Counting the Omer

The days between Passover and Shavuot are considered a time of mourning.

The special period between Passover and Shavuot is called sefira, meaning “counting.” The name is derived from the practice of counting the omer, which is observed from the night of the second seder of Passover until the eve of Shavuot. The counting of seven weeks from the 16th day of Nisan (i.e., the second day of Passover), on which the omer offering of the new barley crop was brought to the Temple, until Shavuot, serves to connect the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt with the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Why the Counting?

Tradition has it that it was announced to the Israelites in Egypt that the Torah would be given to them 50 days after the exodus. As soon as they were liberated, they were so eager for the arrival of the promised day that they began to count the days, saying each time, “Now we have one day less to wait for the giving of the Torah.”

Thus, it is explained, the Torah prescribes that the days from Passover to Shavuot are to be counted, symbolizing the eagerness with which the Torah was received by the Israelites. In a similar vein, Maimonides points out that the counting of the omer between the anniversary of the liberation from Egypt and the anniversary of the Torah gift is suggestive of one who expects his or her most intimate friend on a certain day. That person counts the days, and even the hours.

Why the Mourning?

The period of the counting of the omer between the two spring festivals of Passover and Shavuot has long been observed through certain restraints, because many massacres recorded in Jewish history purportedly took place in the spring months, beginning with the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva and his students and continuing through the three Crusades (1096-1192).

Another reason for sadness has been added in modern times. While the crematoria and gas chambers of the Nazis operated all year round, some notable tragic events took place in the period of the counting of the omer. The Israeli Knesset fixed the 27th day of Nisan as a Memorial Day (Yom Hashoah) for those slaughtered by the Nazis during World War II. In addition, the day before Israel Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) is called Yom Hazikaron [Memorial Day] for those who died in the War of Liberation. The last great deportation to the gas chambers, that of the Hungarian Jews, took place during the period of the counting of the omer.

These sad events are traditionally memorialized by refraining from participation in joyous events during this period. According to the Code of Jewish Law, Orakh Hayim 493:2, no weddings should take place, and it is customary not to cut one’s hair.

One interruption in this doleful period is Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the omer, which falls on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Iyar. This day is observed as a semi-holiday, and suspends many of the mourning customs up until this point in time.

Excerpted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Shavuot (Jason Aronson, Inc).

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