Counting Up: The Omer and Lag B’Omer

Dear Josep,

This part of the year is chock full of notable events on the Jewish calendar. The next one coming up is Lag B’Omer, which is pretty much the most obscure holiday we have. But before we get into that, let’s back up a minute and talk about the Omer.

What is the Omer? Well, the word itself refers to a certain offering that was brought to the Temple at this time of year (omer ha’tenufah, “the sheaf of waving”). But it also lent its name to something we call “the counting of the Omer” (sefirat ha’omer).

Remember how we mentioned that the Exodus was basically the birthday of the nation of Israel? Sometimes it is also compared to the “betrothal” between God and the Israelites. The betrothal, or engagement, is an initial commitment that takes place before the eternal commitment of a marriage, right? So if the Exodus was the “betrothal”, the giving of the Torah–the seal of the eternal bond between us and God–is the “wedding”.

When a bride and groom are looking forward to their wedding, they often count the days left until the big day. That’s exactly what counting the Omer is–only when we count the Omer, we count up, instead of down.

“And you shall count from the day after the day of rest, from they day that you bring the omer ha’tenufa, seven complete weeks. Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days”  — Leviticus 23:15-16

It just so happens that I got married on the 47th day of the Omer–the 3rd of Sivan, 3 days before Shavuot. So that year that feeling of counting up in anticipation was very tangible for me! (Not to mention that one of my sons was born on the 49th day and another on the 48th three years later. A lot to count up to each year! 😉 )

The “day of rest” referred to in the above passage is the first day of Passover. So we begin the night after. Since this is a mitzvah, we make a blessing first, and then count the first day: “Today is one day of the Omer.” “Today is two days of the Omer,” etc. Note that the passage says to count both seven weeks, and fifty days; so we mention both when we count. For instance, today is day 25, so last night the formula went as follows: “Today is twenty and five days, that are three weeks and four days of the Omer.”

So why are we counting up instead of down?

Good question. 😛

According to the Kabbalah, there 10 ways that God expresses Himself in the universe. These attributes or emanations are called sefirot. Does that word sound familiar? 😉 They are, from highest to lowest: Keter/Da’at (crown/knowledge), Binah (understanding), Chokhma (wisdom), Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (might, discipline), Tiferet (beauty, glory), Netzach (eternity or mastery), Hod (splendor), Yesod (foundation), and Malkhut (sovereignty). These sefirot are arranged in a certain order, from the lowest and most material, to the highest and most spiritual. The lower seven are the ones that are expressed in our world.

The "sefirot" tree according to the Kabbalah. If you think this is complicated, you ain't seen nothin'.
The “sefirot” tree according to the Kabbalah. This one has eleven because it separates “keter” and “da’at” which are usually thought of as one. If you think this is complicated, you ain’t seen nothin’.

This is not the time or place to expound upon each one of these attributes, how they are expressed in the world and how we can recognize God through them. Kabbalah is a whole world unto itself and I don’t know much about it.

Anyway, each day of the Omer is associated with a different combination of sefirot. The first week is Chesed, lovingkindness, so the first day is “the chesed within the chesed“, the second day is “the gevurah (might/discipline) within the chesed“, etc.

The point of this is that it is an opportunity to examine the way each of these attributes is expressed through us. So for instance, today is “the netzach within the netzach“. Netzach can be interpreted as “eternity”, or “mastery”, or “endurance”. So on this day we can think about our endurance, our consistency, our fortitude, and try to improve these qualities within ourselves.

So let’s return to the question: why are we counting up? Because the idea is that with each day that passes from Passover to Shavuot, from the Exodus to the Revelation at Sinai, we rise up a spiritual level. Today, we are on “level twenty-five”–halfway there! Tomorrow, we will be on “level twenty-six”. When we reach “level fifty”, we will be ready to re-accept the Torah. Using the “chart” of the sefirot is one way that we can help ourselves ascend the spiritual ladder that is the Omer.

Now. All this is very exciting and you’d think that this would be a joyous time of year. Right?


Around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, there was a rabbi called Rabbi Akiva. He is mentioned often in the Talmud as one of the greatest and most influential teachers of his time. He had thousands of students. And at one time, there was a terrible plague that killed of 24,000 of his students during the first 33 days of the Omer. The Gemara states that this plague was wrought upon the students “because they did not honor one another”. For this reason, during the first 33 days of the Omer, it is customary to be in a sort of symbolic public state of mourning. We don’t cut our hair, don’t shave beards, don’t buy new clothing and don’t have weddings.

Now… one might ask, why all the fuss and bother over a bunch of students who died two thousand years ago? Haven’t there been worse disasters in our history that might be more deserving of public displays of mourning? Heck, if we commemorated every major disaster in our history we’d be in mourning every single day of the year.

Well, it’s a good question. And you know how we Jews sometimes like a good question better than we like a good answer? 😉 The answer is not very neat and easy to explain. People can take it in all kinds of different directions. One article I read went through the historical details of exactly what happened with the hypothesis that these students had the potential to reverse the destruction of the Temple and bring on the era of the Messiah, but that because they didn’t honor one another, they failed to do so and created an extremely unfortunate turning point in our history. This is the best explanation I have heard, and it’s worth taking a look at the article; lengthy, but worth it. 😉

So what is Lag B’Omer then? “Lag” is simply the number 33. Hebrew letters are also used as numerals, so 33 is ל”ג, which, sounded out, says “lag”. The 33rd day commemorates three things:

1) The end of the aforementioned plague;

2) The death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, to whom the Zohar (the book of the Kabbalah) is traditionally attributed, so it’s a big day for Kabbalists;

3) The rebellion of Bar Kochva against the Romans (after the destruction of the Second Temple) began that day. (The rebellion eventually failed, but… the same way we feel pride about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which also eventually failed, we also feel pride about Bar Kochva’s uprising.) To communicate the beginning of the rebellion, Bar Kochva’s men lit bonfires to be seen by their colleagues…

And that is why Lag B’Omer is the most polluted day of the year in Israel.

Firing up Lag B'Omer in Tel Aviv. צילום: אורן פלס [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Firing up Lag B’Omer in Tel Aviv. These people are serious.
צילום: אורן פלס [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Because it has become a custom to light bonfires in honor of Bar Kochva that night. Now, Israelis love bonfires. It’s a big part of traditional kibbutz culture, and fits right in with the general Israeli love of being outside. (And didn’t I mention that Jews have a thing for fire? 😛 ) So this custom is a big hit even among totally secular Israelis.

Lag B’Omer is next week, so all the kids are hard at work collecting bonfire wood, hoarding it, and guarding it ferociously from other kids. When I was an older kid/young teen, I enjoyed going to bonfires with my friends, roasting meat and marshmallows in the flames and staying up late hanging around the fire.

But then I grew up, got sick of dealing with all the smoke, and became a curmudgeon along with my asthmatic husband 😛 so this is the only night of the year we keep all our windows closed and the air conditioner on all night. :-/



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