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“Counting” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

April 14, 2023 | 23 Nisan 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

Counting is part of the Jewish way. Six days and then the seventh for Shabbat. Two candles. Ten commandments.

In the Jewish calendar now we are in a period of counting, the counting of the omer, sefirat haomer.

The word, omer, refers to the first sheaf of the ancient barley harvest that was brought to the priest as an offering on the first day after Passover began. As each day passed, our ancestors would count the days between Passover and Shavuot, 49 in all. In doing so, they linked these two holidays not only because they were both agricultural festivals but also to teach us that the freedom of Passover was given to us for the purpose of receiving the Torah on Shavuot.

Passover is the yin to Shavuot’s yang.

Freedom only has meaning because Jewish living has purpose through Torah. The two are inextricably linked. As with many cultic rites since the destruction of the Temple, we no longer bring that offering to the priest. The custom of counting, however, has remained with renewed significance.

The counting of the omer has a very specific method to it. Usually, when we’re anticipating something great, we count down, as kids do at the end of the school year. But Jewish counting is different. Each evening, we announce the number of days that have already passed, instead of those yet to come. For example, we say:

Today is the 8th Day, (Tonight is the 9th) making 1 week and 1 day of the omer.

Why is it done this way?

We’re not simply counting off days on a calendar, wishing them to pass more quickly. Rather, as we add a day, we can figure out how to make each day count. A sacred lesson. Each day turns into an opportunity to learn, grow, give and appreciate the fruit of our labor.

Counting the omer, then, not only teaches us the connection between Passover and Shavuot, it also teaches us to number our days, as the Psalmist (90:12) said that we may obtain a heart of wisdom to see each day as an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been, to see what today brings and to prepare for whom we are yet to become. We pay attention to the passage of time, so that we spend our days wisely.

These 49 days are a lesson in mindfulness training: becoming familiar with that which we take for granted or act on automatically without contemplating presence. Our tradition calls upon us to say Heneini, “Here I am” each of these days, to cultivate our capacity to be present. With intention, our attention provides awareness and insight that we might not otherwise discover as we slowly and methodically make our way from the moment of freedom to the glory of the divine encounter of Torah at Sinai.

Shabbat Shalom!

Originally shared on April 21, 2017

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Rabbi Elaine Zecher