israel we were to bring G-d an annual offering from our new barley, on the 16th of Nisan. Then, we were to count 49 days while harvesting the year's new wheat, and on the 50th day we would bring an annual offering to G-d from our new wheat. In other words: during the Omer period we count the days until we are able to bring G-d a present.

This is the reigning emotion of the Omer: joyous anticipation of an occasion when we will be able to offer G-d the fruit of our efforts, when we will stand in the Beit haMikdash, with loaves of our grain presented before us, and say, "Thank You for all of Your help! As we collect our food from the fields, we dedicate this first portion to You."

  • The Omer count weaves together the humility of one who recognizes Divine aid with the pride of one who can show off results.
  • It blends the generosity of giving a gift with the gratitude of recognizing that we have received a gift from G-d. 
  • It mixes the spiritual rite of the Beit haMikdash with the manual labour of the fields.

What a wonderful celebration; this theme should never be forgotten, even in the face of the presentation of the Torah at Sinai, or the grief of 33 days. May we soon bring these offerings again!


  1. As far as I can recall, the omer is the only period in which there was a special avodah in the Beis haMiqdash, but no specific holiday or or other obligation to rejoice. Of all the times we could feel the loss of the BHMQ, the omer is unique in being a time when there is a special sense of loss and yet mourning is allowed.

    As opposed to the experience you describe, the contrast of the joyous omer period of pre-destruction Judaism to the losses of Rabbi Aqiva's students and the communities of the Rhineland highlights the pain and mourning for me, making omer period sadder.

  2. R' Micha-
    I hear you, but the mourning we associate with this period isn't BHMQ-related in any source I've seen... The sadness you describe is quite a separate phemonenon, I'd think.

    1. What about the Baal Hamaor's point (end of Pesachim) that one reason we don't say Shehecheyanu on the counting of the Omer is because we are mourning the loss of the actual Omer offering?

    2. Anonymous-
      He does indeed say that to explain the absence of Shehechiyanu, but he doesn't contend that this makes the period into a time of avelus...

  3. No space here to expand, but...

    1. I think the Omer is an annual mini-shmittah/yovel cycle. We have a sabbatical 7 day weekly; 7 yr shmittah; 7 x 7 +1 yovel cycle....... and a 7 x 7 + 1 ANNUAL omer/shavuot cycle. The language in the Torah is exactly the same ('sheva shabbbatot temimot ' etc)
    2. In parshat Emor, the verse concerning Leket and Peah (Lev 23:22) appears in the middle of the list of moadim, immediately after the mitzvot of the Omer and shavuot. Why? because leket and peah are also annual symbolic observance of shmittah. Leaving the leket and peah for the ahi and the ger are not the reason for the mitzvah - they are the result of the mitzvah, because like shmittah produce they are hefker.
    3. The ban on marriage during sefirah is because of its sabbatical status - not because of any mourning.
    4. Other minhagei aveilut during the sefirah relate to the Crusades, as has been amply demonstrated by many scholars.


  4. PJS-
    I'm confused by #3 - Are you contending that the practice of not marrying during part of the omer was original to omer? Or that it was added later in recognition of a shemitah aspect to it?

  5. Busy earning a living, I haven't access to my original file on this topic, so this is from memory: the prohibition on marriages is the earliest 'restrictive' practice mentioned in connection with the Omer -- I think in Geonic times. It is often 'bundled' with the other mourning practices, but I don't think there is any connection. I think that ALL of the week-sefirah-shemittah-yovel observances have heavy "sabbatical" content - so just as marriages are forbidden on Shabbat, so they may be forbidden during sefirah, which has the characteristic of an elongated sabbatical period. When this dates from - I have no idea. This is speculation/hypothesis - there is clearly no mention of this in the mitzvah of Omer.

    1. Thanks for fleshing that out, but I must admit that I'm not seeing it...

  6. it's not at all fleshed out at all, because these are short comments on a blog! But can you account for the total linguistic parallels between the mitzvah of sefirah and the mitzvah of shemittah/yovel??????

    1. I certainly agree with the shemitah parallel; my difficulty is with the wedding/Shabbat association.