On the second night of Passover, we are commanded to begin counting the days that will ultimately conclude with the holiday of Shavuot that marks the day we received the Torah on Mt. Sinai over 3300 years ago. “You are to count seven complete weeks…until the day after the seventh week, when there will be a total of fifty days (Leviticus 23:15-16).
This counting is referred to as Sefirat HaOmer – the counting of the Omer. The omer was a measure of barley (about ½ gallon) that was brought as a special offering to the Holy Temple on the second day of Passover that permitted consuming the new grain crop.
The purpose of this counting is reflected in the two different formulations of how the counting is actually expressed. Some have the custom of counting the number of days “la’omer” (to the omer) while others use the expression of “ba’omer (in the omer).
Counting “to the omer” expresses the idea of anticipation. After being freed from a brutal Egyptian slavery, we excitedly looked forward to the day when we would rendezvous with the Almighty at Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 3:12) and counted the days. Counting “ba’omer” – in the omer – expresses the idea that these are days of preparation for receiving the Torah. Each day is focused on looking inward to work on correcting character flaws and growing spiritually. And of course, some people’s practice is to use both forms of counting to focus on anticipation as well as preparation.
In the book of Deuteronomy, the starting time for this 49-day counting is given as “from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop” (16:9). This agricultural association reinforces the idea that the days of counting are for the purpose of spiritual growth. According to the Maharal, the reason that the essential biblical word for humans, Adam, is related to the word for earth (adamah) is that both have the possibility and potential for growth. What develops from both is entirely dependent upon the effort dedicated toward that goal.
According to the Baal Shem Tov, this was the meaning of the unusual description of man’s creation. “Let us make man” was God addressing each person who will ever exist and expressing the reality that humans could not be created unilaterally like all other creations. God can give us a body and soul, but who we become is ultimately a function of what we do with these raw ingredients.
Sefirat HaOmer is, according to mystical teachings, an allusion to the work of purifying and elevating ourselves beyond the superficial materialism and physicality of this world. Sefirah is related to the word “safir” – sapphire – emblematic of polished brilliance. Omer is related to the word “chomer” which means material (the initial Hebrew letters are both gutturals and therefore interchangeable). The focus of these weeks is to polish and refine our baser material side in preparation for receiving the Torah anew.