Our tradition provides us with so many mitzvot (commandments or obligations) and many of us spend our entire lives only observing those which feel familiar or comfortable – those which we learned from our parents or which are most clearly identified with “being Jewish.” Lighting the Sabbath candles, saying kiddush over wine, placing a mezzuzah on our doorpost, eating matzah on Passover, fasting on Yom Kippur – these are “Judaism 101” mitzvot. There are other mitzvot which we know about but make a conscious decision NOT to observe because we determine that they do not enhance our sense of living a meaningful Jewish life. And there are still other mitzvot that may never rise to our consciousness to observe.
One mitzvah that is not prevalent among less observant Jews is the mitzvah of counting the Omer. The omer (literally, in Hebrew, “a measure”) was an offering of the first of the new grain harvest, which was brought to the Temple on the 16th of Nisan (the second day of Passover), when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem and we were an agrarian people. Torah tells us that we are to keep count until seven full weeks have elapsed and on the 50th day, we are to bring two full loaves of bread as an offering and hold a celebration (Shavuot – “weeks” in Hebrew)(Lev. 23:15-21). The Torah does not tell us why, just that we are to do this counting. Later, our sages linked Shavuot and the revelation of Torah on Sinai and the omer became a way to mark the transition from avdei pharaoh (slaves of Pharaoh) to avdei HaShem (God’s servants). The Kabbalists then connected each day with an ascension from impurity to holiness by combining mystical attributes (s’firot) which represent both divine and human characteristics. This mystical approach creates a way to prepare ourselves to receive Torah – renewing ourselves through an examination of our connection to the Source.
Counting the Omer is a short ritual that is done at night (at the beginning of a new day) and there are many creative and traditional resources you can draw upon for guidance. All siddurim (prayerbooks) have the basic prayers for counting the omer. Other resources can be found on our Deliciously Different Resource page.