Counting the Omer: an ancient 49-day practice, perfect for this moment

The Omer: agricultural roots, contemporary sensibilities

omer - agricultural roots
the omer – agricultural roots

Counting the Omer is a tradition from Judaism loaded with rich symbolism, and attached to a simple 49-day practice.

Counting of the Omer represents a period in ancient days when the people would travel to the temple in Jerusalem to make offerings from their early spring harvest. Seven weeks later, they would bring a second grain offering from the later harvest.

Each pair of attributes is referred to in kabbalistic literature as a gateway to Divine Presence. These gates serve as spiritual guideposts, an opportunity to re-orient oneself on the trail of life.

After the destruction of the ancient temple, people eventually came to observe Shavuot as the ritual anniversary of receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, a celebration of wisdom and learning.

The agricultural and communal origins of the Omer make it an excellent opportunity for considering our relationship to each other, to the Earth that sustains us, and to the Source and Breath of All Life, all of which bless our own lives each day.

Right now, even more than usual, we can use all the help we can get to navigate what we, as individuals, and as a global community, are facing.

The Omer offers the fertile spiritual soil of kabbalistic imagery. Through it, we can notice qualities in ourselves we want to nurture, such as kindness, discipline, balance, and endurance.

Jewish mysticism and the seven sefirot

Tree of Life – evokes kabbalistic aspects drawn on for omer practice

Jewish mystics of the sixteenth century devised a way to count the Omer by invoking seven qualities of the Divine, also found in us, and thought of as basic elements of the Tree of Life. Each quality, or sefirah, is thought to be essential for a healthy balanced life.

The seven attributes are: (1) loving-kindness (chesed); (2) strength/discipline (gevurah); (3) beauty/balance (tiferet); (4) endurance (netzach); (5) splendor/wonder/humility (hod); (6) connection/foundation/creativity (yesod); (7) Divine Presence (malkhut/shekhina).

Each week of the Omer is represented by one of these qualities. Each day of the week is as well. So on each day of the Omer, a practitioner can focus on two particular qualities.

For example, the third day of each week is symbolized by tiferet, which represents balance, beauty and harmony. The first week is symbolized by chesed, which is loving-kindness. So on the third day of the first week a practitioner might meditate on what it means to have balance and harmony in their lives, and to have that nestled within loving-kindness.

How to count the Omer

Traditionally, the Omer is counted in the evening, since sundown is the beginning of the day on the Jewish calendar. The practitioner says a blessing, and then announces the day that is being counted.

Several versions of the blessing are in this post, including two in Hebrew (feminine and masculine God language), transliterations, and English.

After saying the blessing, the practitioner announces the day. For example, “Today is the tenth day, which makes two weeks and three days of the Omer.”

And how do you keep track of all this counting? Glad you asked! Stay connected to this blog for the daily count. Or try out this app. Or check out your favorite siddur (prayer book).

The blessing

Here’s the traditional blessing in Hebrew, transliteration, and English. There are two versions of the Hebrew, one using feminine language for God, and the other using masculine language for God. Use whichever of the Hebrew and English versions work for you.

English version of the blessing

Blessed are you, Eternal One-ness, Source and Breath of All Life, that has made us holy with your mitzvot, and compels us to count the Omer.

If you prefer feminine God language in Hebrew:

בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ אֱלֹהֵינוּ רוּחַ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בִּמְצַוְּתָהּ וְצִוָּנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעֹמֶר

B’rukhah at Yah Eloheynu khay ha’olamim asher kideshatnu bemitzvoteha vetzivatnu al sefirat ha’omer.

If you prefer masculine God language, or just like the traditional way of saying the blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעֹמֶר

Baruch ata adonai, eloheynu melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al sefirat ha-omer.

Announcing the day

Count the omer with Rabbi Shifrah and friends!

There are many calendars available that can help you keep track of which day it is in the Omer.

I plan to post the blessing, day’s count, and a poetic meditation for each day on this blog. The meditations can also be found in the collection I published. You can contact me directly to get a copy by emailing rabbishifrah@gmail.com .

I also highly recommend the book Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide by Min Kantrowitz. It is a practical and informative resource filled with rich spiritual teachings and guidance for counting the Omer.

You might also be interested in trying this app from Rabbis David Cooper and David Seidman. I’m going to try this myself for the first time this year. If you use it, or any of the resources provided here, I’d love knowing what you think. Leave me a comment at the bottom of this page.

“Hear the shofar beckon from another time of year…Let it open you to beauty even in difficult times.” (From Omer/Teshuvah, Week One, Day One.)

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About Rabbi Shifrah

Shifrah

I’m a rabbi, holistic teacher, interfaith chaplain, end of life doula, and poet. I have a healer’s spirit, and am dedicated to social, economic, and environmental justice. I live in Emeryville, CA with my beloved wife Ruth, with whom I’ve been happily partnered for over twenty-two years.

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