Counting the Omer

When the Temple was standing, barley was the first agricultural crop in Israel to be ready for harvest in the early spring. During Biblical times a sheaf of barley, the Omer, was selected from the choicest of the barley grown within the land of Israel and brought to the Priests as an offering (Lev 23:10-12). The process of harvesting this barley offering involved an elaborate ceremony, described in detail in the Mishnah (Menachot 10). The Omer was harvested amidst much fanfare. The Omer was to be from barley, and no other grain. The Omer should be harvested from a field close to Jerusalem, as we have a tradition to do a mitzvah as soon as we have the opportunity, "ain ma'avirin al ha'mitzvos." Therefore, as the harvesters of the Omer leave from Jerusalem, they should harvest from the field closest to Jerusalem, which provides the earliest opportunity to perform the mitzvah. However, a field in any place will do, in the event no ripe barley is found near Jerusalem. On the day before Pesach, agents of the court would go out to the barley field and tie together fistfuls of barley stalks at their tips. This made the Omer easier to reap on the second day of Pesach. As the end of the first day of Pesach neared, inhabitants of all nearby towns would come and assemble near the harvest site. Three men were designated to do the reaping. As soon as it became dark outside, the three appointees began to ask questions of all those assembled:

Did the sun set? Is this the sickle I am supposed to use? Is this the basket I am supposed to use? Is this the Sabbath I am to do it on? Should I reap? Each question was asked by each of the appointees, and for each question, the crowd answered yes.

What was the reason for all this fanfare and questioning? At the time of the Mishna, there were a group of Jews who followed the teachings of a man named Baytus, Boethus. The Baytusim, as this group was known, followed what the Written Torah said literally, and rejected the Oral Torah, the Mishna, Torah SheB'al Peh. In the Torah, it says the Omer is to be brought "me'macharas ha'shabbos," the day after the Sabbath. According to the Oral Law, we know that the Sabbath being referred to is the first day of Pesach. The term Sabbath is used because of the obligation to cease performing labour on the day. However, the Baytusim interpreted the term Sabbath literally, and therefore they held that the Omer was to brought on a Sunday, the day after the Sabbath. In order to demonstrate that the interpretation of the Baytusim was erroneous, the Sages set down that the reaping of the Omer be done with great fanfare, with great crowds, in a way which would clearly demonstrate that they were not acting in accordance with the opinion of the Baytusim. Even though Jewish law prohibits doing any work on Shabbat (including harvesting or cutting anything), during the time of the Mishna, the Rabbis considered the proper cutting and offering of the Omer so important that they dictated that it took precedence. The Mishna says "When it is time to cut the Omer, you must do it, even if it is Shabbat" (Mishnah Sheviith 1:4 ).

Once the Omer was reaped, it was placed in baskets and brought to the courtyard of the Temple, the Bayit HaMikdash. The people would choose the most select first-cut barley and bring it to the Temple as an offering to God. The Priests would wave this sheaf of barley, the Omer, in the six directions, North, East, South, West, Up and Down. (This waving process is similar to the formula still used today for shaking the lulav on Sukkoth). It was then roasted. After being roasted, the kernels were spread out, to assure that they would be dry. The barley was coarsely ground. A measure called an Issaron was taken from the ground barley, and it was sifted with thirteen sieves. The Issaron of flour was taken, and oil and frankincense were added to it. These ingredients were poured and mixed by a Kohen (although a non-Kohen could do this as well). It was waved and brought near the Altar. The Kohen then performed a process called Kemitzah ( of which in part entailed of gathering a certain amount of flour with his hand ), and then the part which had Kemitzah done on it, the Kometz, was burnt on the Altar.

Only after that ceremony, called the wave-offering, was completed, was the rest of the community permitted to enjoy the barley crop or any new produce from the spring harvest. In this way, the people acknowledged the role of the Divine in creating the grain.

As Jews moved farther from intimate contact with the land of Israel and its growth cycles, the harvesting of the Omer period transformed from marking an agricultural harvest to a spiritual one. The status of field crops became metaphorically transformed into a kind of ‘inner ecology’ -the state of our own spiritual growth. Shavuot became associated with a spiritual harvesting - receiving the Torah.

The Omer period begins on the second day of Pesach, the day after we gain our freedom from slavery. Since Jewish days begin after sunset, the first day of the Omer period falls on the evening of the second    Seder, on the sixteenth of the Hebrew month of Nisan.

This counting is called Sefiras Ha'Omer, The Counting of the Omer. We count the days that have past rather than the days that still remain, because of the emotions that a count may elicit. We want to minimise the pain associated with the realisation that there is still time pass and that it is separating us from the moment we are waiting for so anxiously. Therefore, we count the days that have passed, as the knowledge that there is time behind us will bring us joy, for we are getting closer to the moment we have been waiting for. We do not make the blessing of Shehechiyanu on counting Sefiras Ha'Omer because it is not appropriate as the giving of Torah is yet to come. The seven-week count of Sefiras Ha'Omer serves the same purpose as the seven-day count of the Niddah: it builds excitement and creates anticipation of a day we should be eagerly awaiting. Only once we have reached the special moment, the day on which we received the Torah, do we recite the special blessing "Who has kept us alive and sustained and brought us to this day."

Each evening, while standing, one first recites the blessing on the mitzvah of counting, and then declares the number of days and weeks of the omer count. Traditionally, if one forgets to count at night, the count may be made the next day without a blessing. One then resumes the regular count that evening. If, however, one skips an entire day, then all further counting until Shavuot is done without the blessing.

For a humourous calendar for counting the omer see
Homer Calendar

References used,,