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Counting the Omer

Rabbi Min Kantrowitz


What does counting the Omer mean? Why does it have to do with Kabbalah? Why should a contemporary person care? Why does meditation have to do with it? Why this book?
Many seek wisdom, clarity, and insight by questing for spiritual connection. Some spiritual paths are advertised as quick fixes, instant solutions appropriate to a sound-bite world. Others are portrayed as obscure and difficult, accessible only to the initiated, the highly trained, the selected heirs of a spiritual tradition or those with the time and inclination to spend years devoted to secret teachings in secluded sacred settings. Luckily, however, sometimes a readily available path toward wisdom exists within a tradition, slightly hidden, relatively ignored, and waiting to be reclaimed. Within Judaism, counting the Omer is such a path.

What is the Counting of the Omer?

Thousands of years ago, Israelite people would bring a measure of their spring barley harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem in the spring as an offering of gratitude for a successful harvest. After that, they would count forty-nine days to the next harvest, the wheat, which was essential to survival over the following months. This practice was then codified and described in the Bible. A question: how does counting a specific number of days help us get a heart of wisdom?
Since those ancient times, Jewish evening prayers throughout the world follow a set pattern, adding two sentences for seven weeks each spring, starting on the evening of the second Passover Seder and continuing for the next forty-nine days. The first, a blessing, is identical each night. It praises God for teaching us the ways of holiness by commanding us to count the Omer. The second sentence changes each night, using a unique pattern of counting the days from one to forty nine and the weeks from one to seven. This is the counting of the Omer. Another question: how does this addition of two short prayers each evening bring spiritual insight?
One more peculiarity. On the Sabbath, the day of rest, activities involving work, like cooking, building and driving are prohibited. Cutting is prohibited, too, with only two exceptions. One of these very rare exceptions is harvesting the omer, or the measure of grain. Why is cutting the barley offering for the Omer so exceptionally important?
Many more questions arise. Why does the practice of counting continue for such a long period of time, the longest defined time period for any religious practice in the Jewish calendar year? What is an “omer”? Why does it begin at Passover and end seven weeks later? Is there more to counting the Omer than simply repeating two formulaic sentences?
This book answers those questions and introduces a powerful set of kabbalistic meditative practices that have the potential to deepen our connections with the world, each other and God. In addition to simply describing how and why to the count the Omer, it provides a set of easy, specific daily activities to help us on this journey. In straightforward language, the book describes the mystical Jewish concepts that enrich the process of counting.
This is NOT a book you read, this is a book you use in your daily life, a practical aid on your journey toward wisdom.
How Did “Counting the Omer” Originate?

Ancient Near Eastern cultures had different ways of expressing gratitude to the spiritual forces that they believed contributed to a healthy, abundant harvest. During Biblical times, when the Temple was standing in Jerusalem, barley was the first agricultural crop ready for harvest in the early spring. The people brought a sheaf of the choicest barley to the Temple as an offering to God, in appreciation for the successful harvest. The measure of this sheaf was called an omer. Leviticus 23:10-11 says: “You shall bring an omer of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest; and he shall wave the omer before God to be accepted for you.” The process of harvesting this barley involved an elaborate ceremony. The people selected the choicest first-cut barley, harvested it carefully, and brought 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. In this way, the people gratefully acknowledged the role of the Divine in creating the grain and nourishing the crop through to a successful harvest. 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.
The Bible continues, in Leviticus 23:15-16, by commanding that counting begin after this offering:

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 God.

The Omer count was kept each day for the next forty-nine days during which time the next, and most important, grain, the wheat, was ripening. Counting these forty-nine days became known as counting the Omer. By the fiftieth day, the wheat would be ready for harvest and offering.
Later, in Deuteronomy 16:9-10, there is a further commandment:

You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for the Lord your God, offering your freewill contribution according as the Lord your God has blessed you.

