How to Count the Omer

We count Sefiras Ha’Omer at night, from the second night of Passover ntil the night before Shavuos. Each night we count what number that day is, from one until forty-nine. We count the final night, number 49, the night before the Holiday of Shavuos.

We count the Omer while standing. (If you counted while sitting, don’t repeat the blessing.) First we recite the blessing for counting the Omer, then we count the correct count for that night, and then we pray that the Holy Temple Service be returned to us in its proper place soon. Those who follow the Customs of the Arizal also add a preparatory prayer beforehand, as well as several prayers afterward. These prayers are not mandatory, but they are very beneficial, and they certainly help us better understand some of the deeper meanings of Counting the Omer.

One should count the Omer as soon as it is definitely full night according to the Torah. This is not done by visual confirmation, but by calculation. This is a complicated issue, so each community and individual must follow their own Rabbi. It depends on several matters, including the latitude of the area in which you live, and various issues concerning the calculations themselves. Instead of giving a long list of possibilities, I will simply tell you to do as your local Orthodox Synagogue does (if they are following the instructions of a Rabbi).

If you count too early, you have not fulfilled the Mitzvah at all. After the proper time begins, you must once again say the blessing, and count again.

Since you must recite the blessing before you count, don’t mention the count for that night beforehand. So if someone asks you what the count is that night, answer by telling him what last night was. If you accidentally tell him “Tonight is the sixteenth,” you may no longer recite the blessing that night.

If you make a mistake and count the wrong number one night, correct yourself as soon as possible, but do not repeat the blessing. By Law, you must know what number you will count that night before you say the blessing.

Do not say anything else at all between the blessing and the counting. If you say anything not related to the Counting of The Omer, you must repeat the blessing.

If you forget to count when full night begins, you can still count all night. If you forgot until the morning, you may count all that day, but without a blessing. The next night, you continue as usual, saying the blessing and counting, and continue incrementing each day, as usual. If, however, you passed an entire day without counting that day of the Omer, or if you counted the wrong number for that day and passed the entire day without correcting it, you may no longer recite the blessing for counting the Omer, even on subsequent nights.

So if, for example, you counted the Omer properly each night for 14 days, then on the fifteenth night you forgot to count the Omer, or you counted the wrong number, you should recite the number for that day the next morning, or as soon as you remember. If you forgot to count, and did not remember all the next day, and suddenly when you are ready to count the sixteenth night you remember that a whole day has passed without you counting, and that you never counted the fifteenth day, you must count the sixteenth night without a blessing. And not only the sixteenth night, but all the remaining days of that count. For the rest of the Omer that year you count but do not say the blessing. (The other prayers you may still say.) This does not affect your counting subsequent years. (The same applies if you counted the wrong number one night and did not correct it all day.)

If in the morning you are not sure if you counted last night, assume you did not, and count without saying the blessing.

If one night you are about to count the Omer, and suddenly you realize that you are not sure if you counted last night, assume you did, and say the blessing before counting.

If you are about to count, and you realize that you don’t know what number to count, don’t count. Wait until you find out what the correct number is for that day, even if you have to miss it the entire day. If you think you know what day it is but you are not sure, count without a blessing. If you find out the next day that you counted correctly, then subsequent nights you may say the blessing before counting.

The Torah tells us to count the weeks as well as the days. Therefore, once a week has passed, we mention the days and the weeks, and the days in the weeks. For example, on the eighth night of the Omer, we count “Today there are eight days, which is one week and one day, of the Omer.” On the thirtieth night, we count “Today there are thirty days, which is for weeks and two days, of the Omer.” And so on.

If one night you counted the day and forgot to count the weeks, you may still say the blessing before counting on subsequent nights.

It is forbidden to eat anything, or get involved in any work, before counting the Omer, for fear that we might forget to count that night.

If you do not understand what the words of the count mean, you should count in a language you understand.

For the prayers, blessing, and the count itself, the best approach is to buy a prayerbook called the Artscroll Siddur, and recite as printed there. You can buy a copy at Tiferes Stam.

