The Challenge of Mindfulness: Counting the Omer

Image: An Abacus (Image by Alicja from Pixabay)

We’re in the time of counting the omer. It is a mindfulness puzzle. The omer is a measure of barley, a special daily sacrifice made at this season in Biblical times. Problem: we haven’t made any sacrifices since the destruction of the Temple in the year 70.

How can you count something that doesn’t happen? And why would you want to?

It’s based on a commandment in the Torah:

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD.

Leviticus 23:15-16

This passage comes at the end of the verses describing the Passover sacrifices. It directs the Israelites to count off the days and weeks (shavuot) from Passover to the festival of Shavuot. No reason is given.

The time we mark connects the Passover (God delivers us from Egypt) to our acceptance of the Torah (We accept our responsibilities as God’s people.) These are not entirely separate events: in the Torah narrative, the first is God doing something for the Israelites, and the second is the response of the Israelite people to God’s help.

In modern times it is a deceptively simple mitzvah. Every evening, after sunset, there is a little blessing to be said that finishes with a count in weeks and days:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us to count the Omer. Today is [number] week, [number] days of the Omer.


Do that from the second night of Passover until Shavuot, 49 days. It looks easy – what could be easier? – but if your life is like most American lives, good luck. This is where the Omer comes into its own as a long term mindfulness exercise. You have to remember something tiny, something that doesn’t really do anything, and you do it for 49 days running. If you forget until the next day, you can keep going but not with the blessing. No skipping, no missing. (Well, yes and no. See Oops, I Forgot the Omer.)

If you need help (I always do) there are smartphone and computer apps that will help you remember. Even with those, counting EVERY day at the CORRECT time takes attention.

There are also wonderful journals and meditations on the Omer that I can recommend, like Omer: A Counting by Karen Kedar. The core of the practice is the count; there are many beautiful ways to embellish and enrich it.

This is the season of paying attention. We have been called from Egypt, out into the wilderness. That’s all we know, until we get the Torah. So we pay attention.

Pay attention. I dare you.

Lag B’Omer for Beginners

Image: Bonfire. Photo by SandraPetersen on pixabay.com.

Lag B’Omer falls on day 33 of  counting the Omer, the count of days from Passover to Shavuot. (Follow the link if you want to learn more about the Omer and how to count it.) It gets its name from the number 33, lamed-gimel, which can be pronounced as “Lahg.”

It is a festive minor holiday, a short respite from the semi-solemnity of the Omer. During the Omer season, traditionally we avoid celebrations such as weddings. Tradition teaches that we are so serious because we are remembering a plague that killed many of Rabbi Akiva’s students. According to the story, the plague stopped on the 19th of Iyyar, so we pause then for some minor festivities.

It is a very minor holiday, not mentioned in the Torah at all. Some of the customs of the day:

WEDDINGS – Lag B’Omer is the one day during the Omer when weddings are traditionally performed.

PARTIES – Parties are often held on Lag B’Omer, precisely because they are discouraged otherwise between Passover and Shavuot.

HAIRCUTS – Some Jews do not cut their hair during the Omer. On Lag B’Omer, they can get a haircut. It’s also the traditional day for children’s first haircuts.

BONFIRES – Bonfire parties are particularly popular on Lag B’Omer. In the northern hemisphere, spring weather is well-established by that day.

In 5776 (spring of 2016) Lag B’Omer begins at sundown on Wednesday, May 25. How will you celebrate?

What’s the Omer, and Why Count It?

Image: “Numbers” by ArtsyBee on Pixabay.com.

We are now “counting the Omer,” the days from Passover to Shavuot. In case you’d like to know more about it, here are two posts from past years that should answer some of your questions, and perhaps raise more:

How To Count The Omer

Why Count the Omer? Five Reasons (and counting!)

Do you count the Omer? Do you use an app or other aid to do so? Have you ever made it all the way to Shavuot without an error? What do you get out of counting the Omer?

I look forward to your replies!

