Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Inauthenticity, Irrelevancy, and Counting the Omer: The Basics

In the first post on this topic, I laid out two basic problems that liberal Judaism seems to have. Jewish practice either seems to be irrelevant (or insignificant or unimportant), in that there does not seem to be much benefit in doing it. Jewish practice also seems to be inauthentic, in that we do not take seriously the traditional claim that God literally commanded us to do these things by speaking commandments on a mountain 3,400 years ago. That leaves non-Orthodox Jews in an intellectual mess, to say the least, and the result is what we often see in non-Orthodox synagogues: low levels of observance, knowledge, practice, and most of all enthusiasm.

I claimed in the first post that there is at least one way out, and I would use an odd and under-appreciated (and under-practiced) mitzvah---counting the omer---to illustrate this. In this post, I would like to explain the basics of counting the omer and its Torah origins. I will discuss the historical evolution of both the mitzvah itself and ways of understanding its significance in later posts.

The mitzvah of counting the omer is straightforward. After reciting a short single-sentence blessing ("Blessed are you, Lord our God, who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the omer"), Jews count the days and weeks, from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavuot. For example, on the second day of Passover, we recite the blessing then say "Today is the first day of the omer." The next day, "Today is the second day of the omer." On the seventh day, "Today is the seventh day of the omer, which is one week of the omer." On the 23rd day, "Today is the 23rd day of the omer, which is three weeks and two days of the omer." We continue until we reach 49 days. The next day is Shavuot.

Not very complicated. Here are a few additional rules. We should count the omer at night. Someone who forgets to count the omer at night can say it without a blessing the next day, and remains on track. But if someone forgets to count for a full day (that is, skips one day of counting completely), that person can continue to count, but without saying the blessing.

Aish HaTorah's website has a good page on the basics of this mitzvah.

This mitzvah is not complicated, and can be done each night in about 15 seconds. Non-Orthodox Jews cannot claim that the mitzvah is too difficult or complicated or onerous to do. The problem is that it seems silly.

Before jumping into the problem of significance, let's take a careful look at the historical origins of the mitzvah. And this requires a little bit of elaboration about Shavuot.

The mitzvah of counting the omer comes from the Torah. In Leviticus 23, God tells Moses to tell the children of Israel about several biblical holidays. After Shabbat and Passover (on which Jews are commanded to do no work), God then explains that when the Children of Israel enter the land of Israel, they should bring an "omer" of the first reapings to the priest as an offering. (Lev. 23:9-10.) (An omer is a unit of measure of grain.) After some instructions about this (Lev. 23:11-14), the Torah then explains the counting:

"And you shall count unto you from the day after the shabbat [ha-shabbat], from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; even to the day after the seventh week shall you number fifty days; and you shall present a new meal-offering to the Lord." (Lev 23:15-16).

Deuteronomy contains a similar description of the counting, and explicitly identifies this second holiday as Shavuot. After discussing Passover (Deut. 16:1-8), Deuteronomy explains:

"Seven weeks shalt thou number to yourself; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn you shall begin to number seven weeks. And you shall keep the feast of weeks [hag shavuot] to the Lord your God after the measure of the freewill-offering of your hand, which you shall give, according as the Lord your God blesses you." (Deut. 16:9-10.)

Just to clarify: the word "shavuot" literally means "weeks" and is related to the Hebrew worked "sheva" which means "seven." So Hag HaShavuot literally means the Festival or Holiday of Weeks, and this comes from the fact that it occurs seven weeks after, . . . well, something.

These two passages from the Torah raise (at least!) two important questions. First, what day does the counting start? Leviticus says it is on "the shabbat". Does this mean a regular Friday evening and Saturday day Shabbat, or does it mean more generally a day of rest? And if so, which day of rest? And Deuteronomy says from the time the sickle is first used, but what day exactly is this? Second, once we figure out when it starts, do people have to literally count (that is, say "one", "two", "three", etc., on each day) or is this instruction (count 49 days) just an elaborate way of setting the date of Shavuot as 49 days after the starting point. I will cover those next.

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