According to Lev. 23:15, Jews are obligated to count the days from Passover to Shavu’ot. This period is known as Counting the Omer. In the days of the Temple, an ‘omer’ of barley was cut down and brought to the priests as an offering. The grain offering was called an ‘omer’ — thus the name of this period.
What does it mean to count the Omer in this day and age? I confess, it’s a question I wrestle with every spring. When I first began attempting to count the Omer a few years ago, I had a lot of fun with the tradition simply because it was something new. It gave me a chance to learn a new Hebrew blessing, and it was a vehicle for better learning the Hebrew numbering system! (To see a transliteration of each day’s Omer recitation, check out this handy site on the OU.)
Once the newness wore off though, I was back wondering what it all means. What can I walk away with from this exercise?
The “traditional” answer to this question is that the counting is intended to remind us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, and Shavu’ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. It is supposed to remind us that the redemption from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah. But, as someone who cannot accept this “traditional” meaning of the holiday of Shavuot (and I say “traditional” in quotes because the oldest meaning of the holiday of Shavu’ot was as an agricultural pilgrimage festival — not the day Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai), this explanation for the Omer isn’t particularly meaningful.
What I have found meaningful instead, however, is using the Omer as an opportunity for inner reflection. A variety of writers have come out in recent years offering interpretations of the kabbalistic (mystical) interpretation of the Omer.
In kabbalah, each week of the Omer we move through one of the seven lower sefirot (emanations of God that are associated with a particular divine quality.) So, for example, we would focus the first week on the sephira of chesed (lovingkindness). Week two would be the sephira of gevurah (strength). This blog post by the New York Jewish Culture Examiner offers a helpful guide. The question becomes, in what ways do we experience or manifest the holy qualities of lovingkindness or strength in our day-to-day life? In what ways can we strive to experience or embody these manifestations of holiness?
One book on this topic is Counting the Omer, a Kabbalistic Meditation Guide by Min Kantrowitz.
Another beautiful practice you might consider adopting is to finish your daily Omer recitation by singing Ana B’Koach. On neohasid.org, you can find several recordings of this traditional and haunting melody.
Addendum: In response to Ahuvah’s recommendation of Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s counting the Omer book, I went on an online hunt in search of it. I couldn’t find it for purchase anywhere, but it is available as a free PDF download from his website here: http://web.mac.com/rabbirami/Rabbi_Rami/Read_files/Omer%20Journal.pdf