From the second night of Passover until the day before the Jewish holiday of Shavu’ot (Feast of First Fruits or Pentecost–May 15, 2013), the Jewish people engage in a time of “Counting the Omer.” A period of seven weeks or forty-nine days is counted, as commanded in Leviticus 23:15 and Deuteronomy 16:9. The omer was a measure of barley (approximately 2 quarts) that the Jews brought as the afternoon offering on the second day of Passover. All of these numbers have significant meaning. Seven is, of course, completion. Thus, seven times seven is the superlative way of saying “completion.” Fifty is the number used for the year of Jubilee, when servitude and debt were forgiven. The giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai happened on the fiftieth day from the second night of Passover, according to the rabbis.
At the end of the evening prayer on each of these forty-nine nights, a Jew recites a blessing and then verbalizes the number of that day. At the end of the counting a special grain offering was brought to the Temple. This offering was waved in different directions, to demonstrate God’s all-encompassing presence.
What is the significance of this counting for us today, you might ask? Foremost, this counting expresses one’s eager anticipation of receiving the Torah or Law on the fiftieth day after experiencing the liberation of Passover. The word for Egypt in Hebrew (mitzrayim) means limitations and boundaries. It represents all forms of conformity and definition that restrain, inhibit or hamper our free movement and expression. Therefore, leaving Egypt means freedom from constraints. After leaving Egypt, the Jewish people spent the next forty-nine days preparing themselves spiritually for the most monumental experience of all time: the giving of the Torah (Law) to Moses and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. God did not just drop the Torah on the people. There was a journey and the forty-nine day period of the counting of the omer is that journey.
Hence, this forty-nine day period is meant to refine and spiritually prepare ourselves for the event, not unlike the Lenten period which is meant to prepare us for union with the Risen Lord. It is during this period that we strive to grow and mature in our spiritual state. The Torah, as well as other Scripture, does not allow us to become satisfied with our current level of spirituality. Instead, it tells us to set high goals for ourselves and then methodically strive to reach each goal. It is a forty-nine day spiritual journey from Exodus to Sinai. It is a fixed time, emphasized by the actual, out loud counting of each day, to become fit receptacles for God. There are specific attributes to be contemplated each week: lovingkindness, justice, compassion, fortitude, humility, bonding, and sovereignty. Further, each one of these is to be contemplated in light of the other for each day of the week.
After we have accomplished all we can do on our own, through our own initiative and contemplation, then we are worthy to receive a gift from above (God’s grace). We receive the ability to commune with the Devine. We made the journey into God’s all-encompassing presence. Hallelujah!
“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering-the day after the Sabbath-you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete; you must count until the day after the seventh week-fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord.” Lev.23:15-16