Omer – a dual counting

  • IlanaStein
All our Jewish holidays enumerated in the Torah have a dual foundation: a historical foundation and an agricultural one. This should not surprise us. We often forget in our very urban times that from the people’s entry into the land of Israel (in about 1400 BCE) until the exile after the destruction of the Second Temple, we were an agricultural people, living off the land.
by ILANA STEIN | May 21, 2020

Thus the Torah speaks to the people in both those senses.

So, Pesach commemorates the exodus from Egypt, but it’s also known as chag ha’aviv (the festival of spring), indicating the time during the solar year that this festival must take place.

Spring marks the birth of abundance as the grain crops are coming to fruition, just as Pesach marks the birth of a nation.

What about the counting of the Omer? In Vayikra 23 we read: “9. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10. Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: when you come to the land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, you shall bring to the kohen an omer of the beginning of your reaping. 11. And he shall wave the omer before the Lord so that it will be acceptable for you; the kohen shall wave it on the day after the rest day….”

The Omer therefore is a measurement of some sort of grain – “the beginning of your reaping” – in other words, of the first crop that could be harvested at the time of Pesach.

We know from archaeological records in the Middle East and what happens today that this is barley. Thus, just before Pesach, one would harvest the first part of the barley crop and bring it to the Temple to be given to the priest on the day after Pesach (being one day in Israel of course), in other words, on the second day of Pesach.

The next major crop to be harvested was wheat, which ripened between Pesach and Shavuot. The text continues: “15. And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. 16. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord. 17. From your dwelling places, you shall bring bread, set aside, two [loaves] [made from] two tenths [of an ephah]; they shall be of fine flour, [and] they shall be baked leavened, the first offering to the Lord.”

Here, the farmer brought the first fruits of the wheat harvest to the Temple on Shavuot, which makes sense, as the wheat ripens about six weeks later than the barley. But what is the need for counting between the two? There is no reason given in the Torah, and while there are reasons in the Talmud and elsewhere that are bound up with the historical event of the nation marching from the Red Sea to Sinai to receive the Torah, there is an agricultural reason too.

If we were farmers, it would be obvious to us. The time of the ripening of the wheat is in fact a time of trepidation for the farmer. No rain must fall during this time, as that amount of moisture would be injurious to the “fruit”, and destroy the crop.

Considering that wheat formed much of the economic foundation of an agrarian-based society, one can imagine the anxiety. The farmer at this point could do no more – the ploughing and planting was done. Now all there was to do was wait. And pray and count.

The human being had to take a step back and hand over to G-d, counting off rain-free days, one by one, until the harvest was ready. Each day, he would look to the heavens and ask G-d for dew not rain, and as night would fall, he would give thanks to G-d for clear skies.

When finally, at the end of 49 days, the wheat grower could successfully harvest the waving wheat in the fields, it would be with a huge sense of gratitude that he would bring the first of that harvest in the form of two loaves of bread to the Temple.

Thus, the agricultural element of living in – and off – the land of Israel is bound up with understanding that the bounty of the land is a co-creation of the human and the divine.

Society must never forget that it owes its existence to a higher power. It should never consider that “the strength and the power of my hand did this”.

We know too well what happens when we think that we control the natural world. This, then, is the lesson that the Torah gives in asking the farmer to count.

  • Ilana Stein is head of education of the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning, where she also lectures on Tanach and Jewish environmental ethics.

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