Sefirat Ha’Omer (The counting of the Omer) begins on the second night of the holiday of Pesach (Passover), and extends until the holiday of Shavuot (The “Festival of Weeks”, the holiday of the giving of the Torah). The Hebrew dates are from the 16th of Nissan until the 6th of Sivan, which correspond in this year from April 8th until May 27th.
The Torah commands Bnei Yisrael (The Children of Israel) to count seven weeks from the holiday of Pesach, and then bring the Omer offering to the Beit-Hamikdash (The Temple). We count this process today by announcing the day of the Sefirah (The counting process) on the night to which it corresponds, beginning with the second night of Pesach.
If you have been reciting the Brachah (Blessing) every night along with the announcement of the day of the Sefirah, continue to do so. If you have not been reciting the Brachah every night, you can still participate by reciting the announcement of the day of the Sefirah, without the Brachah. After the announcement of the day of the Sefirah, we say a request that: “The Merciful will return to us the worship in the Temple, soon in our days, Amen, Selah”. The counting process of the Sefirah can be found in any Siddur (Prayerbook), usually after the Maariv (Evening) service. It is preferable to announce the day of the Sefirah right after the stars come out.
Sefirat Ha’Omer, the counting of the 49 days in between Pesach and Shavuot, has many meanings associated with it.
The first meaning associated with Sefirat Ha’Omer is that it is the optimal time for personal growth. There is a popular question asked in the Talmud (The Oral Torah) as to why there is a difference between the offering at the time of the Pesach holiday and the offering at the time of the Shavuot holiday. At the time of the Pesach holiday, we bring an offering consisting of Se’or (Barley), while at the time of the Shavuot holiday, we bring an offering consisting of Chitah (Wheat). The Rabbis inquire into this difference with great fervor, and they resolve this question with an easy observation. The offering consisting of Se’or is an offering fit for an animal, as barley is the prime food for various field animals, rather than people. However, the offering consisting of Chitah is fit for a person, as wheat is the staple in all human meals. The Rabbis learn that at the beginning of the Sefirat Ha’Omer, one is as an animal, thinking that he deserves whatever reward Hashem has seen fit to give him; for, after all, we were slaves for many years in Egypt, and it was because we deserved it that we were taken out. This is why we bring the food of an animal, say the Rabbis, because we think that we deserve this freedom, and that we have earned it. In reality, we were saved not because we earned it, but rather out of the Goodness that is Hashem, and out of His Mercy. We did not earn our freedom, but rather we were blessed with it. The process of the Sefirah is to come to realize that nothing we have is ours because we have earned it; for if this is what we think, then we are thinking like animals, and only concerned for our own selves, and what we deserve. Our task to realize that Hashem deserves all of the credit in this story, and that we should think like humans, that we only possess our freedom because our Father in Heaven has blessed us with it. We begin the Sefirah as animals, eating the Se’or, and we end the Sefirah as servants of Hashem, eating the food of Humans, the Chitah. We learn an appreciation for all of the things that Hashem has chose to bestow upon us. The Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, mystical scholar) explains that the Sefirah is like the groom and bride the week before they are to be wed. There is a custom that the couple cannot see each other for seven days before the wedding ceremony, and the seven weeks of Sefirat Ha’Omer are representative of these seven days. During these seven days, the groom and bride begin to appreciate each other, because, as a famous poem and song tell us, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. So too are the Jewish people supposed to learn appreciation for Hashem, and all that He gives them in their time of need. At the end of the Omer is Shavuot, which is when Bnai Yisrael received the Torah on Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) straight from the mouth of Hashem. In Yeshayahu, Hashem explains the encounter at Har Sinai as “the love of bride and groom”. Shavuot is when we meet Hashem under the Chuppah (Alter), and we begin to relate with our spouse with a higher level of appreciation than ever before.
