Counting the Omer as a Spiritual Exercise

There’s no doubt about it. Counting the Omer was commanded by God.

Is it something to be done mechanically (like counting the beads, as the Catholics do)?

We all use diaries today. Why can’t we just count off the days on the calendar and mark the day of Shavuot, and then forget about it till Shavuot comes around?

Is there a deeper meaning, a deeper level to counting the Omer?

Counting the Omer is like a daisy-chain joining the days from Pesach to Shavuot.

Consider these two feasts and their significances.

Pesach: as a nation, the children of Israel left Egypt free men.

Shavuot: After spending some time in the desert, they arrive at Sinai and receive the Torah, the Law.

Passover is about being freed from servitude.

But seven weeks later, Israel received the Law!

They had just ran away from a life of rules and restrictions, and now they aree welcoming rules and restrictions! To some it was like out of the frying pan and into the fire!

But there’s a point to it.

To understand the point, the first step is to realize that we’re powerless over sin. We don’t want to admit it, but we already know it. That truth feels like death. What are we going to do with this knowledge? Go mad? go to a psychiatrist?

The next step is to realize that our God and Savior Jesus Christ can restore us to sanity, wholeness, life.

These two steps illustrate the connection between Passover and Shavuot – the Exodus from the slavery of sin, and the Giving of the Torah, God’s first book of life instructions.

Romans 6 points out that I can be a servant to sin. Or – a servant of righteousness, a servant of God. That’s freedom – even if it entails denying my body or ego the instant gratification it desires. That’s why we leave Egypt- servitude to others (that’s the world), servitude to ourselves (that’s the flesh), and servitude to the kingdom of darkness – and, less than two months later, we give ourselves over to God.

Passover and Shavuot are, respectively, the point of departure and the destination of a journey. The 49 days in between are the path we follow to reach the goal. The journey extends over seven full weeks, which the giving of the Torah crowns on the fiftieth day. Each week offers us an opportunity to work on a different aspect of our being, as we cleanse and ready ourselves for divine revelation. That’s what counting the Omer is all about.

But first, we need to get a hold on the Biblical definition of the Omer.

The biblical verse that defines  the commandment reads as follows:

You shall count seven full weeks for yourselves, from the day following the day of rest, from the day on which you bring the Omer as a wave-offering. Count fifty days, until the day following the seventh week. Leviticus 23:15–16.

Leviticus 23:15  And ye shall count unto you (lachem) from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete:
16  Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the LORD.

If we unstitch it, the first of these two verses is puzzling.

First off, why do we need to be told to “count unto you” (plural – in KJV, singular would be “unto thee”)? Is there another way to count? This phraseology is not a one-off deal. We find the expression “for yourselves” mentioned in relation to other commandments. There, however, it seems to make sense. For example, when the Torah tells us to take and shake the four species on the holiday of Sukkot, it says, “Take (the four species) for yourselves.” The implication here is that you actually have to own the fruits and plants you’re holding. Or, if you don’t own them, at least be given them as a gift. The meaning of “for yourselves,” then, is “from that which is yours.”

So, what does “for yourselves” imply with regard to counting the Omer?

Actually, there’s yet another verse which gives some insight. On the obligation to count the jubilee cycle of fifty years, the Torah instructs,

Leviticus 25:8  And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.

“Count seven sabbatical years for yourself (singular).”

Why the difference between the singular and plural pronouns with regard to counting the years of the jubilee and the weeks of Sefirat HaOmer (counting the Omer) respectively? The Talmud commentary makes the following distinction: The jubilee years can be counted by one individual on behalf of all the people. But the weeks of the Omer must be counted by each one individually.

This, then, is the legal implication. Each of us has to stand in prayer each night for 49 consecutive nights, and articulate where we’re at in the journey.

Each of us has to articulate where we’re at in the journey

However, all  levels of Torah are part of one totality.
That means that the legal and the spiritual must mesh. What is it about the counting of the Omer that we have to each do it alone?

