Counting the seven weeks to Shavuoth

THE seven weeks between Passover and Shavuoth are marked in tradition by the ceremonial Counting of the Omer. There are several interpretations that apply to this Biblical injunction:

  1. 1. Sefirat ha’Omer is detailed in Leviticus 23:15-17 as part of the harvest of the grain that was so central to life in ancient Israel. Each harvest day, the first sheaves were set aside as offerings to God, and entrusted to the Kohanim. We are offered insight into the laborious and protracted process of this harvest by the extension of the activity through a week of weeks, to the fiftieth day. That festival day is known as Shavuoth or Pentecost. It is notable that the counting begins at the eve of the 2nd Day of Pesah.
  2. 2. The harvest begins on the first day spent outside slavery in Mitzrayim – as ancient Egypt is called in the Torah. The newly liberated were still to cross Yam Suf (“Red Sea” or Sea of Reeds), and weeks away from the revelation of Torah. That great moment is associated with the end of this period of counting, Jewish tradition assigning to the festival of Shavuoth ma’amad har Sinai – the revelation at Sinai.
  3. 3. Megillat Ruth – the Book of Ruth – records the title character returning from Moab as a young widow with her widowed mother-in-law Naomi at the time of the barley harvest. Ruth’s journey to the fields of Boaz as a gleaner (cf. Leviticus 19:9-10), her sojourn in the harvest booth, and her meeting with the relative of her deceased husband and father-in-law, lead to her role in Jewish consciousness as the direct ancestor of King David, from whose house the Messiah is to descend.

In the 19th Century, Reformers moved away from many of the traditional restrictions placed upon Jewish society during Sefirah-the counted days. Reviewing the three interpretations of the period as outlined above, perhaps their motivation can be understood as a rejection of the role of the Kohanim in Jewish life-a common theme in Rabbinic Judaism.

In the period just after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman legion under Titus (70 c.e.), the Priests were limited to the 1st Aliyah to Torah in Synagogue, Pidyon haBen (Redemption of the First Born), and Duchen (the Priestly Benediction). Even these prerogatives were dismissed by Reformers.

The second interpretation, dealing with the agricultural aspects of life, was likely dismissed during the urbanization that has typified the past 200 years. The third, associated with the ancient messianic hope, fell away as rationalism, positivism and optimism about the human role in progress became predominant explanations of this world in the Jewish community.

Our own consciousness, however, might call us to re-evaluate their decision on the basis of the second and third interpretations. As our awareness of ecological concern for the state of the world grows, and as we perceive the fragility of food supplies, adequate harvests and the importance of meaningful work for every person, turning back to regular acknowledgement of the significance of the harvest is a means of calling us to mindfulness of God’s role in the most mundane aspects of life.

It is notable that the newly published Siddur Mishkan Tefilah that has been edited to supersede Gates of Prayer includes the brief ceremony for counting the Omer, traditional at evening services on weekdays and Shabbat.

Tradition – and Minhag South Africa – urge us to refrain from joyous celebration throughout the sefirah with the exception of Roshei Chodesh Iyar and Sivan (First day of each month) and the 33rd day of the Omer (Lag B’omer); many in the Progressive community also add Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) to this list.

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