Last year–and for the first time–I decided to count the Omer. Judaism’s traditional, seven-week period of mourning starts the second day of Passover–the Jewish holiday commemorating the start of the Exodus–and continues until Shavuot–the holiday marking, as our tradition suggests, God’s giving of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai.
Jews who count the Omer–and it is usually more traditional Jews who do so–are counting off multiple things. We mark how our ancestors waited seven weeks between the barley harvest, which began on Passover, and the wheat harvest, which began seven weeks later. (In Hebrew, thw word, shavuot, literally means weeks.) We also mark the death by plague (as our tradition tells) or by Roman swords (as is more likely) of 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef–and eventually, Rabi Akiva, himself–in the first century C.E.
Because of the tragedy the Omer has come to symbolize, there are things that some Jews refrain from doing as a sign of mourning, including cutting hair and trimming beards. As I note in the blog post linked above, that’s how I ended up with my full beard. I’d never been able to grow one, but observing the Omer gave me the liberty to let it do what it wanted.
It also gave me a lot of practice in sticking to a prayer schedule. I feel best when I daven (Yiddish for pray) three times a day–not by any means a Reform Jewish standard, but Judaism’s traditional baseline. I don’t often meet my goal, but the Omer helped keep me somewhat on track. Halachically (legally), we count the Omer at night. Between Judaism’s main prayer, the T’filah, and the closing prayer, the Aleinu, we insert a short blessing for the counting of the Omer, and then literally declare the current numbered day of the Omer.
I didn’t remember every night–some days I counted in the morning. Some days I forgot completely. But I did end the Omer with a good base of, so to speak, “three-a-day the Jewish way” to carry me into summer.
This year, I’m counting the Omer again. I’m no longer observing any mourning prohibitions. (I need a haircut and I’ll get one long before Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the count which is considered a festival day and when those counting the Omer can, as you might guess, go to the barber.)
I am, however, in need of deepening my relationship with my siddur (prayerbook), again. After all the changes and stress of the past several months–which basically just means after all the stress of normal, crazy life–I’ve found myself more often than not leaving my siddur on the bookshelf, my tefillin and tallit in their bags in our Judaica cabinet. That’s the baseline for more liberal Jews, and that’s fine.
For some, like me, though, neither the day nor I, myself, feel exactly right without checking in with God on a daily or better basis. (Insert the ephermeral, Deity, the Universe, all that is, a tree, a shoe, or nothing in place of “God” if that works for you–but personally, I’ve never understood liberal Judaism’s palpable fear of actually saying the “G” word.)
That makes the Omer kind of poignant for me. (And really, shouldn’t we all–whatever our background–feel an emotional connection to our cultural holidays?) Besides thinking about the lives and relationship to God of my ancient Jewish ancestors, I’m thinking about my own such relationship, as well. The weather’s warming up, I suspect I’ll be out on the balcony with my siddur soon in early morning sun and evening twilight. There’s definitely something awesome–in the most basic sense of the word–about praying to God while overlooking an enormous inland sea.
There’s also something equally awesome about dropping everything you’re doing in the middle of your workday, picking up your siddur, and checking in. But why take my word for it? Just maybe, try it sometime.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.