The Omer - its Significance in Tradition
By Eli Kahn
The period between Passover and Shavout is regarded as "Sefirot HaOmer". It is marked by the counting of the 49 days from the second day of Passover until the day before Shavout. During this time there are many customs and traditions. Before we begin to list these, let us understand what happened during this time in Jewish History and Script.
The first day following the first of the Passover is mentioned in the Bible (see Leviticus 23) in two manners. First, on the day following the first day of Passover, a special offering of the newly grown and harvested barley was brought to the Temple. This special barley was harvested on the night that followed Passover, even if it should happen to fall on the Sabbath.
The amount of barley that was offered in the Temple was a measurement called an Omer. The omer was a dry measure that was common in biblical times and equaled approximately one gallon or four liters. Prior to this Temple offering, it was forbidden to use the new barley crop.
Seven weeks later, another offering was brought to the Temple. This was the offering of wheat that was brought during the festival of Shavout.
In addition to the bringing of the Omer offering, another special commandment was given (Leviticus 23) of counting from the time of the omer for a period of 49 days. Although the bringing of the omer can only be during the time of the Temple, the counting of the omer is not dependent on the Temple. Since the counting begins on the day following Passover and extends for 49 days, it concludes with the holiday of Shavout.
Indeed there is a connection between all of this: Passover, the omer, and Shavout.
Passover is the time of the emergence of the Jewish nation. The Jewish people were like a girl who became engaged to be married. When they left Egypt they knew that they did not leave merely to be free from slavery. They were free now to cleave to the Holy of Holies, to be one with the Creator of the Universe.
Their marriage (the chupa, marriage canopy) was to be on Shavout, the giving of the Torah. Just like a man who gives his wife a precious ring, so G-d gave us his most precious gift, his Torah. Like a girl before her marriage, she is permitted to marry all. After her wedding she is forbidden to all other men and set aside only to be with her chosen husband. So too, the Jewish people were to be set aside to be the chosen nation.
Like an engaged girl, who shops for beautiful clothing and jewelry to look special for her wedding, so the Jewish people during this 49 day "engagement" period also began improving themselves in order to be worthy for such a noble and great marriage. As the soon to be bride counts the days to the wedding, so the Jewish people are commanded to count from the engagement period (Passover) to the wedding (Shavout).
These days, the days of counting of the omer have deep implications in terms of personal character refinement. The period begins with an offering of barley on Passover (basically considered animal food) and ends with an offering of wheat (human food) on Shavout. This comes to emphasis the need for person character growth and improvement - a steady progression leaving and refining the animal aspects to the reach the noble elements of mankind. According to the holy books of mysticism, each day a special character trait is to be refined and the ability to achieve this refinement is given at this time.
In addition to the above, it is brought down in the Talmud that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died during this plague. The reason given was that they did not treat each other with respect. This is very hard to understand since the motto of Rabbi Akiva was to love every person. If they were his students, could they not show respect one to the other?
Yet we find that even the students of the greatest sages were lacking refinement in their personal character traits and did not sufficiently improve. For persons of such a lofty status, this was a grievous sin. Since they were great scholars we mourn for them during this time.
The custom has spread during this time that we show certain aspects of mourning. We do not perform weddings, take haircuts, wear new clothing, or partake of new fruits. This is to aid us in further refinement during this time. The Sfardim begin their observances after the month of Nissan ends and continue until a few days before Shavout. Askenazim generally begin their observances after the Passover festival until Lag B'Omer, and the Chasidim begin after the Passover holidays and continue until a few days before Shavout.
from the May 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine