What Is an Omer?
The Biblical Omer refers to the sheaf of barley that was brought to the Temple, the day after Pesach, to mark the beginning of the new agricultural year. The first crop was the start of the harvest season. The Torah commands counting seven weeks, 49 days, from the day after Pesach until the wheat and first fruit festival of Shavuot.
Produce grown in this new agricultural year is called chadash, the new. People were forbidden to eat the new produce until the Omer was brought and God was thanked for it. The law only applied to produce of the Land of Israel. Produce grown outside did count. The law lay dormant until Zionism revived Jewish agriculture in the Holy Land.
The days of the Omer have now been transformed into a period of mourning. Yes, another one. We are overloaded with post-Biblical days of sadness to record the almost endless persecution we suffered after the Roman destruction. But it has always been a challenge to explain why these days should be given such a role. The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) only mentions enigmatically that 24,000 pupils of Rabbi Akiva died during this period, because they did not treat each other with respect. Things haven’t changed much over 2,000 years, have they?
However, we know that Rabbi Akiva led his pupils in support of Bar Kochba’s rebellion against Roman occupation. He was martyred together with them. Given the ongoing Roman persecution, particularly under Emperor Hadrian, the rabbis wanted to record the disaster. But they had to find some other explanation for the memorial that would not offend Christians.
When Christianity began to persecute Jews everywhere they could, Easter was a particularly dangerous time because it recorded their myth of Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. Easter was when clerics spewed out hatred in their sermons, calling for vengeance. Inflamed peasants would sometimes pour out of churches to seek out and harm Jewish families. The Easter period was also when the Blood Libel regularly reappeared, the myth that Jews needed Christian blood for Passover matzah.
So here we are today, where the Omer has changed from being a period of joy to one of sadness. No weddings, no parties or festivities, and for those men for whom it is relevant, no shaving or haircuts. To complicate things there are divergent customs between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. Ashkenazi Jews cannot eat beans, pulses, and rice, whereas Sephardi Jews do. The days of mourning differ. Sephardi Jews observe mourning from Pesach to Lag BaOmer, whereas Ashkenazis do not start until Rosh Hodesh Iyar. They take a break for Lag BaOmer and continue through to Shavuot (and some exclude the three days before the festival). Any good reason? No, it’s custom. All this perfectly illustrates the way Jewish law and custom has evolved with all its inconsistencies and varying customs.
We are constantly adding more and more special days and customs. The Torah says that “You should not add.” Yet we keep on adding. The fact is that just as many customs and days have been lost or abandoned, as have been added. Not many Jews fast on Mondays and Thursdays nowadays. We do change, subtly and slowly.
So, now the Days of the Omer take their place in our post-Biblical world. But given that we also have weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, do we need more?
This is why celebrating Israel’s Independence Day during the Omer is so significant for me. We commemorate the miracle of our return after 2,000 years, to show how it is possible to be proactive and to influence our destiny, with Divine help. We do not only have to look backward to tragedy.
We are a strange people. Some of us won’t even recognize the miracle of Israel’s existence, while others seem to regret it. I observe the Omer because of tradition and the need to preserve our unique way of life in all its facets. I also add Israeli Independence Day to my list of Holy Days. We choose our priorities. And it saddens me that so many ultra-Orthodox Jews do not celebrate it.
Religious tradition is a remarkable, complex phenomenon. The Talmud is as full of obsolescence as it is of innovation; it is both conservative and radical. I cannot explain why some customs survive and others do not. But, in the end, we as individuals decide how far and to which group we wish to conform or not.
The author is a rabbi and author currently living in New York.