Taking the Queer Road

Two memoirs are out just recently from people I admire: Jeanne Córdova’s When We were Outlaws and Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger. I’ve had a chance to read Córdova’s book, but my e-copy of Bornstein’s book is still on its way through cyberspace to me. Both are stories about dangerous journeys, and it occurred to me that they are totally appropriate reading for Omer-time, since we are in that period of travel from Passover to Shavuot, from freedom to Torah. Just as Am Yisrael had to deal with Amalekites and their own demons, these two women have been through their own wildernesses, external and internal.

When We were Outlaws is about a short period in the 1970’s when lesbians began to see themselves as Lesbian Nation, but the Establishment, especially J.Edgar Hoover, saw them as another bunch of Commies, enemies of the state.    (I say “them” because I didn’t come out until ’87.) Those were scary, heady times, when the radical Left in America was feeling its oats about the exit from Vietnam, but painfully aware of what had happened to the Black Panthers.  Córdova was a leader in the lesbian community in Southern California during that time, and she talks about not only the external battles but the internal ones as well.  She was (and is) both a lover and a fighter, and breathtakingly honest about it, to boot.

A Queer and Pleasant Danger is about another sort of journey. I met Kate Bornstein after she had stopped being Al and had become Kate, but before I became a Jew named  Ruth.  She was the first person to explain gender in a way that made sense to me.  The binary division of the world into “us” and “them” had always seemed like a gross oversimplification of something much more interesting, but I never had words for it. Kate embodies it: she occupies her own township on the landscape of gender, and has spent much of the last twenty years as a kind and outrageous tour guide and den mother, writing and performing her art to communicate the truth of that landscape to the rest of us. I look forward to reading her memoir, as I have enjoyed her other books; I know I will learn something not only about her, but about myself, before I put it down.

I admire these two writers because they have followed the truth where it took them, and they have the guts to talk honestly about the sometimes messy adventures and mistakes along the way.  It’s one of the qualities I love about Jewish holy books, that they include some of the unholiest episodes imaginable, letting us know that all of life can become  holy.  It’s only when we are willing to really tell the truth that we can learn something worthwhile.  It’s only when we can embrace the mess of being human, that we can allow ourselves to be embraced by God.

Still counting!

Cash register "National".
Cash register "National". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s the 20th day of the Omer and I am still counting.  Back at the beginning, I asked Why Count the Omer and listed some reasons I gleaned from reading.  I hunted around on WordPress and other blogging sites, and found more wisdom about the Omer (also some great bloggers):

Don’t Forget to Count the Omer with Homer   (link to a fun Omer counter)

Count of the Omer (lots of detail on the traditional / proper way to count)

Counting the Omer as a Form of Global Prayer (powerful reason to count!)

Counting the Omer, Dancing in the limbs of the Sefirot (a different way of counting, from a community and rabbi in the Rockies)

and then there’s also Rabbi Denise Eger’s blog Walking Justly. Seeking Justice. Living with Hope. in which she’s counting day by day using the traditional sefirot as a framework.

These are far from the only sources online with counting or thoughts on counting, but they offer a taste of the variety available.  Jewish learning really IS bigger than the sea.

But back to counting: I’ve been meditating on the word “Count.”  In Hebrew, “to count” is לספור, “lispor,” and the root is ס.פ.ר, samech, pey, resh.  Hebrew roots connect entire families of words, in this case:

  • sippur, story
  • l’saper, to tell
  • sefer, book
  • sifriyah, library
  • sofer, scribe
  • mispar, number
  • sefirot, emanations (the ten attributes or emanations of God, according to Kabbalah)

There’s plenty to think about there.  There are also the uses in English of “count”:

  • Counting the days.
  • Called to account. (That one doesn’t work in Hebrew, but it sure is evocative in English.)
  • Making the day count.
  • Can people count on me?
  • Does his opinion count?
  • Count up your points!
  • Let me recount the tale…

So….

