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The Omer as Prayer

The 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot has long been viewed as a time of great spiritual potential.

At the time when the ancient Temple stood in Jerusalem, the 49-day period of the Omer was a time of offering a measure (Omer) of barley as a sacrifice. After the destruction of the Temple, with no place to bring offerings, the mitzvah to count the Omer transformed, like many other Temple-based commandments, into a prayer-based daily ritual. After we remember our Exodus from Egypt on Passover, we begin to count 49 days that move us towards Shavuot, when we commemorate receiving the Torah.

The biblical source of the commandment to count the Omer offers this practical instruction: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD.” Leviticus 23:15

The biblical commandment does not speak to any kind of spiritual or inner work. But for many Jews, the seven weeks of the Omer have also become a time for spiritual reflection and growth. How did we go from offering a measure of barley to offering a measure of ourselves to be transformed?

The Mishnah plants the seed for the idea that the 49 days of the Omer can be a time of tikkun (repair) for the harshness in the world or in our lives. Additionally, the Zohar, a core text of Jewish mysticism, teaches that when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they had sunk to the 49th level of impurity — only one level from the 50th and lowest level. The 49 days of the Omer, the Zohar teaches, can be a time of regaining our purity (or spiritual readiness) one step at a time. Through the counting of the 49 days of the Omer we work towards being spiritually prepared to receive the Torah on the 50th day.

The Omer is thus at once a time of both literal and metaphorical lifting and transformation. But before we can receive the Torah on Shavuot, we need to ask ourselves: What stands in the way?

I asked myself this question last year and was answered with something scary: shame. So I created a ritual based on the writings of the 18th-century Hasidic master Nachman of Breslov and the renowned social work researcher Brene Brown. Even across time and space, there were many common themes between the two. But perhaps the greatest was the idea that the way to transform shame is to speak it.

The ritual became a 49-day practice of hitbodedut. Hitbodedut comes from the Hebrew root meaning to seclude. In its reflexive form, it means to seclude oneself. The hitbodedut practice entails secluding oneself with God and sharing whatever is on the mind and heart.

As Rabbi Arthur Green wrote in “Tormented Master,” his biography of Nachman: “The most essential religious practice of Breslov, and that which Nachman constantly taught … was this act of hitbodedut, lone daily conversation with God.”

Hitbodedut, especially with the rigor and specific criteria that Rebbe Nachman recommended — alone, at night, and in nature — is not easy for the average modern Jew. Speaking to God as if we were talking to our best friend — unscripted, emotional, and spontaneous — can feel nearly impossible, or even childish. Many of us learn that to pray is to stay within the boundaries of the set liturgy, and perhaps within the boundaries of certain buildings as well. To practice hitbodedut is to go against much of how we have been trained to connect to the Divine.

The practice of hitbodedut, however, is not necessarily innovative. It’s the way our ancestors, like Abraham, communicated with the Divine: unscripted, open, and usually outdoors. The goal of hitbodedut is to bring God into every corner of our lives. In this way, we stop hiding from God and from ourselves and can live more authentically and fully.

To start, you can name what you’re feeling or thinking. It may be something as simple as “God [or substitute with whatever term you feel drawn to], I’m bored. I don’t know what to say to you. This feels stupid.” Keep talking until you hit on something that feels important to you. A person may choose to speak to God about any number of things: the injustice in the world and in our lives, anger, joy and gratitude, feeling stuck, or wanting clarity on a certain situation.

For the Omer, a daily, structured practice of hitbodedut can be incredibly transformative. So before embarking on the path of counting the days, ask yourself: What stands in my way? What stands between me and Torah, both literally and metaphorically?

The answer you receive may be surprising to you. In any case, turn it into prayer. Try speaking it and handing it over to God.

Hayley Goldstein is a student at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Newton, Massachusetts.

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