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Shabbat and the Counting of the Omer

April 25, 2014

Every week, Jody Hirsh, the JCC's Judaic Education Director, provides a Judaic message that is featured at the top of the JCC's weekly email newsletter. Below is the Shabbat message for Friday, April 25, 2014.

Shabbat and the Counting of the Omer

Years ago, I got an odd telephone call from the secretary of one of our local churches. (If someone calls the JCC with a call about Judaism, the caller is usually referred to me.) “My Pastor asked me to call,” she told me, “Where do you purchase sheaves?”

“Sheaves?” I answered.

“Yes... Sheaves,” she said. “You know – for the waving of the sheaves. My pastor said you would know.” 

She was referring of course to the description of “the waving of the sheaves” in Leviticus, - a Temple practice from before the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.  This would have been familiar to the Jesus who was, of course, Jewish and which they wanted to reenact in church:

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the waving – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks.Leviticus 23:15

I had to explain to her that we don’t really wave sheaves any more. We “wave the sheaves” symbolically by simply counting off the days from the second day of Passover – seven weeks, 49 times – until the holiday of Shavuot (weeks) 50 days later. That’s why this second holiday is called “The Feast of Weeks.” We call this symbolic countdown “the counting of the Omer” (Omer = sheaf... but it’s also a measure of grain). I have no idea where one could get actual sheaves at Passover time.

However... if you read the Leviticus quote closely, it’s still a little confusing. It seems to say that you have to start the counting on the Sunday (or rather Saturday night - the Day after the Shabbat) immediately following Passover. Therefore, Shavuot would always be on a Sunday! Shavuot this year, however, will be on June 4... a Wednesday (Erev Shavuot on Tuesday Night, not Saturday night). ???????????

The answer is... the Rabbis felt that in this case, “Shabbat” didn’t mean Friday night it meant “Day of Rest” which was the day immediately after the first night of Passover itself – this year on a Tuesday night. That’s why we begin counting the Omer at the second Seder.

The Karaites – that group that broke away from Judaism in the 8th Century felt differently.  Claiming that the Torah must be understood literally, they agreed that we should always start counting the omer on a Saturday night, and Shavuot will always be on a Saturday night/Sunday day.

So... if you’re a Karaite (and you know who you are… although I don’t think there are any in Milwaukee), this Friday night (Shabbat) will be eighth day of the Omer. For the rest of us, however, this Friday night will be the 12th night of the Omer.

Shabbat Shalom.