Every year it happens in just about the same way: I pledge to stick to it. I create reminders and support systems. I beg my husband to join me in the daily routine. And then at some point, I fail.
No, I’m not talking about a fad diet; I’m talking about the ancient Jewish ritual of counting the omer. Every night, starting from the second night of Passover, Jews count an “omer” — a measurement of grain that was brought to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem as an offering. Of course, now the counting is only symbolic: We count seven weeks, totaling 49 days, with the 50th day being Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. Counting the omer connects Passover (freedom from Egypt) and Shavuot (entering into God’s covenant).
On a scale of one to 49, remembering to count the omer is probably pretty low for most people. I’m confident that I’ll forget to count at some point, too (and the Rabbis debated if you can resume after forgetting — some say yes, and some say no, of course). But in case you are looking for something new to try, or a way to enhance a ritual you may already do, here are seven reasons to make the counting of the omer part of your life:
1. Connect to friends, family, and/or your partner. A nightly ritual that involves taking a moment to remember and reflect can be very healthy for your relationships. Whether you post the nightly count on Facebook or text your siblings or share in a pre-bedtime moment with your partner or children, counting the omer can be an experience of pausing and sharing together.
2. Get Kabalistic. Each week of the counting is assigned a principle, such as “wisdom,” “might,” or “majesty.” There are seven principles and, through a complex puzzle, each day of each week is associated with one principle within another. Look up a kabalistic omer chart online and meditate on the experience of “beauty in eternity” and then “love in intelligence.”
3. Increase awareness of the Jewish calendar. There are many important days between Passover and Shavuot, each one offering us an opportunity to reflect on who we are as Jews and what our Jewish history and heritage means to us: Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers), Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Reunification Day). As you count the omer, note these special days and find a way to observe appropriately (light a candle for Yom Hashoa, for instance, or support Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut).
4. Have a picnic. The omer counting period is a relatively somber time because of a plague that wiped out many of the students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest rabbis of the Talmud. We are told that the plague stopped on the 33rd day of the omer, so that day, called Lag Ba’Omer (lag stands for the number 33 based on Hebrew letters), is one of celebration, picnics, and outdoor fun. If you are still counting when you get to day 33, grab some friends, light up a bonfire, and enjoy!
5. Add to your routine. Counting the omer might just help you remember other routines you’ve been trying to do, like exercise, yoga, or journaling. Allow the experience to help you shape a more meaningful, aware, and healthy lifestyle.
6. Anticipate Shavuot. When we put those Passover dishes away, many of us think about the next Jewish holidays as the High Holy Days in the fall. But counting the omer will heighten your family’s awareness of the important festival of Shavuot, when we study and celebrate Torah, read the Book of Ruth (about a woman who converted to Judaism), and eat dairy foods (since we did not know the laws of keeping kosher when we were given the Torah, we ate only dairy until we could understand and follow the laws).
7. Count up. So much of what we do as parents is counting (“Get your hands off your brother in three, two, one!”), so counting the omer should be easy! But with the omer, we count up toward something wonderful, the giving of our Torah. Counting up, reaching a higher number each night, we begin to aspire to more. Whatever your personal or family goals may be, they may be heightened during this time period.
At the end of the period of the counting of the omer, many of us undoubtedly will have “failed” by forgetting to count for one or more days in a row. But as long as we try, and perhaps add new meaning and intention this year, then we have not failed at all. After all, while we may be counting the omer, and therefore counting the days from Passover to Shavuot, as long as we make every day count, then we are headed in the right direction.