Sefiras Ha’Omer. The Counting of the Omer

On the fifteenth day of Nissan, the most exciting event in all history took place. Or so we thought. 

It turned out to be only the second most exciting thing in history.

On the fifteenth day of Nissan, Hashem took us out of Egypt, with many amazing miracles. Hashem fulfilled the promise He had made to the Patriarchs, and freed us from being slaves.

At that time, Hashem catapulted us to the greatest height of holiness we had ever known. The Children of Israel had been so long in Egypt that many had forgotten what it meant to serve Hashem. Many had even worshiped idols. We are at almost the
lowest level possible. We were almost — but not quite — at spiritual rock bottom.

Hashem took us away from all that. Hashem poured holiness upon us, and raised us up to witness one of the greatest spiritual renewals anyone could experience. Each of us, personally, was elevated to a spiritual level that surpassed the level of most prophets in our great history.

Yet that was not the greatest event that ever happened to the Children of Israel.

There was one greater.

It took place just fifty-one days later.

That was the day we received the Torah.

This begs the question: If that was so much greater, then why didn’t it happen first? Why didn’t it happen during Passover? Since Hashem actually elevated each and every one of use personally, wouldn’t that have been the perfect time to give us the

The answer is: no. It would not have been the perfect time for us to receive the Torah.

Yes, on the first day of Passover we were truly spiritual. We were brought to a level we had never before attained. The problem was, we were brought there. We did not attain it ourselves.

A spiritual level granted as a gift might be a truly unsurpassed experience, but it cannot last. It cannot help us achieve a permanent standing. It allowed us to be brought out of Egypt, but in order for it to last Hashem would have had to continually pour it on us. And that’s not the purpose of Creation. The purpose of Creation is that we work to achieve a holy relationship with Hashem, not that He grant it to us as a gift.

And the Children of Israel knew that. So when Hashem told them that they would receive the Torah in seven weeks, they resolved that they would work hard to achieve the same level that Hashem had previously granted them as a gift, or as close as they could get to it. Once they had attained a high level by their own efforts, they would be ready to receive the Torah.

And so they began to count the days and weeks to Shavuos, which would be the day that they would be receiving the Torah. They began on the second night of Passover, after the initial spiritual high of that first day of Exodus had left them. Each day, they would improve themselves a little bit, until they worked themselves up step by step to a high level of service for the sake of Hashem.

Hashem saw their eagerness, and helped them in their efforts. Hashem promised the Children of Israel that whenever Jews decide to work to improve themselves, Hashem will help them achieve their goal.

During the time of the first Sefirah, Hashem gave the Children of Israel some of the Commandments, such as Shabbos, so that when we received the Torah we would already have attained some holiness. Holiness can be attained only through the performance of the Commandments. That is, in essence, the message of Sefiras Ha’Omer, the counting of the Omer.

Hashem commanded the Children of Israel to institute the count from Passover to Shavuos as a yearly procedure. It is called «The Counting of the Omer» because it begins the same day that the barley is cut for the Omer Offering, as I explain in my
article «The Omer Sacrifice.»

Each year, beginning the second night of Passover, we count until we reach the Holiday of Shavuos. We utilize this time period to improve our spiritual lives, step by step, day by day, so that when Shavuos comes, we are ready to receive the Torah.

Hashem has promised us that each year, on Passover, we will be able to receive all the same holiness that the Children of Israel received that first Passover. And on Shavuos, we will be able to receive all the same holiness that the Children of Israel received that first Shavuos, when they stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah amidst great miracles and heavenly fire.

That very first Passover, the Children of Israel risked their lives to circumcise themselves and to slaughter the Passover Sacrifice, and therefore they merited that pouring of holiness on them. From Passover to Shavuos they labored hard to attain a high level of holiness.

If we are ready to risk our lives to fulfill the Commandments of the Torah, we can merit on Passover night what they merited. And if during Sefirah we labor hard to attain holiness, we will merit what our ancestors merited then, and we will see open miracles from Hashem just as they did.

