Questioning the Counting of the Omer

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

On a Facebook Jewish Women’s clergy group the other day, someone posted the question, “Are you counting the Omer? Why/why not?”

My response, “No, No. It’s an old custom/ritual that simply doesn’t speak to me…and since my congregants don’t seem to want or care, I am fine not pushing it.”

But others responded more on the positive side. Here are a few excerpts:

“Yes. Every night while I nurse my little guy to sleep. My absolute favorite ritual.”

“Yes, and my kids aged 11 and 14 are participating enthusiastically. It’s a little bit of a return to bedtime ritual for this very grown up teen and preteen!”

“I connect with the idea of counting our days and making each day count. I started a ritual of writing something short about each day.”

 “It’s a tradition/obligation that appeals to my sense of order in the universe, and my sense of Jewish cyclical time. So I count.”

 “Yes! It’s a really special moment for our family at bedtime. Before I was married, I used it as a time to start a daily prayer practice, even if it was just saying Sh’ma at bedtime at first.”

And there were other responses too. 

So it seems like I may be a minority in not practicing this ancient custom (or perhaps there are others who simply didn’t bother to respond). Now to follow my own advice to “always investigate and then make an educated decision,” I decided to explore a bit more about this custom, so I can answer this question for myself, “does the ancient custom of counting the Omer speak to my senses, to perhaps bring me closer to God, to our tradition, and to spirituality?”

But first let me explain what “counting the Omer” actually means and where the custom originates.

Counting the Omer, or Sefirat Ha’Omer in Hebrew, is a verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days (7 weeks), between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot, as was first described in Leviticus 23:

15 From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.

16 Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to God.

This mitzvah is derived from the Torah commandment to “count forty-nine days beginning from the day on which the Omer (the sheaf of the wave, a sacrifice containing an ancient measure of barley), was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Counting of the Omer begins on the second day of Passover (the 16th of Nisan). This year we started on Saturday night when we celebrated 2nd Night Seder.

For some people, the idea of counting each day represents spiritual preparation and anticipation for the giving of the Torah which, according to our tradition, was given by God on Mount Sinai at the beginning of the month of Sivan (around the same time as the holiday of Shavuot). 

So why am I giving you this spiel today, before 8th Day of Passover when, in the Reform movement, we stop at the 7th Day as written in our Torah? Because like last week, we are taking a detour from the usual Torah reading cycle. Tomorrow, along with all those who do celebrate the 8th day of Passover, we will read an excerpt from the book of Deuteronomy, which contains important information about the way we observe Passover: 

Chapter 16
Observe the month of Aviv (SPRING)….when God freed you from Egypt. For seven days thereafter you shall eat unleavened bread (MATZAH), bread of distress — for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly — so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live. For seven days no leaven shall be found with you in all your territory (CHAMETZ SEARCH AND BURN).

After eating unleavened bread six days, you shall hold a solemn gathering (YIZKOR) for the Lord your God…on the seventh day you shall do no work (A JEWISH HOLY DAY, WHICH IS WHY THE TEMPLE OFFICE IS CLOSED). 

The mitzvah of counting the Omer repeats here as well, in the Book of Deuteronomy: 

9 And you shall count off seven weeks (OMER); start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. 

10 Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks (SHAVUOT) for the Lord your God, offering your freewill contribution according as the Lord your God has blessed you.

Since counting the Omer is a Mitzvah, one should always say the Bracha (blessing) to engage in this daily practice: 



Blessed are You, Adonai our God,
Sovereign of the Universe,
Who has sanctified us with Mitzvot,
And commanded us to engage in the
Mitzvah of counting of the Omer.


Today is the 8th day of the Omer and to answer my own question from the beginning of this discussion, “does the ancient custom of counting the Omer speak to my senses, to perhaps bring me closer to God, to our tradition, and to spirituality?”

My answer is no. It is not a fulfilling spiritual or creative need that I have—for right now. But ask me again next year, for who knows? Perhaps something within my soul will spark and connect me to the counting of the Omer. But for now, I am content to celebrate Passover at a Seder table with you, my beloved Temple Beth Tikvah congregation, and Le’shana Ha’ba’ah bi’Yershalayim; next year may we go on another trip together to Jerusalem and tour Israel.

Shabbat Shalom and happy Challa eating!

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