“And you shall count to yourselves from the day after the day of rest (1st day of Pesah), the day that ye brought the omer [of barley] for waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; until the morrow after the seventh week you shall count fifty days; and then present a new meal-offering [of wheat] to the Lord.”
In other words, an omer (volume) of barley was brought as an offering on the second day of Pesah, and we are to count – day by day – the 49 days until the wheat offering is brought on Shavuot.
While the two offerings (barley on Pesah and wheat on Shavuot) are not practically relevant to us today in the absence of the temple, the rabbis elucidate the purpose behind the counting in a way which is as relevant to day as ever.
1) The Israelites in Egypt had the traits of a slave nation. In fact the rabbis say they were not really worthy of being saved at all – and were redeemed “on account” – as it were – needing to justify the kindness done to them.
During the period between the exodus and the giving of the Torah, they needed to mature into a nation worthy of the Torah, and the Omer count represents that step-by-step process.
2) Barley is chiefly animal fodder; while wheat is more refined and used by man to make bread. The counting represents our progress from an animalistic level to a new level above the ordinary animal kingdom.
3) The Book of Ruth, traditionally read on Shavuot, recounts the determination of a devoted non-Jewess to accompany Naomi and accept her fate. Ruth becomes the archetypal convert. Ultimately she marries Boaz, and through him becomes grandmother of King David.
The Book of Ruth begins at the time of the barley harvest, and ends at the time of the wheat harvest. The counting is thus seen to represent our own “process of conversion” as we attempt to make ourselves worthy of being God’s people.
4) Maharsha sees special significance in the fact that this counting period spans three months, that being traditionally the minimum time before a convert is allowed to join the community of Israel.
In a sense we too are like converts, the acceptance of the Torah being our “conversion”.
5) The number seven, repeated seven times, is seen as representing the pursuit of spirititual perfection in this world (as exemplified by the Sabbath), taken to the seventh degree.
The Kabbalists went a step further, counting each week as one of the seven lower “sefirot” (divine emanations), and each day of the week as a subdivision of that sefirah.
So the Omer period should be one of introspection, counting day-by-day towards becoming a better Jew.
When and how
The counting is traditionally done in Hebrew at the end of the evening service, and if you forget to count in the evening, you can do so any time the following day.
But if you miss a day you flunked it, and can no longer count with a blessing.
Well leaving the halachic explanation aside, it’s because this is about working towards something great step by step. And to think that you can achieve the same end without working towards it is simply a mistake!
Powerful don’t you think?
And now for those mysterious letters: HSD
Although the counting itself must be done verbally – saying the words out loud, many synagogues have a counter on the wall that is used to keep track of the count.
The traditional S&P counters look like this. This board is thought to date back to the time of Cromwell.
H, S and D stand for Homer (the 18th Century spelling for Omer), Semaines (weeks) and Dies (Days).
Here are some Eighteenth Century counters from other S&P Communities: Philadelphia, Bayonce and the Netherlands.
The pair from Philadelphia are interesting in that one has the English letters HSD and the other the Hebrew equivalents. This settle a long-standing dispute as to whether the H stands for Homer or Hoi (=today), in favour of the former.