The Dual Nature of Sefirah

The days of Sefirah are therefore days of achievement, days during which we work to become more holy. A chief component of that is giving the proper respect to Torah and to those who study Torah.

Unfortunately, this is a message easily forgotten. At one point in our history, around the year 120 CE, about 24,000 Torah students died of plague and war during the first 32 days of Sefirah. It happened to them because they forgot the important message of mutual respect. (This took place not all in one year, but over the space of a number of years they all died during Sefirah time. — see Midrash Koheles 11) This is why during the days of Sefirah, until the thirty-second day (inclusive), we remember that lesson, and we respectfully honor their memories by acts that are reminiscent of mourning: we do not cut our hair (except for reasons of tznius), we do not listen to music, we do not get married (engagements are permitted), and we do not dance (even during an engagement party).

Therefore, it should not be forgotten that Sefirah is the time when we work to improve ourselves so that when Shavuos comes, we are ready to receive the Torah. Mutual respect is one of the things we must focus on during this time.

The Omer Sacrifice

A Non-Animal Sacrifice

Most people know that in the Holy Temple we brought animal sacrifices. What many people do not know is that many of the sacrifices were not from animals at all! A great many of them were from agricultural produce. The Omer Sacrifice was one such offering.

The Omer Sacrifice was brought not from animals, but from barley.

The Torah commands us to bring, on the second day of Passover, the Omer Offering. Let us first discuss some of the meanings behind the Commandment, and then, Hashem willing, we will discuss how it was actually done.

The Meaning of the Omer

We find that at every harvest time there is a Commandment to bring as an offering part of that harvest. On Shavuos, the kohanim (priests) brought two loaves of bread as an offering. In addition, each Jewish farmer was required to bring to the Holy Temple the first of each fruit that ripened on his farm.

Passover, the time when the barley was harvested, we are commanded to bring a barley offering.

This teaches us that in all things we must honor Hashem, because all things come from Hashem. Hashem does a great kindness to us each year in making the crops grow. He brings rain and dew, and good winds, and directs the growing of the produce itself.

Therefore, before we actually use the produce ourselves, it is certainly proper to first dedicate to Hashem a portion of our crops to remind ourselves of Hashem’s kindness and goodness. After all, it is Hashem Who gives us this produce.

When the Jews were sent into exile, and most Jews were outside of the Land of Israel, this became very difficult for us to accomplish. The Rabbis therefore instituted blessings to recite before we eat any food. Until then, we were required to bless Hashem only after we ate, as the Torah says, «And you shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless Hashem your G-d for the good land that He gave you» (Deuteronomy 8:10). Now we are required to bless Hashem both before and after we eat any food.

There is another level to the Omer Offering as well.

The Talmud teaches us that Rabbi Yehudah learned from Rabbi Akiva: «Why did the Torah tell us to bring an Omer on Passover? Because Passover is the time of judgment for grain crops. So Hashem said, ‘Bring before Me an Omer on Passover so that your grain will be blessed’» (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16a).

Hashem desires to bless us. Hashem therefore arranged it that we should have an interactive relationship with Him. He gave us Commandments to fulfill, and when we fulfill them properly Hashem blesses us.

Therefore Hashem commanded us to recognize His Hand in all things. When we recognize and acknowledge the fact that Hashem makes all food grow, we are strengthening our relationship with Him. Therefore, we merit Hashem’s strengthening
His side of the relationship as well.

How the Omer Offering Was Brought

On the fourteenth day of Nissan, the day before Passover, three agents appointed by the Sanhedrin (highest Court in Israel — which will be reinstated just before or during the Messianic Era, may it be soon) would go to a barley field near Jerusalem. The agents would search for moist stalks of barley grain, still growing from the ground. While the stalks were still attached to the ground, they would tie them into bundles. Then they would return to the city, bring their Passover Sacrifices, and get ready for the Passover Seder they would make that night.

That night would be the first night of Passover, when every Jew makes a Seder, and remembers how Hashem took us out of Egypt.

