49 and counting


          This could well be my blog for last week, this week and the month to come, but it probably won’t.   Something else always can be expected.  But starting on the second night of Passover we began doing something that will continue until Shavuot, the next festival on our calendar, this year falling on the 27th and 28th of May.    We began counting the days.

          Leviticus 23:15-16 instructs this count: “Count for yourselves from the day after the rest-day, from the day you brought the wave-offering (a sheaf of newly harvested grain that the priest waved in the holiday ceremony, called omer in Hebrew), seven complete weeks, until the day after the end of the seventh week, count fifty days.”  The words themselves are noteworthy in this commandment.  The rest-day, first day of Passover, is called shabat – even though it might not fall on Saturday.  (OK, this year it did, but more often it does not.)  The end of the week is called shabat.  And the seven complete weeks are called shabatot – “sabbaths.”  Then the fiftieth day, the day we celebrate as Shavuot, literally the feast of Weeks, is also called Pentecost, from the Greek word for fifty.  The fiftieth day.  And in the Talmud, Shavuot goes by the name atzeret, the concluding festival, as if finishing what Passover started. 

          What is going on here?  Why is it a distinct mitzvah, a sacred duty to count these 49 days?   Indeed, we learn that every Jew should pronounce the blessing of sephirat ha-omer – “counting the omer” – every night.  Miss a night, and you can count the next day – but without the blessing, because you missed the time.  And these seven weeks are called the season of sephira – the season of counting.  Why?   Because this is one more opportunity to dramatize our history.  It took 50 days for our ancestors to make their way from the Red Sea to Mount Sinai.  Those 50 days completed a whole change of identity, from a motley crowd of fugitive slaves – to a nation.  Seven weeks and a day is not a long time to effect such a change.  Every one of those days had its own importance.   So does every one of our own days.

          During most of the sephira season, Jewish weddings are traditionally banned.  While exact dates of the ban vary in different communities, one day – the 33rd day of sephira, called Lag Baomer – is a happy day for weddings everywhere.  Tractate Y’vamos recounts that a plague was devastating Rabbi Akiba’s students and Bar Kochba’s soldiers and that it came to an end that day.  Clearly a good day to celebrate.  This year it coincides with May 10th, so if you’re planning nuptials this spring…

          Modern times add considerable color to the sephira season.  Take last week’s Yom haShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day on the 27th of Nisan.  Or this Wednesday and Thursday when Israel observes Yom haZikaron – the Memorial day for those who gave their lives in Israel’s wars – followed by Yom haAtzma-ut – Israel Independence Day, a day of gala parades and parties in Israel, which will be honored in most of the U.S. on Sunday the 29th. 

Indeed we can count some important days here.   And I want to mention a contemplated future holiday to follow Yom haShoah, when we can celebrate the end of the Holocaust and the survival of our people despite history’s worst attempt to destroy us.  Let me know what you think of that idea.

          Why keep and augment these customs?  Because we need to fulfill the mitzvah of counting sephira. 

Count your days, to make your days count.


This entry was posted in Baruch Cohon, Cantor, Cohon, Counting, Jewish, Jewish Blogs, Jewish Traditions, Judaism, Mitzvah, Omer, Passover, Rabbi, Sephira, Shabat, Shavout, Talmud, Torah, Yom haShoah. Bookmark the permalink.