…You must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days. (Vayikra 23:16)
Fifty days – advancing,
arriving at the foothills,
standing before God.
Fifty days – struggling,
blown by hostile dusty winds
through dry and barren land.
Fifty days – supplicating,
for the outcome of the harvest
is hanging in the balance.
Fifty days – evolving
from first-reaped tender sheaf
to fragrant loaves of bread.
Fifty days – burnishing
attributes in permutations,
tending inner sparks.
Fifty days – counting
from that first sweet taste of freedom
to the joy of revelation.
Seven rounds of seven,
transcending who we were, and
becoming something more.
The Torah mandates the seven-week counting of the Omer, beginning on the second day of Pesach and leading up to Shavuot. At the start of this period, when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, we were enjoined to bring a grain offering – a sheaf of barley, called an “omer.” Fifty days later, at the end of the period, on the holiday of Shavuot, we would bring another grain offering – two loaves made of wheat.
In ancient times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness (Jer. 5:24, Devarim 16:9-11, Isa. 9:2). The bringing of the grain offerings, and the counting of the fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot, were part of an agricultural festival; a way of thanking God, during the period of the spring harvest, for the food that He provided. The counting corresponded to a sense of anticipation for a plentiful harvest. The Torah seems to be adding an element of time – to count the days while watching the harvest mature.
Barley was the first crop to be harvested – the first crop to ripen in the spring. The fifty-day period between Pesach and Shavuot was the time of harvesting both barley and wheat, so was a highly symbolic time during which the bread supply of the nation would be determined.
If the hot dust storms, which are most frequent in spring and summer, occurred over a number of consecutive days, they could destroy the harvest. They were believed to blow at intervals for up to 50 days hence the name hamsin which in Arabic means fifty. When these suffocatingly hot, sand-laden winds were blowing, outdoor activity was severely impeded and the population forced to take shelter until the storm passed.
This counting of days and weeks is also understood to express anticipation and desire to receive the Torah. On Pesach, the children of Israel were freed from Egyptian slavery; on Shavuot they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God.
It says in Midrash Rabba on Parashat Emor that when the Children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt, Moses told them that they were to receive a Divine gift – the Torah – in 49 days. In their great excitement at the prospect of a spiritual liberation, following the physical emancipation from Egypt, each person kept a count of the passing days.
We, too, in the days between Pesach and Shavuot, are meant to prepare ourselves for receiving the Torah on Shavuot. Thus, the experience of these 50 days has evolved from one that was totally agricultural in nature to one that also focuses on the journey towards receiving the Divine Revelation.
The idea of counting each day represents this spiritual preparation.
In keeping with the themes of spiritual growth and character development during this period, the Rabbinic literature compares the process of growth to the two types of grain offering at the beginning and end of the counting period. In ancient times, barley was simpler food while wheat was a more luxurious food. At Pesach, the children of Israel were raised out of the Egyptian exile although they had sunken almost to the point of no return. The Exodus was an unearned gift from God, like the food of simple creatures that are not expected to develop their spiritual potential. For the next forty-nine days, however, the Israelites worked on themselves to be able to receive the Torah in their own merit. The receiving of the Torah required spiritual elevation and active cooperation. Thus the Shavuot offering reflects the people’s work in the production of the bread.
In Kabbalah, these 49 days of preparation are compared to walking through forty-nine gates, one for each day of the counting. The gate for each day is formed by pairing two of the seven lower sefirot, the Divine “emanations” by which God’s qualities are revealed: chesed – love, compassion; gevurah – strength, discipline; tiferet – beauty, balance; netzach –eternity, endurance; hod – splendor, humility; yesod – connection, grounding; malchut – nobility, aspiration.
According to Jewish tradition, the natural world is predicated on systems of seven. During the Omer period, we count seven times seven. We then reach fifty which represents the ability to attain a higher level.