CLass 5: journey of the Omer
Israelites considered the time of the grain harvest to be a sacred time. During this class, we'll discuss the seven weeks of the Omer and Jewish customs for marking the spring harvest season.
Introduction: The Omer
The Counting of the Omer refers to the Jewish practice of counting each day of the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot. This forty-nine-day period begins on the second night of Passover, and celebratesthe barley harvest (Leviticus.23:15–17). Once, a priest reaped the first sheaf of the barley harvest onthe first day of the Omer. On the wheat harvest festival of Shavuot, after the last day of the Omer, loaves of bread were offered.
Over timethe Omer became a period of mourning because of tragedies that occurred duringthat time, including the death of many of the talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva’sstudents. The Omer may also have been a mourning period because the harvest was seen as a powerful and fateful time: plant life was being taken so that humans could eat. In many cultures, the harvested grain is depicted as a dying person (i.e. Dumuzi in Sumerian culture, John Barleycorn in British folklore). Further, the harvest must come in well and without damage for the community to thrive. While the harvest is a joyful time, it makes sense that it is a solemn time as well.
The Omer also represents thelink between Passover and Shavuot— the wandering in the wilderness betweenfreedom and revelation. Some see the counting of the Omer as a way to express that freedom is not sufficient without covenant and responsibility. Each day of the Omer represents a step on the journey to revelation.
In Jewish mystical tradition, each day ofthe Omer also connects us to a mystical attribute of the Divine. Seven divine attributes are explored, in combinations of two, for a total of forty-nine combinations. Forexample, the first week of the Omer represents chesed. The first day is chesed shebechesed (love within love), while the second day is gevurah shebechesed (strength withinlove) and the third is tiferetshebe’chesed (compassion within love) and so forth. The cycle continues onward through the weeks until the last week, whichrepresents malchut— the forty-thirdday of the Omer is chesed shebemalchut,the forty-fourth is gevurah shebe’malchut,and the final forty-ninth day is malchutshebe’malchut. As the seven weeksunfold, we travel through all forty-nineof these attributes, collecting a spiritual harvest that will ground andnourish us.
The Omer is counted by reciting a blessing every night, followed by reciting the day and week of the Omer.
You can read more about how to count the Omer in the Omer Calendatr of Biblical Women file that follows as part of this lesson.
Enjoy your Omer journey!
Please read the following in preparation for this class:
- Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy, 133-184
- Jill Hammer, Jewish Book of Days, p. 249-277
Lecture: The Omer
Omer Calendar: Biblical Women
Lecture: The Omer
Songs of the Priestess: An Omer Poem
This poem, originally written in Yiddish by Malka Heifetz Tussman, delves deeply into the themes of the Omer: harvest, journey, ripeness, and death. It also seems to allude to the tradition of union with a priestess as divine sacrament and harvest ritual. I have used it ritually during the Omer season as a prayer.
Please read and analyze the poem: what is the poet expressing about the human condition, about harvest, about the earth, about love? How does the poem speak to themes of the Omer?
Malka Heifetz Tussman, Selections from “Songs of the Priestess”(from her book “With Teeth in the Earth”
What shall we do
with our God-kissed boy?
What shall we do?
He chases madlywith poison on his lips.God’s kiss...
Soon he’ll overcome the strongest guard
Watching over the priestess.
Soon he’ll invade her strict seclusion.
Today the priestess saw him in a dreamand wept.
What shall we dowith our God-kissed boy?
He is God-sick, our boy.
He is death-sick, our boy.
It pursues him so,God’s kiss on his lips.
He keeps seeking the mate of the kiss.
But God kisses only once.
With the second,God takes back the breath.
Should we pray for the deathof our boy?
Gather me uplike wheat.
and bind me
before autumn’s whirlwind
sweeps me away.
Hurry—I am fully ripe
and all the fences are down.
Don’t be afraid.
I don’t have to grow any more.
The rain is yours.
I have been through my rainstorms.
Gather me up
At the Crossroad
at the crossroad
you were led
by your senses
by his longing
for the last kiss.
That’s what you sought?
And when you found a path
to the secret well,
as one falls
before the light of the Shekhinah.
You scooped up a handfulof water
and it flowed out from your fingers.
You tasted only
that even death
is not eternal…
Celebrating Lag b'Omer, the 33rd Day of the Omer
his year, Lag b'Omer falls on the evening of Wednesday May 8, and during the day on Thursday, May 9.
