Dear TEE Community,
I like to think of Passover as a springtime complement to the High Holidays. In the autumn, shortening days and falling leaves are associated with introspection. We consider what we need to bring into our lives to make them whole, like adding layers of warmth for the coming winter. At Passover, the mood is reflected in the growing light and budding plants. Our task is to clear out – not only our homes, but our hearts. Jewish tradition encourages us to consider ridding ourselves of chametz, leavening, not only as a physical task but a spiritual one as well. In this understanding, chametz represents things within us – habits or attitudes – that weigh us down. Rather than taking more in, it is a season of letting go. Even if you don’t observe Passover in a traditional way, I hope you will consider using the holiday as an opportunity to reflect on what represents chametz in your life.
Another practice which has taken on renewed meaning for contemporary Jews is הָעוֹמֶר סְפִירַת sefirat ha-omer, the counting of the omer, which begins on the second night of Passover. This custom originated in the biblical commandment to count forty-nine days (seven times seven weeks) from Passover until the holiday of Shavuot (“weeks”). An omer was a biblical unit of unthreshed grain, offered on the first day of counting. In ancient Israel this period represented the transition from the barley harvest to the wheat harvest and culminated in an offering of first fruits at Shavuot.
For the rabbis of the Talmud, the period of counting the omer had several dimensions. Wishing to add a non-agricultural meaning to the festival of Shavuot, the rabbis connected it with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Thus, they envisaged the forty-nine days as a time of spiritual preparation, moving from the experience of enslavement to becoming partners in a sacred covenant.
Perhaps to emphasize the significance of this transitional period, the sages also instituted the practice of observing the counting of the omer as a time of semi-mourning. According to legend, this was to memorialize 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died either from a plague or during the Bar Kochba uprising against the Romans. The rabbis prohibited celebrations, such as weddings or parties, listening to musical instruments, and getting a haircut or shaving throughout the forty-nine days.
Ashkenazi Jews and some Sephardim make an exception to this mourning for one day – either the thirty-third or thirty-fourth day of the omer – when the restrictions are lifted. In Hebrew the number the number thirty-three can be written with the letters lamed and gimel, so the day is usually called Lag b’Omer (“thirty-third of omer”). It is the observance of Lag b’Omer, often with outdoor activities, that has acquainted many American with counting the omer.
Additionally, there is a growing interest in the practice of a daily counting of the omer as a spiritual path, particularly a form of the tradition rooted in Jewish mysticism. Each of the seven weeks is associated with one of the sephirot, mystical aspects of divinity, and then one of the seven sephirot is also paired with a day of the week. This provides an opportunity to reflect on these qualities in different combinations as a way to develop spiritual growth. The number of American Jews finding meaning in this practice is reflected in the surprising number of books and workbooks on the topic, as well as social media accounts and phone apps dedicated to helping you keep track of the omer count with meditations for each day.
One of the great joys of being Jewish is the ways in which our traditions encourage us to consecrate time throughout the year. However you observe this season, I hope you will find ways to cultivate and celebrate growth, both within and around you.
Chag Sameach / Happy Passover!
Rabbi Drorah Setel