The second night of Passover, there are two Commandments that we must perform. One is to count the Sefiras Ha’Omer. The other is to cut barley for the Omer Sacrifice, as I shall now explain, with Hashem’s help. (For those who live in the Land of Israel there is no Seder the second night of Passover. Anyone outside of the Land of Israel makes a Seder the second night of Passover as well as the first.)

The second night of Passover, after nightfall, the three agents would go out to the barley field. They would be accompanied by many of the Jews who had come to Jerusalem for Passover. The agents would take with them scythes (harvesting tools)
and bins.

It was all done with great joy and celebration. It was all done very ostentatiously, to let all the people know the Torah’s Commandment. During the Second Holy Temple a heretical sect arose that tried to get the Jews to change the time of bringing the Omer. So during the Second Temple Era the Rabbis instituted that a very noticeable and tumultuous procedure should be performed for the harvesting of the Omer.

At the field, the three agents would turn to the people and ask,

«Has the sun set?»
«Yes!» was the resounding reply.
«Has the sun set?»
«Has the sun set?»

«Is this a scythe?»
«Is this a scythe?»
«Is this a scythe?»

Is this a bin?
Is this a bin?
Is this a bin?

«Shall I reap?»
«Shall I reap?»
«Shall I reap?»

They then cut the barley for the Omer. They would cut precisely three se’ah (about seven tenths of a bushel). They would place it all into the bins, and bring it to the Holy Temple.

During the night, the barley grain was flailed, winnowed, and carefully separated from the inedible and unwanted parts. Then the grains were toasted. Afterwards, the grains were very finely ground, and sifted through thirteen strainers. From whatever was left, one tenth of an ephah (about 14 cups) was used for the Omer Offering.

The next morning, the sixteenth of Nissan, the second day of Passover, they made the final preparations of the Omer Offering. The ephah of ground barley was mixed with one lug (about two cups) of olive oil. A handful of frankincense was added to it.

A kohen (priest) would take the Omer Offering and go to the eastern side of the Holy Incense Altar which was inside the Holy Temple Sanctuary. He would face the south-western corner of the Altar, and wave the grain towards that corner, bring it back to himself, lift it up, and bring it down. This was a prayer that Hashem send rain and dew in their proper times, so that all the harvests should be good.

Do not think of it as «sympathetic magic,» G-d forbid. If that was the intention, it would completely invalidate the Offering. It was done as a prayer, and that was its entire purpose.

Then the Musaf (additional) animal sacrifice was brought, as it was every day of every Jewish Holiday (though the Musaf for each Holiday was different than that of any other Musaf).

Then the kohen took off one handful of grain from the Omer Offering, and put it on the fire that was in the middle of the Incense Altar. The rest of the grain was distributed amongst the kohanim (priests), who ate it.

Until this enture process was done, from cutting the barley to sacrificing it, it was forbidden to eat any new grain. This was seldom a problem, because it was customary to stockpile all grains from year to year, and sometimes longer. So they usually had last year’s grain to eat anyway.

Therefore, when any new grain grew, and was harvested before Passover, it could not be eaten until the Omer Offering was brought. This is one of the 613 Commandments in the Torah. However, once the Omer was brought, it became permitted to eat all grain.

Even today, when there is no Omer Sacrifice brought, food made from new grain grown in Israel is not permitted until the second day of Passover. There is some difference of opinion as to whether that also applies to grain that was grown outside of Israel. According to that opinion, this would forbid any products containing grain that was harvested in the winter, a few months before Passover. Most people outside of Israel, however, follow the Rabbinical opinions that permit new grain outside of Israel.

For those who have the custom to observe the more stringent opinion, some companies now use only the older grain. Those companies that know Hebrew mark products made from the older grain with the word «Yoshon,» which means that the grain is from an earlier harvest, and is therefore permitted.

If you live outside of Israel, you should not assume that you have to accept upon yourself this stringency. As always, ask your local Orthodox Rabbi.

The Torah connects the Commandment of bringing the Omer with the Commandment of counting from Passover to Shavuos. To read about this, continue on to the next article in this series, The Counting of the Omer.