Rabbi’s Essays

Counting to 33

Lag b’Omer is the thirty-third day in the counting of the Omer. Jewish custom has designated this day as one of celebration in honor of the cessation of a plague that afflicted the students of Rabbi Akiba. The day was designated a semi-holiday in post-Talmudic times, thus providing a bit of relief during the period from Pesach to Shavuot, when traditionally one refrained from weddings and other simchas.

Nowadays, Lag b’Omer is mostly a curiosity. Synagogues hold picnics on that day, especially when it falls on a Sunday. Otherwise, we do not particularly feel the restraints of the Omer period, and therefore do not find special joy in its thirty-third day.

It is not Lag b’Omer that captures my attention, however, but rather the notion of counting the Omer itself. Check out the URJ Webpage (https://www.urj.org), and you see a heading noting which day of the Omer it is. This is quite a development in Reform Jewish practice. The actual reason for counting out a certain dry measure (‘omer’) of grain for each day from the second day of Pesach until, fifty days later, Shavuot, is mysterious. The Rabbinic literature describes a Temple ceremony involving an omer of grain, but this is probably a later retrojection in order to give sense to the earlier Torah injunction. After the destruction of the Temple, the omer disappeared altogether, and all one would do is count each day following the recitation of the proper blessing. In other words, it is pure ritual, completely unhitched from any underlying reason or purpose.

Why is it there on the webpage? (The practice had been ignored in all Reform siddurim [paryerbooks] until the current Mishkan T’fila.) One reason is that it exists. Jews do it. And whether Reform Jews, either individually or as a movement, would ever take up the practice, nothing Jewish should be alien from us. A second reason is perhaps more useful. Counting the Omer is a daily repeated act; a discipline that aligns one both with God (in reciting the blessing) and with the earliest traditions of our people. The ritual itself is thoroughly minor, but it points to a very central and significant concern for every Jew. It raises the question: How often do you “do Jewish?” Once or twice a year? Monthly? Weekly? Every day?

Reform Judaism invites us to examine frequently and critically our traditions, rituals and practices. It gives us the opportunity as a community to find new meanings in them, or to modify them in accord to what we sense is God’s will. But Reform Judaism, like all of Judaism from the revelation at Sinai to this day, demands that our being Jewish must not be an occasional, every-once-in-a-while thing. From the tiny act of counting out each day (think of Psalm 90: “Number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom”), we are reminded of our daily-continuous-obligation to be a people worthy of God’s blessing.

Counting the Omer lasts only seven weeks. What Jewish acts do we, must we, do every day of the year?