It’s More Than Just The Count That Counts

Area Jews find meaning in omer rituals

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In 2000, during the internet’s innocent days, a Brandeis University researcher and rabbi’s husband named Brian Rosman came up with a novel way of counting the omer — the seven weeks of seven days between the second seder of Passover and the festival of Shavuot.

Among the first to have noticed the similarity between the name Homer (as in Simpson) and omer, a sheaf of grain that gives the omer period its name, Rosman put up a website to allow anyone who got the joke to “count the Homer.”

The concept was simple: You visit the site for each of the 49 days of the omer period and find a bespoke image of Homer Simpson corresponding to each day, and its accompanying blessings.

Counting the omer rises from the layered traditions of Judaism: the agricultural aspect of the spring planting and ripening of grain, and the 49 days between the liberation from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. To these were added a mystical aspect: the days in various combinations reflect God’s attributes and a long period for Jews to meditate on and practice Jewish values.

That’s a lot to hang on the scaffolding of the omer. But, says Rabbi Natan Freller of Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, “The omer period has room for meaning making.”

No matter what is added to the ritual, the blessings for the counting stay the same, the manner of counting stays the same and there are always the same number of days.

About 100 members and friends of Etz Hayim have signed up for daily virtual Omer Learning. This year’s theme is taken from a saying in the Mishna that there are 48 ways to acquire Torah, Freller says. Forty-eight is practically 49 and the congregation thought that was close enough to build a daily lesson.

Those who signed up at etzhayim.net/omer-learning/ received the daily lesson for the 12th day of the omer by email on Monday:

“Today’s Learning

“Pirkei Avot 6:6 tells us: Greater is learning Torah than the priesthood and royalty, for royalty is acquired by thirty stages, and the priesthood by twenty-four, but the Torah by forty-eight things.
“The 12th way is: By fine argumentation with disciples.”

The emails also include commentary by synagogue members, Freller says.
“It’s an opportunity where we can learn from each other.”

The District-based environmental group Interfaith Power & Light offers its own Climate Omer Calendar. Each day offers a suggestion to connect the counting to reflection and commitment to the climate,” says Joelle Novey, the organization’s director.

On April 20, the 14th day, the calendar reads: “Prepare for Earth Day this coming Shabbat by observing the original Buy Nothing Day and consider how you might make greener purchasing decisions going forward.”

“The journey between Pesach and Shavuot is a journey between freedom and responsibility,” Novey says. “Now that we understand how burning fossil fuel affects the planet, how are we going to take responsibility and do right by our neighbors, the natural world and future generations?”

Interfaith Power & Light also offers reflective and motivating calendars for Lent and Ramadan. Novey says the group added an omer calendar because “Passover seders are widely practiced. The omer is less widely known and it’s intriguing for people who are exploring Judaism.”

Novey says she’s attracted to the mystical approach of counting. Each of the seven weeks of the omer corresponds to one of seven sefirot, or divine emanations outlined in Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Each day of the week corresponds with a middah, or Jewish virtue.

The days and weeks of the omer form a matrix and create a specific theme or attribution of God, to focus on each day.

The omer ritual helped give structure to those structureless early days of the pandemic, Novey says. “It helped to have this ritual of counting the days with the calendar on the fridge. It was well suited to the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, back in cyberspace, Counting the Homer lives on. A visit to homercalendar.net seems to be a journey back to the clunkiness of Web 1.0. But look closer and you’ll see YouTube videos and links to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, none of which existed in 2000, let alone when the first omer was counted. ■

[email protected]

Staff Writer Sasha Rogelberg contributed to this article.

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