by Ellen Cohn
Each day, beginning on the evening of the second day of Pesach, extending the 49 days to Shavuot, we recite, “Today is the ___ day of the Omer.” Shavuot literally translates as “weeks,” and echoes our counting and preparations during those “seven complete weeks.” However, the meaning of Omer, representing both the natural barely sheaves and a measurement of ground barley, is a bit more complex.
Traditionally, the Omer period is associated with two aspects: First, a daily counting when we individually and communally prepare to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai; second, a time of mourning when we commemorate the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students who perished in a plague between Pesach and Shavuot. (Talmud Yevamot 62b). Today, in bereavement of this latter incident, we limit joyful activities such as music, public festivities, and weddings, while simultaneously we ready ourselves for Mount Sinai by embarking on a regimen of sequential spiritual growth.
The Torah, however, lists neither aspect in conjunction with the Omer. In addition to our historical understanding of Pesach as our Exodus from Egypt, the holiday also signified the start of the grain harvest. Scripture portrays the Omer season as a time for awaiting the wheat harvest. The limits on joyful activities arose from an earlier period, a season demarcated for turning inward, a time for sympathy and alignment with the earth.
The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:2) teaches:
On four times, the world is judged: On Pesach, we are judged on the grain. On Atzeret (Shavuot), we are judged on the fruits of the tree…
G-d’s judgment of the world on Pesach and Shavuot is inextricably linked to the agricultural cycle, thus imparting to us the importance of our connection to the land. On Pesach, G-d judges the world through the grain crop. We bring the Omer of barley and pray for a good grain crop since it sprouts before wheat. Then on Shavuot, we offer to the Temple the two loaves of bread (Sh’tei Halechem) from the new wheat crop. For on Shavuot, G-d judges the world in regard to the fruits, and thus the judgment falls on the wheat, the premier “fruit,” which is harvested for Shavuot. [Rabbi David Abudraham, Abudraham HaShalem, Rav Shlomo Goren, Torat Hamoedim]. Thus, the period between Pesach and Shavuot, absorbs the aura of judgment, of din, since it is the period between the two agricultural harvests of barley and wheat.
Why did the Torah teach us to bring the Omer on Pesach? Because Pesach is the time of the grain harvest. The Holy One said, “Bring before Me, the Omer on Pesach in order that the grains in the field will be blessed for you.”
(Talmud Rosh Hashanah 1:2)
During the winter months, from the end of Sukkot on Shmini Atzaret, until Pesach, we enjoin mashiv haruach u’marid hageshem, “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall” in the G’vurah section of the Amidah. On the first day of Pesach, we pray for Tal (dew) and we cease adding the phrase for Geshem (rain). Those who pray according to the custom in Israel replace the prayer in G’vurah which proclaims G-d’s attribute of providing rain with the gentler phrase, marid hatal, “Who causes the dew to fall.” This change in our relationship to the land and nature continues that night, when we begin counting the Omer.
The beautiful appearance of springtime in Israel is deceptive. While Israel’s hills and fields are blanketed with the rich bluish-green of deep grass speckled with lush flowers, we live amidst peril and uncertainty. The wheat crop, Israel’s main staple, has not yet ripened. This fragile crop, which began budding with the cessation of the rains in the warm Israel sun, will wither if the harsh rains should resume again after Pesach. So, as we count the Omer until Shavuot, we pray that the fertile weather holds to ensure a healthy and bountiful wheat crop.
The Omer, then, becomes a time of aligning ourselves with the precariousness and trauma of the natural world, lending us an opportunity to reawaken our direct and intimate liaison with nature. In today’s world, with neatly bound packages of flour sold by the mega-supermarkets, this eco-consciousness has been weakened. We no longer experience the uncertainty of waiting for the wheat crop to ripen. The Omer period serves to connect us with the earth’s natural cycles.
Our sources preserved the intrinsic correlation between this time period and the agricultural cycle of wheat to preserve our connection to the Land of Israel. Maimonides in his commentary to Mishnah Menachot 6:6, reminds us, “It is well known that barley ripens before the wheat crop.” Since barley matures after Pesach, we pound it to get an “omer” or pure measurement of flour for the offering and bring it in its natural state. The Sefer HaChinuch (303 and 307) further elaborates: Barley is the foundation and food substance of all living things. It is more easily found and common – and thus we donate it to the Temple in its raw state. But wheat, which has not yet sprouted and is used by people, must eventually be brought to the Temple, in its human, or “manufactured” form (cf. Sefer HaChinuch 303 and 307). The two (wheat) loaves which we are commanded to bring on Shavuot, must be offered not as sheaves of raw wheat, but as two loaves of bread, baked by people with intelligence and skill – and I would add, developed and seasoned by the spiritual preparedness incumbent in our counting of the Omer.
Why does the Torah teach us to bring two loaves of bread on Atzeret (Shavuot)? Because Atzeret is the time for the harvest of the fruit of the tree. The Holy One said, “Bring before Me two loaves of bread on Atzeret, in order that the fruit of the tree will be blessed for you.” (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16a)
The term Atzeret, the rabbinical denotation for Shavuot, implies a process. It hints back to the conclusion of Sukkot where “Shmini Atzeret,” the 8th day of “Holy Convocation,” concludes our harvest holiday in the fall. The rabbinical spring Atzeret belies another important process that terminates in a harvest. Rabbi David Abudraham, the 14th century Spanish commentator of the siddur, proclaims that one of the reasons we observe the Omer is:
Because the world is in danger from Pesach until Shavuot in regard to the grains and in regard to the trees… therefore G-d commanded us to count these days in order that we remember the trauma of the world, so that we return to G-d with a full heart and offer supplications before G-d, that G-d will be merciful toward us and on the Creation and on the Land — that the grain will be properly apportioned. (Abudraham HaShalem)
On Pesach, as we historically flee from Egypt, we begin counting the Omer. But on Shavuot, we not only commemorate our gathering at Mount Sinai, but we also celebrate our arrival in the Land of Israel. We conclude our counting of the Omer at the fulfillment of the Wheat harvest, symbolized in Temple times by our bringing two loaves of bread (Sh’tei Ha’Lechem) from the new wheat crop. Although the Omer offering (today the counting) permitted us to eat from the New Year’s grain crop (chadash), that permission was only granted for the general populace. It is only on Shavuot, when the wheat itself is ripe, that the new grain crop will become sanctified for holy use, reaching elevation to be brought to the Beit HaMikdash (The Holy Temple).
In counting the Omer, we become witnesses to the natural cycle of the developing wheat harvest, strengthening our relationship not only to Israel, but also to the earth itself. As we continue this tradition in the 21st century, we should recall the connection to the land and nature that has been engrained in our observance for thousands of years. The yearly tradition of the Omer links us both to the Wheat and to the Land.
Though we do not think of this connection every day, we reinforce this bond throughout the year on every Shabbat and on every holiday when we recite Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after Meals:
Shir HaMa’a lot:
When the Lord reverses the captivity of Zion, We will be as though we are dreaming. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter, and our tongues with singing… Coming home with joyful song, bearing wheat sheaves!” (Psalm 126, Shir Ha’Maalot)