A second thread in the reading is the wave offering. It was a sacrifice of roasted and ground barley that had to be lifted up and physically waved back and forth by the priest. Why was the lifting and waving necessary?

The next, and glaring, question is why we’re told to count from the day following Shabbat in the week of HaMatzot.

With this in mind, we can now address the questions raised by the verse:

The deep purpose of counting the Omer is to shine up the soul in preparation for the revelation at Sinai. The Hebrew word for “count” reads u-sefar-tem. In Hebrew, the letters “f” and “p” are interchangeable. So safir, “count,” can be also pronounced as sapir, which is related to the word “sapphire.” God is telling us, “Make yourselves luminous. Become clear and glowing, like a sapphire stone.”

In actual terms, what that means is that we have to take our flesh and deal with it. God’s verdict on the flesh is not refinement but death.

We have to deal, week by week, with base emotions and impulses, presenting our bodies a living sacrifice, allowing God to crucify them and transform them for a higher purpose.

The end goal is alluded to by the elevation of the barley offering. Whereas wheat is a food traditionally associated with human consumption, barley is a grain primarily associated with animals. The offering required that young ears of barley, still moist, be dried by fire and then ground, and traditionally sifted thirteen times before being lifted to G-d as an offering.

Leviticus 23:17  Ye shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves (of barley – this is the barley harvest) of two tenth deals: they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baken with leaven; they are the firstfruits unto the LORD.
18  And ye shall offer with the bread seven lambs without blemish of the first year, and one young bullock, and two rams: they shall be for a burnt offering unto the LORD, with their meat offering, and their drink offerings, even an offering made by fire, of sweet savour unto the LORD.

Taking the barley as a visual metaphor for our flesh, we’re being asked to take the juice of our desires and burn that into steam and that will lift us to God. It is the true baptism by fire.through the challenging discipline of restraint and respect for boundaries. Then we grind the flesh. In other words, we put ego to death. We do this not once, but repeatedly, seven times seven times!

The goal  is not to reject any dimension of self, but to reject self operating outside of God. Whatever we’ve been given is meant to be used in the service of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sefirat HaOmer is a full seven weeks devoted to recalling to consciousness this goal.

This is the meaning of the word lachem, “for yourselves.” We must submit individually to God’s Word, His Will, His discipline even His chastisement.

It’s a lofty goal. But how are we to do it?

The answer is Shabbat. In Hebrew the word Shabbat is etymologically related to the word lishbot, which means “to rest.” God’s message is, “If you want to have a shot at transforming your baser tendencies, you’ll have to rest a little from worldly conduct.” In other words, if we’re enmeshed with public opinion, making money, gratifying our desires, and so on and so on, then we’ll have a tough time rising above it all. The way to transcend those limitations is to abstain, to take a rest from the obsessions and pursuits that distract us from the real purpose of our being here.

Then we’re guaranteed: If we do this, we’ll be whole. We’ll have “seven full weeks” under our belts, and be able to live life as it was intended. We won’t have to discard any aspect of our being. The flesh will still be there (the barley bread is baked with leaven), but having empowered our spirits, we’ll be able to mortify the deads of the flesh the baser aspects of our adamic nature.

We’ll be fitting vessels to receive divine revelation, and we’ll discover that finally, we’re truly free.

Over the next few weeks, try doing it step by step. Here’s how the Jewish people do it:

Every day during this season a special blessing is recited naming exactly how many more days are left before the “seven weeks of days” are complete. Psalm 67 is often recited because it is composed of 49 Hebrew words which correspond to the 49 days of the Omer count.

Here’s the special blessing in Hebrew transliteration and English translation:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh haOlam,
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe,

asher kiddeshanu bemitsvotav
who sanctified us with His commandments,

v’tsivanu ‘al sefirat haOmer.
and commanded us about the counting of the Omer.

