OMER (lit. "sheaf"), an offering brought to the Temple on the 16th of Nisan and thus the name of the period between Passover and Shavuot.

The Bible (Lev. 23:9ff.) prescribes that "when you enter the land which I am giving to you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest... the priest shall wave it on the day after the sabbath." After the waving, a burnt offering together with a meal offering and a libation were made at the altar and after that had been done it was permissible to eat of the new harvest: "Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears." The exact meaning of "the day after the sabbath" in the biblical passage was a major point of controversy between the rabbis and the Boethusians (Men. 65a–b) and, later, the Karaites. The latter argued that the ceremony was to be performed on the day after the Sabbath immediately following the first day of Passover whereas the rabbis argued that in this context the word "sabbath" was to be understood not as the weekly Sabbath but as a "holy day" and meant the first day of Passover itself. Since the passage quoted continues with the law "And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of wave offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count seven weeks" and the fiftieth day is Shavuot it follows that according to the sectarians the festival of Shavuot always fell on a Sunday. It has been suggested (L. Finkelstein, The Pharisees (19623), 2, 641ff.) that this was a major factor in the dissidents' view, as having the festival always on a Sunday was far more convenient for the Temple cult.

The rabbis, in the light of Exodus 16:36—"The Omer is a tenth of an ephah"—interpreted the word as a measure of grain and also ruled that it was to be brought of barley only. The ephah was three se'ot and thus on the 16th of Nisan three se'ot of barley were reaped, brought to the Temple, ground and sifted, and of this, one tenth (the Omer) was "waved" by the priest. The Mishnah (Men. 10) describes the ritual in detail. It was celebrated with a great deal of ceremony and festivity in order to stress the opinion of the rabbis that the 16th of Nisan was the correct date. The ceremony, including the reaping, took place even if the 16th of Nisan was a Sabbath; one opinion has it that on a weekday five se'ot were reaped since after sifting only three would remain but that on a Sabbath only three were reaped so as to avoid unnecessary work (Men. 10:1). If the barley was ripe it was taken from the vicinity of Jerusalem; otherwise it could be brought from anywhere in Israel. It was reaped by three men, each with his own scythe and basket. The grain was then brought to the Temple where it was winnowed, parched, and ground into coarse flour. It was then sifted through 13 sieves and one tenth was given to the priest who mixed it with oil and frankincense for "a pleasing odor to the Lord" and "waved" it "before the Lord." This was done by the priest taking the offering on his outstretched hands and moving it from side to side and up and down. This ceremony was interpreted as a prayer to God to protect the harvest from injurious winds and other calamities (Men. 62a). After the waving ceremony a handful was burnt on the altar and the rest was eaten by the priests.

Counting the Omer

(Heb. Sefirat ha-Omer). The injunction to count the 49 days from the 16th of Nisan until Shavuot is considered to be of Pentateuchal authority as long as the Omer itself was offered; thus at present time it is of rabbinic authority only. The 49 days themselves are commonly known as the sefirah.

The counting is preceded by a special benediction "... concerning the counting of the Omer." Since the Bible states that "You shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete" and "You must count... fifty days," the counting must mention both the number of days and the number of weeks (Men. 65b–66a). Hence the standard formula runs as follows: on the first day, "Today is the first day of the Omer"; on the eighth day, "Today is the eighth day, making one week and one day of the Omer," and so on. The time for the counting, which is to be done standing, is after the evening service, that is, when the new day begins (Sh. Ar., OH 489:1). One who forgets to count in the evening may count during the following day, without however reciting the blessing. He may then count again the same evening, using the blessing. But if he fails to count for one complete day, he is not permitted to resume the utterance of the blessing for the whole duration of the Omer (Sh. Ar., OH 489:7–8). And since the sole stipulation of the commandment is that the number of the particular day of the Omer is to be spoken aloud, one should avoid uttering it inadvertently once the time for counting has arrived; for example, if one has not yet counted and is asked what the number of the day is, one should reply by giving the number of the previous day (Sh. Ar., OH 489:4).

The kabbalists used the 49 days (7 X 7) to form permutations of various sefirot denoting the ascent out of the 49 "gates" of impurity of the Egyptian bondage to the purity of the revelation at Sinai. In many prayer books these combinations are printed at the side of each day listed. Because the days counted "must be complete" it has become customary not to recite the evening service for Shavuot until after nightfall of the 49th day, whereas for other festivals it is permissible to start some time before nightfall (see Day and Night).

In order not to forget the count of the day it was fairly common practice to have an "Omer calendar" in the home with movable numbers on it. These "calendars" even developed into an art form and several early specimens show intricate work and lettering.

[Editorial Staff Encyclopaedia Judaica]