Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our Daily, Shabbat or Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look.
The 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, are known as the time of Sefirat Ha Omer, the “Counting of the Omer.” In ancient times, on the second day of Pesach the barley harvest was marked by cutting enough sheaves of barley, to make about an Omer of fine flour (about five pounds) which was combined with oil and spices to produce a special wave offering. This inaugurated an agricultural festival that was observed for 49 days until Shavuot, which celebrated the wheat harvest. More significantly, the 49 days of the Omer correspond to the days between Pesach, the holiday of our physical liberation from slavery, to Shavuot, the time of our spiritual liberation stemming from the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It was on Shavuot that we were transformed form a band of escaped slaves to a united nation with common goals and beliefs. Thus, the Omer becomes a period of excitement and expectation; we recall the experience of the children of Israel as they anxiously awaited their close encounter with God – the revelation at Mount Sinai.
For generations this was a joyous period, celebrating both an agricultural event and the anticipation of receiving the Torah. However, following the failed Bar Kochba revolt against the Roman occupation in 135 CE, the Sefirat Ha Omer became a time of mourning and sadness. The Talmud relates that shortly following the Bar Kochba incident, the students of the Great Rabbi Akiva suffered a terrible plague and thousands perished. As a sign of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest of our sages, it became traditional to refrain from holding weddings and other forms of celebration. Some men do not shave, haircuts are not taken and many people will not attend movies, concerts or other forms of merriment.
Miraculously, on the 33rd day of the Omer, known by its Hebrew numeric equivalent – Lamed (30) Gimel (3) or “Lag” Ba Omer, the plague subsided. This gave rise to the festive observance of Lag Ba Omer, including the celebration of weddings and the holding of concerts and other musical events. It is customary to have outdoor activities on Lag Ba Omer such as bon fires, field days and picnics. Because Lag Ba Omer is also the anniversary of the death of the Great Talmudic and Kabbalistic sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai celebrations are often held in his honor, especially at his grave site in the Israeli town of Meiron.
This is a video of the Breslav Hasidim singing the traditional song “Bar Yochai” composed in honor of the sage and traditionally sung on Lag Ba Omer. Click here for the lyrics in Hebrew and transliteration.
Here is video by Rabbi Tovia Singer of Hundreds of Hassidim gathered at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai .
The process of counting the Omer is outlined in most prayer books and in many standalone Omer Counters and apps. An introductory meditation is first offered, containing the biblical commandment to count the Omer:
“You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an Omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”
A blessing thanking God for making us Holy by giving us the commandment to count the Omer is then recited followed by the announcement of the new day. This announcement includes the exact number of weeks and days of the counting, thus, on the 22 day of the Omer one would declare, “ Today is the 22nd day marking three weeks and one day of the Omer.” The Omer must be counted after dark to ensure that a complete day has passed between each counting. Here is the text in Hebrew and English.
“While Pesach celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one.”
Although it may seem like a lot of attention is given to counting a period of 49 days that fall between two Jewish Holidays; in a similar fashion to the Pesach Seder, the Sefirat Ha Omer helps create a mutigenerational bond that links us to our biblical ancestors and reminds us of the significance of personal as well as spiritual freedom. Counting the Omer is a ritual in which the entire family can participate. As we count each day, we are reminded not to take everything in our busy lives too seriously but to focus on what really counts.
I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Hazzan Michael Krausman