A Jewish tradition which is making a resurgence recently among American Jews is the counting of the Omer. The tradition came out of counting the days between the first offerings of barley (measured in the biblical measurement of an omer) of the season to the Temple in Jerusalem until the first offering of wheat 49 days later. This period lasts from the second night of Passover as the first count until Shavuot as the final count, the 50th day. The tradition of counting the Omer is actually a mitzvah from the Torah, where the Jewish people are instructed to count the 49 days between offerings. While you can learn more about the mitzvah and how to perform it here, I’d like to dive into the esoteric side of the tradition and find what we can learn from it to deepen our spiritual lives today as Jews in Vermont.
One aspect of counting the Omer is to spend some time of each of the 49 days in meditation. Specifically, each day is assigned to a permutation of combined Kabbalistic virtues. There are seven lower virtues which are to be contemplated on in this period; loving-kindness, might, beauty, victory, acknowledgement, foundation, kingdom. Each week is assigned an attribute, and each day of that week is assigned its own attribute – meaning that there are 49 permutations of virtues to experience and meditate on for each of the 49 days of the period. When I discovered this aspect of counting the Omer, I was taken aback by the depth and complexity of such a tradition. It had never occurred to me before that there was a Jewish holiday (or in this case a period of holidays) that was dedicated to internal reflection and meditation. Although my education in Judaism is quite limited, I always had perceived holidays such as Rosh Hashana, Hanukah, and even Shabbat to be focused on the teachings of the Torah and celebrations of the community. Until this year, I never knew that there exists a Jewish holiday which pertains to internal meditation and reflection. Through counting the Omer and focusing on each quality of the Kabbalah’s seven attributes, the period of the Omer is dedicated for one’s spiritual purification, inner development, and gives way for new life to grow within oneself. Traditionally, this period is meant to be solemn, as many activities are forbidden during the counting of the Omer. Such activities include haircuts, shaving, listening to instrumental music, weddings, and having parties. While this is cited to be a time of mourning for a plague which killed 24,000 Jews, I also see the solemnness and modesty of this period as a means to avoid distractions which would take one away from their internal focus. This period is clearly a liminal time where Jews are instructed to focus on certain aspects of their life which wouldn’t normally be thought of and to avoid certain activities which would remove them from their reflection. In a way, I can see the counting of the Omer as a time to dive into oneself, explore oneself, and understand oneself through the practice of meditation. By eliminating certain activities and attachments, one can cut out distractions and pertain their focus towards inner growth.
I’d like to return to two of my earlier articles, about knowing your values and participation in your community. I had talked about why it is so important to understand yourself and know what your values are in order to fully participate in a community. In doing so, you can explore what really matters to you and what kind of community would reflect and enhance those values. I find it interesting that while most Jewish holidays are enacted within a community and much of the focus is on the communal and social aspect of life, counting the Omer strays from that norm. Counting the Omer is something which we can all do on our own, and meditation especially is something which can only be done alone. Combined with the liminality of this period, how it is set apart and separate from the rest of the Jewish year, it seems to have a special purpose to it. Given this time set apart for the journey of understanding oneself, you can identify your values and think of them clearly without much of the noise and illusions which could pull you away from your inner voice. In understanding your values, you can meditate on if you’ve lived up to them or not and give yourself the space to practice living true to yourself and grow as a person. It’s maybe not so coincidental that the start and end markings of counting the Omer are two communal holidays, Passover and Shavuot. We begin this journey of counting the Omer surrounded by our community, only to take a katabasis into ourselves for the next 49 days. As the period of meditation comes to a close, we are again surrounded by our community, having gone through our own journey of spiritual growth. This dualistic pattern of community, solitude, community is likely not an accident. We’re given this time to specifically meditate with ourselves and work on ourselves between communal holidays – a period to reflect on who we are deep down without the noise of society and how we can be better people- only to return to the community a changed person. If there was no dualism, no separation between the self and the community, we could never fully know who we are without silence. Yet, silence cannot be relied upon to be the only medium in which to live life through. It’s a vessel given to grow as a person, so we may return to our community a better member of it.
The counting of the Omer marks a special time in the Jewish calendar. For our lives as Jews in Vermont, this can be a time of reflection and peace within as the seasons change from winter to spring. Though we may not be harvesting barley and wheat in the Green Mountains, our lives are still seasonal nonetheless. As the leaves return to the maple trees, the flowers in the meadows begin to bloom, and the bird’s start singing again, I think we can all use this special time of year to take some time to think of how we can grow too – how can we blossom and bring about new life within ourselves? How can we find some silence to meditate on who we are, what are values are, and return to our communities a better person? No matter how observant one is of Judaism, being mindful of this period of counting the Omer can bring about new growth and change in oneself and teaches us the importance of cultivating ourselves so that we may sustain strong and vibrant communities.