“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning counting the Omer. Today is thirty-four days, which is four weeks and six days of the Omer.”
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). 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”.
9 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…
Those interested in reading the description in the Talmud of how this ceremony was observed during the Second Temple, can turn to the book of Dr. Edersheim “The Temple and its Ministry”. We will not enter into these details, but what is important for us here, is the commandment that we find after that in Leviticus 23:
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:
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”. 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, 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 harvest; we are grateful for each new day and look forward to a healthy and abundant harvest.
The counting of the Omer also has great historical significance. We all know that Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt; and most of my readers would also know that the Feast of Weeks – Shavuot – Pentecost marks the receiving of the Torah on the Mount Sinai. “Much like the grain of the harvest, the Jewish people first ripened as a nation when they left Egypt, but their blossoming into a true nation was not complete until they received the Torah.” By counting the days between the two holidays, we recognize the enormous significance of this season in the history of our people: as a child might count the days leading up to his birthday and birthday gifts, the Jewish people count the days leading up to their birthday as a nation and to the receiving, once again, of the precious gift of the Torah.
Finally, there is a great spiritual significance in the counting of the Omer for believers in Jesus. As David Baron writes: “here, as is so often the case in Scripture, the earthly and visible is the symbol of greater and deeper spiritual realities”. The Omer presented at the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread was a pledge of the Bikkurim – First Fruits – presented on Pentecost, and both offerings could be seen as shadows and types “of the things to come”. In our Pentecost/Shavuot articles, we will discuss the spiritual symbolism of these two offerings marking the beginning and end of Sfirat Haomer.
 Hillary Le Cornu, Joseph Shulam, The Jewish Roots of Acts, Netivyah Bible Instructions Ministry, 2003, p.55-56
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