After reciting the blessing , they then declare the count of the omer in both days and weeks. For example, on the first day they say, “Haiyom yom echad ba’omer” (today is one day of the omer), on the second day they say, “Haiyom yom sheni ba’omer” (today is two days of the omer), but on the seventh day they say, “Haiyom shivah yamim, shehem shavuah echad ba’omer” (today is seven days, which are one week of the omer), and on the eighth day we say, “Haiyom shemonah yamim, shehem shavuah echad v’yom echad ba’omer” (today is eight days, which is one week and one day of the omer).

This continues, day by day, until we reach the 49th day, when we say, “Haiyom tishah v’arba’im yom, shehem shivah shavu’ot ba’omer” (today is forty-nine days, which are seven weeks of the omer).

After the blessing is recited and the count has been declared, it is customary to say this short prayer:

HaRachaman hu! Yachazir Lanu (“O Compassionate One! May He return for us”)
Avodat Beit HaMikdash Li’mekomo (“the Service of the Temple to its Place”)
bimhayra be’yameinu. Amen; Selah. (speedily and in our time. Amen; Selah)

Since Shavuot (“Pentecost”) is the ultimate point of Passover (i.e., deliverance from slavery was given for the sake of the revelation of Torah), we are called to sanctify ourselves for personal revelation by engaging in these seven weeks of repentance. Each day a blessing is recited in anticipation of the climactic day of Shavuot.

From a Messianic perspective, however, it is clear that God also wanted to be sure that the Jewish people did not miss something else here.  Really, could the LORD have made it any clearer in the Torah?  It’s almost as if there is a dotted line pointing directly from Passover to Shavuot – a “Jubilee” of days:
Though the Jewish sages did not fathom the use of the otherwise forbidden leaven in the offering (Lev. 2:11), prophetically the waving of two loaves (shtei ha-lechem) pictures the “one new man” (composed of both Jew and Gentile) before the altar of the LORD (Eph. 2:14). The countdown to Shavuot therefore goes beyond the revelation of Torah given at Sinai and points to the greater revelation of Zion. 

God is holy and Shavuot is about the encounter with God, we must ready and sanctify ourselves by performing the Omer count. Each day a blessing is recited in anticipation of the climactic day of Shavuot. Counting the omer, then, symbolizes preparation for the giving of the Torah to Israel — and for being restored to God. The Jews think of this preparation as retracing the steps 49 depths of spiritual impurity (tumah) to climb up 49 levels spiritual of purity (tahora).

The fulfillment of this symbolism occurred when Yeshua removed our tumah and made us tahor by His sacrifice as the true Passover Lamb upon the Cross; Shavuot is the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit’s advent to those who trust in Him. “Counting the Omer” is about being clothed with the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) to encounter the resurrected LORD of Glory.

In later Jewish Tradition, the forty nine days between Pesach and Shavuot mark the time between the Festival of “Physical Redemption” (Passover) and the Festival of “Spiritual Redemption” (Shavuot). In the rabbinical tradition, Shavuot commemorates God’s giving of the Torah to Israel at Mount Sinai, called Mattan Torah. Historically, as one of the three pilgrimage festivals (shelosh regalim), Jews from all over the world would come to Jerusalem to celebrate and reaffirm their commitment to the covenant of Moses at this time.

And this was still the custom when God delivered the Substance of which the festival of Shavuot was merely a “type and a shadow.” For the New Testament (Brit Chadashah) reveals that Shavuot is the climax of God’s plan for our deliverance through Yeshua the Mashiach, the true Lamb of God (Seh Elohim). The countdown to Pentecost represents the giving of the anticipated New Covenant to mankind, since on this very day the Holy Spirit was given to form kehillat Mashiach – the Bride of Messiah.

With a touch of divine irony, during the season that Jews from around the world gathered in Jerusalem to reaffirm their commitment to the covenant of Moses, the Holy Spirit descended upon Israel to offer the promise of the New Covenant to all who will believe (see Acts 2:1-42). This new covenant makes Torah a matter of the heart, written by God’s Spirit, yielding a life fruitful in the liberty given to us through the love and grace of the Lord Yeshua the Mashiach, blessed be He.
Galatians 5:22-3 (HNT)     
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance:
against such there is no Torah.

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