Counting The Days: Omer Or Corona?

The Counting of the Omer (Sfirat Haomer – ספירת העומר) is one of the most mysterious and the least understood customs of the Jews (the Messianic Jews as well). Forty-nine days separate the second night   of Passover and Shavuot – and these days are marked by a counting of the Omer. But what exactly are we counting? And why are we doing it?

First of all, it’s important to remember that this is a biblical commandment which is mentioned twice in the Torah—in Leviticus 23:15-16 and in Deuteronomy 16:9-10. The first time we find it in the famous 23rd chapter of Leviticus, which describes all the feasts and festivals of the biblical year. Directly after the commandments regarding Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, we find the ceremony of the presentation of the Omer, or “Sheaf of the First fruits”.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. 11 He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it…

And after these words, we find a following commandment:

15 ‘And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. 16 Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the Lord. 

Here is where the counting comes from! This “counting” commandment is repeated in Deuteronomy 16:9:

“You shall count seven weeks for yourself; begin to count the seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the grain. 10 Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you “

It is an old subject of controversy whether the day after the Sabbath means Sunday, the first day of the week and the day after the weekly Shabbat, or the second day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. “While the book of Joshua (5:11) suggests that the earliest practice understood mimacharat hashabbat to refer to the ‘morrow’ of the first day of Pesach, a usage confirmed by the Septuagint, Josephus and Philo”, the different groups of the Second Temple period understood it differently: for instance, “the Qumran community understood the allusion to be to the first Shabbat after Pesach”[1]. This view was also accepted by the Sadducees in the time of Jesus; the former view is accepted by most scholars today and is based on the fact that the word Shabbat refers not only to the weekly Shabbat, but also to the first and last day of the great festivals – to the first day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread in this case. Therefore, today the Counting of the Omer starts on the second day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, and ends at the Feast of Weeks—the Festival of Shavuot. It’s important to realize that both the beginning and the end of the counting were marked by offerings: on the second day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, a sheaf of barley was brought (in Hebrew, it’s an “omer” of barley – that’s why we refer to this time as Omer); the seven weeks of counting were closed with the Festival of Shavuot (Pentecost) on which another offering was presented to the Lord: two loaves of wheat bread. What is the meaning and the significance of this counting?

The first and most obvious is the agricultural significance of the omer. Barley was the first grain to ripen – and there is no doubt that by this presentation of the earliest natural produce, Israel consecrated to God the whole harvest. The people of Israel had to learn to acknowledge God’s power and rely on Him completely. In this sense, counting the Omer is a form of daily prayer for the abundant and blessed harvest.

Undoubtedly, the counting of the Omer has also great historical and spiritual significance.  While Passover commemorates the Exodus of Israel from Egypt,  the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) marks the receiving of the Torah on the Mount Sinai – and by counting the days between the two holidays, we recognize the enormous significance of this

However, the counting became even more significant this year. It continually amazes me how all these Biblical festivals, being solemn and wonderful memorials of God’s covenant dealings with His people, at the same time often seem to correspond with our outward reality: not only to the regular seasons of every year, but also to the particular circumstances of our current year. 2020, as we all know, has so far been a very special and unprecedented year. The Passover we celebrated this year, was absolutely unique: never before, since the night of Exodus, have the Jewish people experienced it in such a prophetic and vivid way; never before has it been so akin to that first Passover in Egypt, when the horrible plague was rampaging around them; and never before have people all over the world – not only Jewish people – looked forward so intensely to the days after Passover!  The prophetic and universal meaning of this biblical counting of the days after Passover —counting the Omer—has never been more palpable! For millions of people around the world, each new day now brings new hope and prayer for a full victory over the virus; each new day becomes a new step in the gradual return to a healthy, Corona-free life. We are all ‘counting the days’ – and even those who are not willing to submit themselves to the King and His Crown, have now been forced to submit themselves Corona (Corona means ‘crown’ in many languages). An official expression has been coined for these days, when we still wear masks and keep social distance: to live in “the shadow of Corona”. I wonder whether those who coined this expression know a wonderful biblical expression, BeTzel Shaddai – “in the shadow of Almighty”. May the shadow of Corona be a sober reminder for us all — it is better to “abide in the shadow of the Almighty”!  


[1] Hillary Le Cornu, Joseph Shulam, The Jewish Roots of Acts, Netivyah Bible Instructions Ministry, 2003, p.55-56


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About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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Join the conversation (9 comments)

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  1. Nick

    Indeed Julia! Thank you for reminding us of the significance of Pentecost in Acts, and Shavuot in Exodus. I think the Christian world lacks appreciation of the meaning and drama of what happened at Mt. Sinai.

  2. Lucien Ayefegue Mezui

    Thank you for the link you made with the night of the passover in Egypt and the psalm 91, the rest under the shadow of the most High, and the situation everybody is facing in the world , despite our knowledges, savings, diplomas and other trophys.
    Nobody knows what is going to happen apart from the Lord Jesus and the Father.
    Shalom from Libreville in Gabon.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Lucien. We all have a lot of questions in these difficult times. I just finished and published a little book that tries to provide some answers. Probably, it will be available on Amazon tomorrow. Might be of interest to you. Blessings!

  3. Donald

    I have understood the counting to commence on the day after the weekly shabbat (rather than the shabbat on either the first day of pesach or the eigth day of the feast of unleavened bread) because this weekly shabbat does not have a fixed calendar date. Since shavuot is the only festival without a defined calendar date this implies it is a, slightly, moveable feast.
    Tying these two aspect together leads me to the conclusion I have.

    1. Julia Blum

      I think your conclusion is completely legitimate Donald, of course, this Scripture can be understood in this way as well. As I wrote in the article, there has always been a controversy whether “the day after the Sabbath” means Sunday, the first day of the week and the day after the weekly Shabbat, or the second day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. Like you, the Essenes understood it as the allusion to the first weekly Shabbat after Pesach, and this view was also accepted by the Sadducees. Today, however, Shavuot does have a defined calendar date : it begins at sundown of the 5th of Sivan and ends at nightfall of the 6th of Sivan in Israel (and of the 7th of Sivan in Diaspora).

  4. Lois

    Hi Julia, I have always been confused by the idea that the first Sabbath of the omer count would not be a weekly Sabbath. The reason it confuses me is that you are to count seven weeks to the day after the seventh sabbath. Wouldn’t the seventh Sabbath be a weekly Sabbath? And if so, if it has to be 50 day count, would not the first Sabbath in the count also be a weekly Sabbath? Where is my thinking going wrong?

    1. George abdou

      Thank you Julia. May The Lord bless your life & writings

      1. Julia Blum

        Thank you George. Wonderful to hear from you.

    2. Julia Blum

      Hi Lois, I don’t think you are wrong at all, I also read this Scripture in the same way. However, the opposite approach won in the Jewish history, and today the Jewish world observes Shavuot, counting from the second day of Pesach, not from the weekly Shabbat.