The Torah instructs us (in Leviticus 23:15-16) to perform the nightly ritual of counting the Omer, beginning on the second night of Pesach (Passover) and continuing for a total of seven weeks. After completing this seven-week counting of the Omer, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), which this year begins on Saturday evening, June 4. Originally, this counting was meant to mark the bringing of the first grain offering of the barley harvest season to the Temple and ending with the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. The word omer is an ancient unit of measure (i.e., a sheaf). These offerings were meant to express the people’s gratitude to God for providing them with food. They, in turn, provided food to the priests of the Temple.
During this counting period, each night we recite the following blessing:
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.
After the blessing, we count the current day of the Omer (and later, count the weeks and days as well). For example, on the 26th day of the Omer, we say:
Today is 26 days, which is three weeks and five days of the Omer.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, while the practice of agricultural offerings ceased, the counting of the Omer continued. Although the Torah does not explicitly state that the Torah was given to the Israelites on any specific date, the rabbis deemed it to have occurred on the day we now celebrate Shavuot. Hence, today, our celebration of this holiday is a celebration of our receiving the gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Today, we link these two holidays not only on a ritual level but on a spiritual one as well. Pesach is a celebration of our liberation from bondage and slavery in Egypt, while Shavuot is a time to commemorate the acceptance of our formal covenant with God. The counting of the Omer encourages us to relive the journey of our people from slavery to freedom, culminating with our freewill choice to accept the Torah and its commandments.
Symbolically, the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot provide us the opportunity to reflect on the nature of these holidays and how they impact our own lives. For example, what has held you captive this year? What thoughts have enslaved you and limited your ability to break free from uncomfortable situations? Are there dreams that have gone unfulfilled because you cannot see a way to make them a reality? Perhaps the counting of the Omer is the perfect opportunity to recalibrate your thought process and break free of the bonds that limit you.
The joyful holiday of Shavuot provides us an opportunity to recommit ourselves as Jews to living an ethical life as taught in our Torah. Just as our ancestors reached out to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, we have the opportunity to reach out to the infinite possibilities that the universe has to offer. May we all be blessed with new inspiration and insight during these weeks of counting the Omer and approaching the festival of Shavuot.