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Counting the Omer

In Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, it says, “You shall count… from the day that you brought the Omer as a wave offering” (23:15). Between Pesach and Shavuot we count off 49 days (seven weeks plus one more day) of spiritual preparation for the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot. The seven weeks between Passover (Pesach) and the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot) are an especially meaningful time to do personal spiritual work. During this period, called the Omer (“sheaf offering”), we focus internally as we allow ourselves to parallel the story of our people wandering in the desert. Their journey becomes our spiritual journey. This is known as the period of “Counting the Omer.”

Liberation and Personal Growth

Passover celebrates the liberation from Egypt, and Shavuot celebrates the receiving of Torah at Sinai. By counting the Omer, we symbolically mark the time between liberation to the assumption of responsibility in the acceptance of law, making a collective commitment to living an ethical, rule-governed life of divine purpose. The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim, a word that can also be translated as “the narrow place” (from the word tzar or “narrow”). Mitzrayim can represent all forms of conformities and definitions that restrain, inhibit, or otherwise restrict our free movement and expression. In retelling the Exodus story on Passover, we are symbolically birthed from the “narrow straits” through the miracle of the parted waters into freedom, but we are not yet sufficiently mature to receive the Torah at Sinai – neither as a people nor as individuals. This period between Passover and Shavuot was designated as an opportunity for personal growth and character refinement.

Counting the Omer is an exercise in the discipline of mindfulness. Counting each of the days from Passover until Shavuot sounds deceptively simple, but it is not an easy task. It requires a mindfulness to remember to count each night. (Traditionally, anyone who misses a day altogether may pick up the count when she or he remembers, but without the blessing. This omission is because the blessing recognizes the commandment to do the whole counting – or to practice mindfulness for 49 days straight.) Like learning a new language, practicing an instrument, or starting an exercise routine, counting the Omer is demanding. However, just as these other disciplines reward us in both expected and unexpected ways, so too the counting for 49 days stimulates a sense of accomplishment, new awareness, and mindfulness.

Making each day count is a valuable lesson which adopting the practice of counting the Omer reinforces. Counting each of the days of the Omer reminds us that all of our days are numbered, and it is our responsibility to make each day count. The deliberate way in which the Torah numbers the days of Sarah’s life, "one hundred years and twenty years and seven years” signifies both the fullness of her days and the significance of each and every day. We count the Omer in a similarly careful and focused manner in order to help us recognize the completeness of these days and of each day. We also learn from the years of wandering in the desert and from the individual struggles represented in the stories of our heroes and heroines that waiting itself can be a sacred activity, an opportunity for reflection and trust. Although the goal of the count may be the encounter with God at Sinai, we take meaning from the journey each step of the way.

The Blessing

The counting, which lasts for forty-nine days, takes place at night, commencing with the second night of Pesach. Those who "count the Omer" recite the following benediction:

בָּרוּךְ אֲתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעוֹמֵר.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al sefirat ha’omer.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot, and commands us concerning the counting of the Omer.


Click here to count the omer each night


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