Another meaning associated with Sefirat Ha’Omer is that it is the optimal time to mend our ways of interaction with our fellow human being. There is an idea that Rosh Hashanah, which is the beginning of the Jewish calendar year, corresponds to Pesach, the beginning of the Jewish historical year, which occurs exactly one half year later. Just as Rosh Hashanah is a new beginning, so too is Pesach a new beginning. The S’fas Emes (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe,) writes that if a person observes Sefirat Ha’Omer as it should be observed, from Pesach to Shavuot, then it is as if he is exempt from being judged on Rosh Hashanah. His words seem very peculiar, as we know that every Jew stands before Hashem in judgment on Rosh Hashanah, so how is it that anyone can be exempt from this judgment? On Rosh Hashanah, all Jews are judged based on the scale of Mitzvot (Commandments fulfilled) versus Aveirot (Transgression of the commandments). If one’s personal Mitzvah count is higher than the personal Aveirah count, then he is sure to be judged favourably. Rosh Hashanah is about personal judgment, and we pray in order to save ourselves. However, Pesach is very different. Pesach is alternatively called Chag Ha’Aviv (The festival of the Spring), because in the spring all the crops begin to grow in the fields. During the Omer, we watch these crops grow, and we pray that Hashem allows this crop to succeed. Shavuos is alternatively called Chag Hakatzir (The festival of the crop cutting), because we take these crops that we have grown, and we bring them as offerings to the Beit-Hamikdash. On Pesach, we have a special prayer called Tefilat Tal (The prayer of the dew), in which we ask Hashem for the proper conditions for growing the crops. As mentioned above, Pesach, and the Omer in general, corresponds to Rosh Hashanah. However, at Pesach we are not praying to save ourselves, but rather at Pesach we are praying to save the entire Jewish people. The crops that are grown in the field supply all inhabitants of the land with the food necessary to survive, from the richest to the poorest person. The S’fas Emes is explaining that one who prays and tends to his field during the time of the Omer is not doing such work for personal gain, but rather for the good of the entire nation. He does not think just of himself, but he cares for the welfare of all his brothers and sisters. For this he would be looked upon favorably in the time of judgment, and if these are representative of his actions, he has no worries come Rosh Hashanah time. This is the potential power of the Omer, a chance to prove ourselves to Hashem, and not out of personal gain, but for the good of all of Bnei Yisrael.
Another meaning associated with Sefirat Ha’Omer is that it is the optimal time to do Teshuvah (Repentance). In between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are what are known as Yemei Teshuvah (Days of Repentance), and there are seven such days between the holidays. These seven days are compared to the seven weeks of Sefirat Ha’Omer, as they provide the same opportunity as one another. Just as in the seven days between these two holidays we are supposed to devote ourselves to repenting and mending our ways, so too are we to devote ourselves to repenting and mending our ways during the Omer. The Yemei Teshuvah are really called Aseres Yemei Teshuvah (The Ten Days of Repentance), but we count only seven days in this group, as three of these days are holidays. This is also the same with Sefirat Ha’Omer, as it really starts on Pesach, and extends until Shavuot. In the Torah, Shavuot is referred to by the title Atzeret (finale), as Shavuot is really the end of a fifty-day process that begins with Pesach. The Rabbis even refer to the days of the Sefirah as Chol Hamoed (The mundane days of the holiday), which means that Pesach and Shavuot are just two ends to the same holiday. Just as we are to repent at our time of need in the days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, we are to repent and mend ourselves from Pesach to Shavuot.
The immediate past Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Brezovsky, finds an odd connection at the beginning of Parashas Beshalach (The weekly portion of Beshalach). The Torah says “V’chamushim alu Bnei Yisrael m’Eretz Mitzrayim”, which is usually explained by the Rabbis as “and the Children of Yisrael left the land of Egypt armed with weapons”. Another famous interpretation is that the word “chamushim” does not refer to weapons, but rather to the fact that one fifth, “chamishis”, of Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim (Egypt). The Slonimer Rebbe explains that the reference of one fifth does not refer to the number of Bnei Yisrael that left Mitzrayim, but rather that only one fifth of each person left Mitzrayim. He means to say that at the time of the Exodus, Bnei Yisrael did not have full faith in Hashem, and in fact they were only one fifth sure. The Rabbis tell us that at the time of Bnai Yisrael receiving the Torah on Har Sinai, they had perfect faith in Hashem and in His actions.