The Feast of Weeks (Shavuot in Hebrew) originally marked the end of the seven weeks of the harvest season. The season began with the first barley reaping, and continued through the growth of the critically important wheat crop, culminating in the wheat harvest. Counting the Omer connected the barley harvest with the wheat harvest. The agricultural roots of the holiday of Shavuot are preserved in one of it’s other names -- Chag HaKatzir, the holiday of harvest. Thus, the forty-nine days, or seven weeks, of the counting of the Omer culminate on the fiftieth day, which is the first day of Shavuot.

Why Count the Omer Today?

Over time, the meaning of the Omer period changed -- from indicating major landmarks in the agricultural cycle of the ancient Near East to marking milestones in the spiritual rhythm of the Jewish year. For the farmer, the growth of crops and success of harvests is evidence of spiritual beneficence. Anxious about possible failure of the most important crop of the year, early farmers attended carefully to the growth of the wheat and to the spiritual forces they believed influenced its success. After the destruction of the Temple, as Israelites moved further from intimate contact with the land of Israel and its growth cycles, the harvesting of the Omer period transformed in meaning from an agricultural harvest to a spiritual one. The desire for a bountiful wheat crop that could feed our bodies became metaphorically transformed into a desire for spiritual connection, a longing for wisdom and enlightenment, a preparation for revelation.
According to the Talmud, the collection of ancient rabbinic writings discussing Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history, the first day of Shavuot is the anniversary of the Israelite people receiving the Torah. Shavuot thus marks our spiritual harvest, the day the Jewish people receives its spiritual legacy. Over time, counting of the Omer became associated with preparing for that spiritual harvest, of receiving the Torah at Shavuot.
The early spring period is also associated with historical events following the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, at Passover. The period of time during which the Omer is counted mirrors the journey of the Israelites from Egypt toward Sinai. Spiritually, the start of the Omer period begins just as the people leave slavery, with a slave mentality, dependent and oppressed, pessimistic and depressed. Gradually, over the forty-nine days, the people become increasingly independent, capable of exploring the possibilities and responsibilities of freedom. Seven weeks later, at Shavuot, after spiritual preparation, they are ready for revelation, for the Torah to be revealed.
At Passover, we celebrate leaving Egypt, but then, after our initial day of freedom, the really difficult work begins. After many years as slaves, how do we become a people spiritually prepared to hear the word of God? This is a journey from narrowness, the meaning of the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, (the narrow place), to the ultimate expansiveness of hearing the word of God.
The time of counting the Omer can be viewed as a kind of spiritual spring-cleaning. This is similar to other times of spiritual preparation in the Jewish calendar year, like the month before the high holidays of Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), when we ask forgiveness of others and prepare to rid ourselves of spiritual impurities. The process is comparable to readying our homes for Passover, when we remove the leavened bread, cookies and crumbs from our dwellings, preparing to reenact the quick departure from Egypt we recount at the Seder as we read the Haggadah, the guide to the Passover Seder which details and celebrates the story of liberation from Egypt.
Counting the Omer is an opportunity to count each day, and make each day count, by committing to spiritual work. Each day is a new occasion for self-assessment and personal growth, for each of us to prepare for the Divine revelation that will arrive at Shavuot. Counting the Omer is a time for inner transformation; the season of rapid growth in spring parallels our inner development. We prepare the soil of our inner fields. We move from the restricted possibilities of slavery, through growing awareness and self-definition, toward claiming our spiritual heritage. We start as a collection of wanderers and seekers, and become a spiritual community of souls open to receive what will be revealed.

Kabbalah: Jewish Mysticism

The ancient Jewish mystical path is usually called Kabbalah, a word that comes from the Hebrew root KBL (to receive), and it refers to the mystical wisdom of the Jewish people. It is not a single book or set of books, or even a specific system, approach or set of practices. The mystical approach in Jewish tradition is not satisfied only with traditional ways to approach God through religious practice and thought but seeks a closer, more intimate and more meaningful, contact between the worshipper and the Creator, a more direct experience of the Divine. As long ago as the sixteenth century, Jewish mystics found in each day of the Omer period a new opportunity for greater spiritual growth: to seek God, examine their own lives, and contemplate the wonders of God’s creation.

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