Uncertainty and the Omer

Emor By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Apr 23, 2013 / 5773

As we journey through these days and weeks, we find ourselves in the midst of Sefirat Omer, the counting of the Omer (the sheaf of barley offering, a ritual that took place in Temple times). Fittingly, this week’s parashah contains the original commandment: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—you will count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you will bring an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Lev. 23:15–16). In biblical times, the counting of the Omer was more than a mere ritual to the Israelites who worked the land. It was a concrete symbol that opened the summer season with the ripening of the barley and the bringing of an offering to the Temple. They would count the days until the presentation of the “two loaves” that were baked from the first of the wheat harvest and brought to the Temple on Shavu’ot. After the destruction of the Second Temple, this period became associated with mourning and uncertainty. Why?

Three compelling reasons are cited for connecting the period of the Omer with mourning and sorrow. First, the counting of the Omer today reminds us that it is impossible to observe the original ritual of presenting an offering of barley to the Temple. As such, the period is a constant reminder of the loss of the Temple and the oppression and dispersion that followed. Second, Tractate Yevamot 62b tells of Rabbi Akiba’s loss of 24,000 students. Though numerous versions of this story appear (with radically different numbers of students) in other sources, the Omer period became woven into the Jewish consciousness as a time of mourning for Rabbi Akiba’s disciples. Third and most compelling, Nogah HaReuveni, one of the founders of Neot Kedumim, a nature reserve of the biblical landscape in Israel, explains convincingly that this period was a time of great uncertainty for the Israelite farmer. Tractate Bava Batra 147a underscores this point, teaching, “The northern wind is beneficial to wheat when it has reached a third of its ripening and is damaging to olive trees when they have blossomed. The southern wind is damaging to wheat when it has reached a third of its ripening and is beneficial to olives when they have blossomed.” Because of the instability in the weather, one is wholly unsure if the crops will yield plenty or famine.

As I reflected on the counting of the Omer, I thought not only of these three connections but also about the biblical background of this tradition. That is to say, during this period, we journey literally and figuratively from the certainty of Israelite enslavement in the land of Egypt to the certainty of the gift of Torah. Between these two poles of certainty, we must wrestle with the radical uncertainty (represented by the chaotic winds characteristic of this time in the Land of Israel) of our journey. Through the chaos and unpredictability, we are blazing a path to blessing, hope, and redemption.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.