Of all the biblical holidays, only Shavuot – the time of the giving of Torah – lacks a specific date. Instead of giving a month and a day as with other holidays, the Torah tells us to keep a count ourselves, forty-nine days starting with the offering of first fruits during Passover. Then on the fiftieth day we celebrate Shavuot, but even the starting date isn’t specified. Instead, right after the command to keep Passover, it says, “You shall bring a sheaf [omer] of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it” (Lev. 23:10–11). This instruction gives rise to the famous old controversy—does “Sabbath” here refer, as it normally does, to the seventh day of the week, or does it refer to the first day of Passover, which like the Sabbath is a day of complete rest and holiness, a day to be remembered and observed?
Long ago the Jewish community opted for the second interpretation, beginning the count of 49 days on the second day of Passover. But one of the arguments against this interpretation goes like this: If you start the count on the second day of Passover, it always brings you to the same date for Shavuot —the sixth day of the month of Sivan—but if you start on the first day of the week during Passover, it will bring you to a different date each year. Why would the Torah tell us to establish the date of Shavuot by counting off the days every year, if it always brings us to the same date?
It’s a reasonable question, but it misses one of the key elements of Jewish practice. God assigns us a role in marking off times and seasons, not because he can’t keep track of things without us, but because ordering time is an essential part of what it means to be created in the image of God.
At the creation, God divides day from night, keeps a count of the days, and sets “lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and [to] be for signs and seasons, and for days and years” (Gen. 1:14). Then, later, the Torah assigns Israel the responsibility of declaring holy convocations at these seasons (Lev. 23:2, 4). Counting the omer, then, isn’t to make up for some lapse where Moses forgot to tell us the date of Shavuot. Instead, it’s a matter of creating order, which is sharing in creation itself. As we count the days, we bring order into our lives and into the life of the community and clear a space for God’s presence among us. This order helps bring us out of the spiritual bondage of Egypt and to the foot of Mount Sinai, the place of revelation.
The custom is for the count to be done by each individual, as it is written, “You shall count for yourselves…” (Lev. 23:15). The medieval commentator Ramban says that each individual is to audibly count each one of the days. By our word we order the days, reflecting God’s act of creating all things by his word. Thus our days, or at least these days from Passover to Shavuot, are transformed from a headlong rush of time, into a sequence of worship.
As we count the omer each evening, we can do it with awareness that this small act of ordering reflects God’s act of bringing order—revelation, light, clarity—into a world that quickly returns to chaos on its own. With this sort of focus and intentionality, counting the omer will help us overcome the chaos within and prepare us to receive God’s word more deeply on Shavuot.
For a daily guide to counting the Omer, click right here: http://umjc.org/umjc/dmdocuments/UMJC_Prayer_Guide_2011.pdf