  • What am I counting this month, besides the days to the barley harvest?  (I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen it growing.)
  • Am I making these days count?
  • What am I writing in the scroll of my life during these days between freedom and covenant?
  • If I was written in the Book of Life last High Holy Days, what am I doing about it now?
  • What am I doing to make the days count?
  • Whom I am not taking into account?
  • Can people count on me?
  • Upon whom or what can I count?

All excellent questions!  What does “count” or “ס.פ.ר” bring up for you?

The Chain of Tradition

The Aleppo Codex is a medieval manuscript of t...
The Aleppo Codex, a manuscript of the Tanakh.. The Masoretic scholars wrote it in the early 10th century, probably in Tiberias, Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pirkei Avot 1.1:  Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.  They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. 

The transmission of Torah is like a bucket brigade:  starting with God on Sinai, the Torah has been handed down, hand to hand, from that day to this.  We call this the sharsheret shel masoret, the chain of tradition.

I learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA.  She learned from Cantor Nathan Lam at Stephen S. WIse Temple in Los Angeles.  I don’t know who Cantor Lam learned from, but I know that the style of chanting we do is a variant of a style that goes all the way back to Eastern Europe.

Once, in the British Library in London, I saw a 9th century text of the Tanakh with the te’amim (cantillation marks – the musical notations) in it, and I was able to stand at the case where it was displayed and chant the text softly to myself.  That codex was ancient — more than a thousand years old! — but I could read it just fine.  That was the first time I really felt the weight of that chain of tradition.  I could imagine the masorete who wrote that book teaching his student… and then the student teaching his student… down through the centuries until Cantor Lam taught Cantor Keys and Cantor Keys taught me.

The same is true of every d’var Torah — every word of Torah — that I know.  Someone taught it to me.  God willing, I will teach it to others.

A hundred years from now, I do not expect that many people, if any, will remember me.  But I take great comfort and pride in the knowledge that the students of my students will still be learning Torah and teaching it to their children and their students.  I may be just a link in the chain — but what a chain!

Why Count the Omer? Five Reasons (and counting!)

Omer table, depicting the number of days in th...
Omer table, depicting the number of days in the omer (top) and its equivalence in number of weeks (middle) and days (bottom)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why count the Omer?

In my effort to get myself to do it properly and on time, I have asked this question and looked for answers.  Here are some ideas about why we count the Omer.

(1).  GOD SAID TO:  “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”  In other words, God said to make sacrifices to mark these days.  We don’t have the Temple anymore, so instead we count after dinner each night.

(2) IT CONNECTS PASSOVER TO SHAVUOT:  Passover is a big holiday of celebration.  We celebrate freedom, which is mostly a happy thing (no more slavery, yay!) By preserving the count of the Omer, even without the Temple, the rabbis are reminding us that the Passover is not truly complete until we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot.  Freedom without responsibility is incomplete and unreal.  By counting, we remind ourselves that the process is not yet finished.

(3) SELF IMPROVEMENT:  In preparation to receive the Torah, we work to become better Jews.  The Kabbalists point out that the Omer is counted for seven weeks of seven days, and they match them with the seven sefirot through which God interacts with the world.  Each of the seven days within those weeks are matched with the sefirot, also, and those various permutations of Godliness provide an opportunity for study and self improvement.  Another tradition is to read and study Pirkei Avot [the first chapter of the Mishnah, which consists mostly of advice on proper behavior and attitude] during this season.

(4) AN EXPRESSION OF ANTICIPATION: When we are excited about something, we count the days to that event.  It is also true that when we behave a particular way, we cultivate the emotions and the thoughts that go with that behavior.  When we count the Omer, we cultivate excitement about Torah in our lives.

(5) MINDFULNESS:  This one is my own, as far as I know.  I know that the reason I never make it through the omer is that I get distracted.  49 days is a long time to do anything, especially something as small and easy to forget as an additional blessing after eating.  This year I want to improve my attention span for Torah.  I want to be mindful of Jewish time, and in the process, perhaps make better use of my time.

If you count the Omer, why do you do it?  Do you know any additional reasons for counting?