Lag b’Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer, the period of counting forty-nine days between the spring liberation festival of Passover and the spring/summer revelation holiday of Shavuot. (“Lag” is a combination of Hebrew letters adding to 33.) Lag B'Omer, the 18th of the month of Iyar, according to Jewish mystical tradition, is the yahrtzeit of the sage Shimon bar Yochai, depicted in the Zohar as a great mystic, and in traditional circles seen as the Zohar’s author. The bonfires lit in the Israeli city of Meron and elsewhere on Lag b’Omer recall the legend that the sun refused to set until Shimon bar Yochai had finished his last teaching. Three-year-old boys have their hair cut and thrown into this bonfire— a conenction with the ancient tradition of first harvesting from a tree at the beginning of its fourth year.
Lag b’Omer also marks the date of the end of a plague in Talmudic times. Rabbi Akiva’s students, who had been punished with plague for quarreling, stopped dying on that day. Lag b’Omer has also been associated with students in talmudic times who studied Torah in the forest, bringing bows and arrows with them, so the Romans would think they were hunting. Jews have long celebrated Lag b’Omer as a nature festival, going out into the forest with bows and arrows. Lag b’Omer is deeply connected to the nourishment and wild energy that comes with spring.
In a midrash by the sage known as the Chatam Sofer, Lag b’Omer is the day the manna, the heavenly food, fell for the Israelites for the first time. And, in an ancient text called the book of Jubilees, the day before Lag B’Omer is the day on which the serpent convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. I like the idea that Lag b’Omer is the “day after” the munching of the forbidden fruit. Eve and Adam have gone from being innocent to knowing the ways of the world. They anticipate their own death, as well as their own fertility and creativity. They are part of the earth. On Lag b’Omer, we celebrate that sense of being part of our planet.
Lag b’Omer comes in April or May, at a time when spring is in full bloom, and mating calls fill the air. Because the Omer is considered a period of semi-mourning, weddings do not occur during most of the Omer, and therefore Lag b’Omer (regarded as a holiday and therefore an acceptable day for celebration) is a popular day for weddings. Seventeen days before the revelation on Mount Sinai, Jews celebrate Lag B'Omer with bonfires, dancing, archery contests, the cutting of hair, and often with weddings as well, rejoicing in the joining of the earthly and heavenly realms.
Lag b’Omer often falls on or near Mayday. Mayday, also called Beltane, was one of the major holidays of the Celts, representing fertility, harvest, and renewal. It remains a folk tradition of the European peoples. It too was celebrated with bonfires, and later, by the dancing of the maypole. (A maypole is a pole set up on the earth with brightly colored ribbons hanging from it. The ribbons are woven together into a kind of fabric around the pole by dancers who, holding the ends of the ribbons, weave in and out of one another.) The maypole is a symbol of spring growth and fertility.
The maypole dancers must weave under and over one another in perfect sequence for the maypole “weave” to be created. Each dancer is connected to the maypole by a ribbon, just as each of us is connected to the Divine. All must work together to finish the maypole, just as we work together to sustain the world God has given us. The weaving of the maypole is a fun planting-season ritual, but it also encodes a powerful view of life in which all things are connected. Rabbi Everett Gendler, a Jewish advocate for the earth, has sugegsted usinga maypole to celebrate Lag b’Omer. I’ve done this twice, and it is a wonderful addition to the Lag b’Omer tradition.
I think the maypole is a good custom for Lag b’Omer. The connection of heaven and earth is a reminder of Shimon bar Yochai’s revelation from heaven. The weaving of the ribbons could teach Rabbi Akiva’s students to respect one another and work together. The brightly colored ribbons are like the manna falling from heaven. The “pole” as fertility symbol reminds us of Adam and Eve. And the dance in which our ribbons wind with all other ribbons reminds us of how revelation is meant to connect us, not divide us. So, for this year, consider a nature walk, a picnic, a bonfire, or a maypole!
Songs for Lag b’Omer
Casting the Circle song
Lishmah lishmo leshem almaya
Ara yama veshamaya
Anu osin igul nafshaya
We are the earth wind water and fire
Lishmah lishmo leshem almaya
Ara yama veshamaya
Anu osin igul nafshaya
May our souls circle higher and highe
From the Song of Songs
Eit dodim kalah, bo’i legani (2x)
Parcha hagefen, heineitzu harimonim (2x)
Neranena, nezamera, neranena, nezamerah (2x)
It is the time of love, O bride, come into my garden. The grapevine has blossomed, the pomegranates have flowered. We will rejoice and sing.
Contemporary Mayday Chant
We are the weavers, we are the woven ones
We are the dreamers, we are the dream
We are spiraling into the center,
The center of the wheel.
Text Study: Lag B'Omer
Read this Lag b'Omer Texts for Study