Date(s) - 26/05/2016
18th Iyar 5776
The seven week period from Pesach to Shavuot is known as the Omer. The Torah, (Leviticus 23) tells of the command to count 49 days from the day on which the Omer, a sacrifice containing an omer measure of barley was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem until the day before the offering of the new wheat was brought at Shavuot.
There was a controversy as to when the counting was to start, but it was decided it should begin on the second evening of Pesach. This was a very tense period of the agricultural year. It was a time of hard work, and also of anxiety lest the harvest failed, and perhaps that is the origin of there being no celebrations at this time.
However, as time went on, and the majority of Jews became distanced from agriculture, an historical meaning was superimposed on counting the Omer. Children, and sometimes adults too, will eagerly count the days until an awaited event. So, it was considered appropriate to count the annual journeying to revelation each year.
The Kabbalists gave other interpretations to the journey through the Omer, and in modern times it has an added significance, as Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZicharon and Yom Ha’Atzmaut are all observed during this time.
The period was regarded as a time of semi-mourning, when for example, there were no haircuts, no music, no celebration of weddings, but an exception to these restrictions was Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day. Tradition referred to a major plague which killed many thousands of Rabbi Akiba’s students, (though perhaps the plague was not a disease, but a euphemism for the Romans who forbade the Jews to study Torah), and on Lag B’Omer the plague lifted, and celebrations were, and remain, permitted.
Particularly in Israel today, it is a time for bonfires, bows and arrows, other outdoor pursuits.
There is a variation in the way the restrictions of the Omer period are observed in different Reform synagogues, but it is usual to count the Omer at services, and Reform Judaism’s Shalosh Regalim Machzor contains a calendar of Omer readings, (pp655-718).