Counting the Omer is a mitzvah (commandment) through which we count the days from Passover to Shavuot. It’s an ancient custom that takes us from the giddy joy of Passover to the serious business of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. It begins on the 2nd night of Passover and continues for 49 days until the Festival of Shavuot. (To learn more about the holiday and its history, click on the links. I’m sticking to “how to” in this article. To learn why we count the Omer, read Why Count the Omer.)
The procedure is simple. Every evening sometime between sundown and midnight we say a blessing:
Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al sefirat ha-Omer.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, who sanctifies us with Your commandments and has commanded us to count the Omer.
Then you do the actual count:
Today is the ____ day of the Omer.
After six days, you include the weeks as well:
Today is _____ days, which is _____ week and _____ days of the Omer.
For instance, on the 48th (next to last) day of the Omer, you would say: “Today is the 48th day of the Omer, which is 6 weeks and 6 days of the Omer.”
(If you have learned your Hebrew numbers, this is a GREAT opportunity to practice both your cardinal and ordinal numbers.)
The target is to count each day of the Omer in the time between sundown and midnight. Now, like any good game, there are penalties if you miss the target.
1. If I forget to count until after midnight (say, I wake up and realize, “Gosh, I forgot to count the Omer last night!”) I can still COUNT but you cannot say the blessing. On the next night, I go back to saying the blessing and counting as usual.
2. If I completely forget for 24 hours – that is, forgets to count until the next evening – then I am still obligated to count, but I don’t get to bless anymore.
The object is to get all the way through to Shavuot – to count the complete Omer! – without missing an evening count and blessing.
Some readers may find it a little scandalous that I frame this as a game, but I find it a useful way to think about counting the Omer when learning how to do it. There are many beautiful spiritual practices that are based on counting the Omer, but it is hard to do those effectively until you’ve got the basics. Llearning the basic practice works well as a game.
What’s the point? In a word, mindfulness. It took me years to get all the way through the Omer with the practice intact, every day, every blessing said on time. I’m a scattered, not-detail-oriented person, and I grew a lot of self-discipline from my repeated attempts. (I know, that sounds so boring: but seriously it paid off in my ability to focus and deliver on routines: for instance, posting nearly daily to a blog!) Counting is also the gateway to a number of spiritual practices such as meditations on the Sefirot, the different emanations of the Divine in Kabbalistic practice.)
Helps in Counting the Omer: There are some great smartphone apps and computer apps. Search “omer” in the appropriate places for your operating system and hardware. You can also get “omer calendars” and “omer counters” from Jewish bookstores.
I encourage you to give this mitzvah a try. It’s joys seem very simple (and perhaps minimal, to a newcomer) but it is a gateway to all sorts of cool stuff. If you didn’t begin on the 2nd night of Passover, no worries – while you won’t be doing a complete count this year, you can still “jump on” for the ride and learn!