Counting the Omer

What is “Counting the Omer”?

Counting the days between Passover and Shavuot has been going on since the time of the Torah (and probably before). It’s the time of year when the viability of the crops is in doubt. It is an exciting time of year to see the new crop coming in, but it is also anxiety provoking because of the uncertainty of its success.

And you shall count … from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering [the second day of Passover] for seven full weeks. On the day after the seventh full week, on the 50th day you shall offer a new meal offering to the Lord. Leviticus 23:15-17

Seen as part of a grand historic drama, this is the period of time between liberation (throwing out Pharoah’s law) and revelation at Mt. Sinai during Shavuot (taking on God’s law).

The kabbalists (12th – 18th century roughly) saw this as a good time for inner work and spiritual purification in preparation for receiving the Torah at Shavuot. Each day in the counting to 50 represents an aspect of ourselves. With intent and reflection one can attempt to purify that aspect and therefore be better prepared to receive (again) the Torah on the holiday of Shavuot.

The kabbalistic system developed 10 sefirot (literally countings) or aspects of God’s emanation or unfolding. The group of ten are often divided up into the “upper” and “lower” sefirot. The listing below is of the “lower” seven sefirot that are used for the counting.

There are many different names and attributes for each of the sefirot. But here are some of the most common names for them:

1. Chesed – Committed Love
2. Gevura – Judgement/Power/Limitation
3. Tiferet – Beauty/Royalty/Kingship
4. Netzach – Endurance/Long Life
5. Hod – Resonance/Echo/Glory
6. Yesod – Foundation
7. Malchut – Queenship/Closeness of God/God in Our World.

The kabbalists took the seven weeks of the omer counting and assigned one sefira from the lower seven sefirot to each of the weeks. Then within each week, you have one of the seven for each day. 7 x’s 7 = the 49 days, theoretically relating to 49 aspects of our personalities and of our existence that need to be purified before we receive the Torah on Shavuot.

What is Shai Gluskin’s Omer Journal?

There aren’t precise meanings about what the sefirot mean or about what their combinations mean. My omer calendar is an associative musing, based on what I know about the symbols of each sefira and what I know about my own life. There is nothing authoritative about what I’m saying. I’m simply engaging in the count and putting my life and my ideas in the context of the counting.

[Note: here is an entry in Rabbi Gluskin’s Omer Journal. ]

Story and photos copyright © 2006 Rabbi Shai Gluskin. Used by permission.

“Leturn to your loots”

[Note: this rumination is from Rabbi Gluskin’s omer journal, an informal journal he is writing in observance of the command in Leviticus to count the days between Passover and Shavuot. Read here for Shai’s explanation of counting the omer. – Ed.]

Part of my graduation ritual from UC Berkeley in 1981 was taking my family to the Tai Chi studio where I had studied intensively for two years. Some time into my study I came to realize that Tai Chi was satisfying a spiritual longing that I had.

When Sifu (teacher) Tsuei Wei took us around the studio, he stopped at some potted plants and told me, with my parents and sisters as witnesses, “You need leturn to your loots.” (That was the highest level English I had ever heard him speak. He spoke in gestures and one-word sentences that were powerful.)

Two years later I was off to the far east, with no plan. I was fulfilling the injunction of my geography professor at Berkeley, Robert Reed, to avoid the destiny of becoming an “armchair geographer.”

My first stop was Taiwan, where I visited the Tai Chi school that Tsuei Wei had come from. After attending only one class there, where I could have trained to become a Tai Chi instructor, the words of Tsuei Wei came back to me.

I had been a committed Jew, Zionist, Hebraist, etc. without ever having given Jewish practice a chance. I decided not to continue at the Tai Chi school. And I began my Jewish practice right then and there, deciding not to photograph or go on significant journeys on Shabbat and to light candles, and make kiddush/motzi no matter where I was.

Though that was in Fall of 1983 it wouldn’t be until the Fall of 1990 that I began rabbinical school at RRC. But something was set in motion then that was irreversible.

Yesod, Foundation/Structure in Hod, glory/resonance/echo/reflection invites a turning back to one’s core. What parts of me have I hidden away? Can I let go of the artifices I’ve created and see myself reflected in my life? Do I recognize myself when I look in the mirror?

I had to go all the way to China in order to come home. I feel blessed for having been on the journey.
Copyright © 2006 Rabbi Shai Gluskin. Used by permission.