Sefirat Ha’omer – “the counting of the Omer” – strikes me as a misnomer. It sounds as if we are counting an Omer – which is a measure of grain – each day, beginning with one and concluding with 50. Each day we say, “Today is the [number] day of the Omer,” yet we never count an Omer – we count days.
The Torah contains the command for the counting. It tells us that we are to bring “the Omer [the first sheaf] of your harvest to the priest” (Leviticus 23:10). This is to be done “on the day after the Sabbath” (Lev. 23:15), which the Pharisees interpreted as meaning the day after the first day of Passover, but which other groups interpreted as the first Sunday after the beginning of Passover.
After, “you must count until the day after the seventh week – 50 days” and then bring an offering of new grain to the Lord (Leviticus 23:16). That is the festival of Shavuot.
So we bring one Omer – one sheaf on the first day – and then we count the days until we are to bring the offering of the new grain and celebrate another festival, Shavuot. Incidentally, in the Torah, that festival has agricultural significance alone. Only later did the Sages declare that it was a celebration of the events at Mount Sinai, the covenant between God and Israel made at the time of Matan Torah – the giving of Torah.
It is difficult to say exactly why the Torah wanted us to count the days after Passover to arrive at the day for the bringing of the new grain offering and Shavuot, rather than simply giving it a date. Of course, seven is the Torah’s holy number, and seven times seven – the same configuration we use for reaching the Jubilee year – makes it even more sacred.
Once Shavuot became the holiday of the giving of Torah, the counting took on a very special meaning – one which, in my estimation, is still the main importance of that practice. It is the idea of anticipating the great events at Sinai and tying them to the Exodus. The one leads to the other. The Exodus does not stand by itself. It is the beginning, not the end.
Attaining freedom was the antecedent to binding ourselves to God in the covenant relationship. The Torah contains the terms of that covenant, and is quite clear that at Sinai, what the people received and accepted was the Ten Commandments and some additional laws, such as those that follow in Mishpatim. That is Torah in its original meaning – instruction.
The intent of the Exodus, as the Torah itself states, was for us to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), for us to become God’s people, and for the Holy One to become our God. With Abraham God made a covenant, but it was a covenant in which we were granted a gift, the Land of Canaan, but in which no further demands were made of us. At Sinai a new covenant was made, one in which we bound ourselves to God and pledged to become God’s people and to observe God’s ways – “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8).
What are those ways? As the prophet later put it, “What does the Lord require of you : only to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
When thought of in this way, this period of time need not be a sad one, but one of anxious anticipation of a great event. When the Ten Commandments are read on Shavuot, in most synagogues the people stand. What we should feel at that moment is that we too are present at Sinai, hearing these words pronounced for the first time and accepting upon ourselves the obligation to live a life in the spirit of the Torah, a covenanted life in which much is asked of us.
But that is what it means to be a Jew.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).