Oh Where, Omer, Has My Shaven Face Gone?

I’m refraining from shaving while I count the Omer. For some people, I could end this post right there. For others, though, a little explanation is in order. The Omer is the seven-week (49-day) period which the Hebrew Bible commands Jews to ritually count in its entirety from the second day of Pesach (Passover) to the day before the beginning of the festival of Shavuot.

Much of the Jewish calendar is agriculturally based. In ancient Israel, the barley harvest began during Pesach and the wheat harvest during Shavuot. Essentially, the seven-week count was a way for the ancient rabbis (or God, depending on how you interpret Jewish law) to make sure the Israelites would know with some accuracy when to begin harvesting the wheat. (Shavuot actually means “weeks” in Hebrew.) The term “Omer” used to mean the measure of barley which would be used as a sacrifice to God on the second day of Pesach. Now it denotes the entire seven-week period.

Why a few thousand years later some Jews still keep the count–besides the fact that it’s a mitzvah (commandment), which is reason enough for most traditional Jews–has more to do with the meaning of the festivals that bookend the Omer than with the period’s original agricultural intent. During the 7 or 8 days of Pesach (the number of days depending on your denomination and location in Israel or the Diaspora), Jews relive their bondage in ancient Egypt and their redemption from slavery to serve God. During the 1 or 2 days of Shavuot (same reasoning regarding the number of days), Jews commemorate the giving of the Torah (Hebrew Bible or Jewish Oral Law)  by God at Mount Sinai.

In between fleeing Egypt and receiving the Torah, the Israelites wandered in the desert. In part, the Omer has come to symbolize the mix of anxiety and anticipation the Israelites must have felt between redemption (Pesach) and making the eternal commitment to serve God (Shavuot.) For this reason, some use the Omer as a time of self-reflection. Here’s where I come in. This Pesach, I found myself feeling unexpectedly connected to the ancient story of the people who are now my forebears, too. So I decided for the first time to count the Omer as a way to deepen my identification with my Jewish heritage and make Shavuot–usually a minor holiday in the Diaspora–personally meaningful.

Traditionally, the Omer is counted after sundown, when Hebrew calendar days begin, during evening prayers. You announce your readiness to perform the mitzvah, say a blessing, then count out the ordinal number of days and then the cardinal number of weeks and days. (For example, “Today is the 19th day, which is two weeks and five days of the counting of the Omer.”) Of course, you’re counting it in Hebrew. (“Hayom tishah asar yom, sheheim sh’nei shavuot vachamishah yamim la-omer.”)

The rabbis argued over whether the commandment to count the Omer in its entirety meant not to miss a day of the count or to make sure in the end you’ve fully accounted for all seven weeks. As a compromise, they decided it’s ok to miss an evening of counting, but if you don’t make up for it before the next evening, you can still continue counting but without saying the blessing anymore. I stand with the rabbis who felt the point was to make sure all seven weeks were accounted for, so although I’ve missed a few days of the count, I say the blessing anyway. (I hardly think God meant for the Omer to be a perfection contest.)

None of which explains why I’m fuzzy-faced.

Over time, the Omer also became a time of mourning. Specifically, to commemorate the death by plague of several thousand students of Rabbi Akiva in the first century C.E. Generally, as a time to meditate on millennia of ill-treatment of the Jewish people at the hands of others. Because of this, tradition forbids, among other things, haircuts and shaving during the Omer. I can do without the other prohibitions (on listening to music and getting married), but refraining from shaving speaks to me. It’s an incredibly tactile and visual reminder of the Omer and all that it stands for, both for me and those around me–who give me plenty of opportunity to explain why I’m growing my beard.

I’m a broken record by now noting that usually only traditional (Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox) Jews follow crunchy, detailed, highly ritualized mitzvot like this. In my previous post, I noted that’s kind of sad. Reform Jews can connect emotionally and spiritually with our history (and, you know, with God) the same way non-liberal Jews do, if only they would open their minds and hearts a little bit wider to ritual. But some of us do take a friendly, or at least quizzical, stance toward rituals like this which long ago our movement rejected out of hand, and that’s a wonderful thing.

In fact, there’s an Omer count on the homepage of the Union for Reform Judaism. That’s nice to see. However, for a movement that for two decades has claimed to be open again to ritual and tradition, the website contains not much more than a counter and some anemic background information. I’ve experienced this time and again when exploring traditional mitzvot and ritual–my movement will mention them and suggest Reform Jews delve into them, but will offer little useful information on the movement’s own homepage.

The bold is on purpose, my movement can do A LOT better in this regard. (Hopefully as it continues to transition to a new, tradition-friendly leadership, it will.) As a result, Reform Jews wanting to explore the Omer–or Tzitzit, or kashrut (the dietary laws), or any number of ritually-based commandments–have to turn to sources on the web (and off) from other streams of Judaism–sometimes Conservative sources, but very often Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox (i.e. Chabad) ones.

See for yourself, in terms of the Omer. Here are the main pages about the Omer from the URJ website and key Conservative, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, and interdenominational websites. The other sites contain far more information and explanations than does the URJ page.

Actually, even Wikipedia explains the Omer better than does the URJ.

As long as a Reform Jew has a firm grounding in the basic principles and tenets of Reform Judaism, there’s nothing wrong with Reform Jews learning from Orthodox sources. And very frankly, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities are to be commended for going so far out of their way to help fellow Jews learn about ways to deepen their experience and expression of Judaism.

But why isn’t Reform doing anything like this? It’s 2012. We are no longer our grandparents’ movement. Our denominational website should more fully and clearly reflect that. I guess that’s just one more thing to mourn in the 30 increasingly furry days ahead.

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