Counting the Omer: Obsession or longing?

Counting the Omer is not about obsessing over not missing a night - it's about anticipating the festival of Shavuot.

June 6, 2019 08:46
4 minute read.
Counting the Omer: Obsession or longing?

GRAVESITE OF the Rema.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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Many people obsess over counting the Omer. “Did you count yet?” “What was last night?” “Don’t forget to count!” In fact, this obsession has roots in Jewish, and specifically hassidic, tradition.

In former times, when penning a letter between Passover and Shavuot, the writer would often note the day of the Omer count – either on its own, or in addition to the Hebrew date. To indicate that this number was referring to the Omer, the writer would add four Hebrew letters – lamed, mem, bet, yud – an abbreviation of le-mispar benei Yisrael, a biblical phrase appearing in Deuteronomy 32:8 meaning “in relation to Israel’s numbers.”

It was not just in letters that this Omer code was used. The tombstone of the great Krakow codifier, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (known by the Hebrew acronym Rema, 1530-1572), does not give the Hebrew date of his death. Instead, the first line of the epitaph refers to the 33rd day lemispar benei Yisrael – Lag Ba’omer, or the 18th of Iyar. Indeed, up until the Second World War, many people would visit his grave site in Krakow on that date.

HOW SHOULD we explain this obsession with the Omer count? At first blush, it would seem that we simply want to make sure that we do not forget to count. According to accepted Jewish practice, counting the Omer is a cumulative endeavor. If you skip an entire day, you can no longer recite the blessing when you count. Fear not: the festival of Shavuot will still be celebrated after 49 days as enumerated by the community. Moreover, as an individual you are instructed to continue counting, though you have lost the privilege of reciting the nightly blessing.

Recalling the Omer date at every possible turn helps avoid slip ups. Even if you forgot at night, when you receive a letter the next morning dated by the Omer, you can catch up on the count before the next day rolls around.

Perhaps there is a further aspect to the obsession, a dimension that goes beyond mere forgetfulness. The hassidic master, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanow (1745-1815) explained that throughout the 49 Omer days, one should constantly concentrate on the count, never losing focus. In that way, he explained, the seven weeks will truly be “temimot” – complete, full, perfect, unblemished – as per the biblical directive (Leviticus 23:15).

It seems to me that this is not the language of obsession. Rather, R. Menahem Mendel’s words bespeak an attitude of expectation, longing and commitment. “You should entirely [tamim] be with the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 18:13).

This teaching was recorded by R. Menahem Mendel’s student, Rabbi Yehezkel Panet (1783-1845) and posthumously published in Menahem Zion (Czernowitz, 1851). R. Panet was an important rabbinic authority and hassidic leader. He began his career in the Galicia rabbinate, before moving in 1813 to Hungary where he served as rabbi of Tarcal. In 1823 he was appointed rabbi of the Transylvanian capital, Karlsburg (today Alba Iulia, Rumania). But when R. Panet recorded R. Menahem Mendel’s words, he was still a student beginning his hassidic journey.

A postscript to R. Menahem Mendel’s words sounds like it is the student’s addition: “And thus I personally acted – to say, a number of times during the day without a blessing, ‘Today is such-and-such of the Omer.’”

When we anticipate an event, when we are looking forward to something in the future, it is constantly on our minds. Counting the Omer is not about obsessing over not missing a night; it is about anticipating the festival of Shavuot.

This ties into an alternative to the four-letter Omer code: Instead of lamed, mem, bet, yud, some writers would add the word “le-matmonim” – literally “for treasures,” but a code meaning for those who count (la-monim) the 49 (mat, the gematria of the Hebrew letters mem [whose numerical value is 40] and tet [whose numerical value is 9]).

While the word-form le-matmonim does not appear in the Bible, alternative forms are used five times. Thus in a poetic passage in Proverbs 2:1-5 we read:

My child –
If you accept my words and closely guard my commandments
If you make your ear attentive to wisdom, apply your heart to understanding
If you call to understanding, give your voice to discernment
If you seek it as you do silver, and search for it as for treasures (ve-cha-matmonim)
Then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and you will find knowledge of God.

In Israel, the day of the Omer is announced early in the morning on Hebrew radio stations, yet it would appear that the practice of favoring the Omer count over the Hebrew date has fallen out of vogue. Many newspapers in Israel that continue to publish the Hebrew date on the masthead do not include the day of the Omer. From a modern legal perspective, the Omer does not have the same standing as the standard Hebrew date: While a check written in Israel is valid if it includes the Hebrew date, it seems that listing the day of the Omer would not be accepted. Moreover, official documents in Israel must include the Hebrew date; they need not list the day of the Omer.

Counting the Omer remains an opportunity – not for obsessive-compulsive behavior, but for focusing on the goal of the count. The count in anticipation of the festival that celebrates the Giving of the Torah – the treasure that is the foundation of our tradition, the treasure that is the lifeblood of our people.

The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a postdoctoral fellow with the Galicia project at the University of Haifa.

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