On April 1, which was the second day of Passover, we started the 50 days of counting the Omer, which will end with the holiday of Shavuot in May.
Omer is a sheaf of barley, with a “sheaf” being one tenth of an ephah, which is about 2.2 liters, according to the New Encyclopedia of Judaism. That confuses me even more. I think of a sheaf as being the stalks and the grains on the stalks, and the Torah (Leviticus 23: 9-16) talks about bringing the first sheaf to the priests in the Temple.
How can one measure, in liters, the amount of barley on a sheaf? It seems to me that if you want to measure the barley grain, one needs to separate it from the stalks, so that is a pile of barley kernels. I did not find any explanation for that either in the Torah or in the encyclopedia.
But the measure of the barley is not really relevant today, since we no longer have priests and do sacrifices in a Temple. What we observe about the period of the Omer is the counting.
When this article appears in the paper on April 20, it will be the 20th day of the Omer. As I was thinking about the Omer period, I remembered that I do a lot of counting in my life. When I do my morning meditation, I count my breaths, inhalations and exhalations, as a way to focus and calm my mind. I have found that when I walk, I tend to count my steps. I count from one to 10, over and over again, as I pull loops for the hooked rugs I am working on. I count the threads and the movement of the shuttle in my weaving projects. I count a lot of things—usually from 1 to 10 or 1 to 8, but I count and count.
It helps to keep my “monkey mind” in check. It helps me focus on what I am doing. So perhaps that is the benefit of the Omer counting. It helps us focus and concentrate, to remember that we are moving from the period of the Exodus to the Giving of the Torah on the holiday of Shavuot.
How do we do the counting? We recite the prayer “Today is the first (tenth, fifteenth, fortieth, etc) Day of the Counting of the Omer,” adding this recitation into our daily prayers.
During the Counting of the Omer, Jews traditionally refrain from celebrations, from dancing, from feasting and from holding weddings. I have heard two explanations for this.
First, is related to the barley harvest period in ancient Israel. Most ancient people depended entirely on agricultural yield, like the barley harvest, to feed them throughout the year. Therefore, the spring was a period of great concern, because they were running out of stored food, and because it was uncertain how good the harvest would be. It was as though they felt that they needed to refrain from happy events until they were sure of the harvest yield.
A second explanation, from the Talmud, says that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died from a plague that happened between Passover and Shavuot, during the unsuccessful Bar Kochba revolt against Rome, in 132-135 CE. Some scholars believe that the restrictions on celebrations was a way to mourn the losses that occurred during the revolt, without openly antagonizing the Roman authorities.
However, the tradition says, the plague that afflicted the students suddenly stopped on the 33rd day of the Omer. So for that reason, on Lag Be-Omer, the 33rd day, weddings and celebrations are permitted. This year Lag Be-Omer will be on May 3.
Another historical explanation for Lag Be-Omer is also related to the Roman occupation and persecution during this period. Many famous rabbis were in hiding from the Romans at this time, who forbade them from teaching and openly practicing religion. Rabbi Simeon Ben Yochai lived in secret in a cave in the Galilean hills for 13 years. Each year, on the 33rd day of the Omer period, the children of Galilee would visit the Rabbi, dressed as hunters and carrying picnic lunches, to fool the Romans.
The Lag Be-Omer holiday is also known as Yom ha-Moreh, the day to honor teachers. I think this is particularly relevant this year. We should honor and cherish the teachers who work so hard, at extremely low pay, to prepare our children for their futures.
The counting of the Omer continues for 50 days (seven weeks) and ends on the holiday of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, which will be on May 20-21 this year.