The Counting of the Omer is the ancient Jewish ritual of blessing and counting each of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.
The counting began as an agricultural ritual. Our ancestors would pray for an abundant spring harvest by waving a sheaf, an omer, of barley toward the night sky. Over time, this agricultural rite was replaced by liturgy and the counting became the way to mark the Israelites' journey from bondage in Egypt to revelation at Mount Sinai.
For the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Counting of the Omer became a time of spiritual exploration and cleansing, a way for us to prepare our souls to receive the divine guidance that comes to us each year on Shavuot.
Counting the Omer is a 49-day mindfulness practice aimed at helping us pay attention to the movement of our lives, to notice the subtle shifts, the big changes, the yearnings, the strivings, the disappointments, the hopes and the fears. It is an opportunity for deep introspection, a call to notice our inclinations, our default responses, our reactions to shifting emotions and circumstances. The Counting of the Omer seeks to cleanse and renew our nefesh, ruach and neshamah (layers of body, mind and soul) so we can respond to the circumstances of our lives with compassion and wisdom.
The mystical tradition teaches that these 49 days between Passover and Shavuot are divided into seven-week periods, with each week containing a specific spiritual quality. The qualities are guided by seven of the 10 sefirot, the Divine emanations through which, the mystics believed, God reveals Godself in the world.
Weeks of the Omer
Week One: Chesed -- Generosity, Love, Compassion
Week Two: Gevurah -- Strength, Judgment, Discernment
Week Three: Tiferet -- Radiance, Harmony, Balance, Truth
Week Four: Netzach -- Eternity, Vision, Endurance
Week Five: Hod -- Presence, Gratitude
Week Six: Yesod -- Foundation, Connection
Week Seven: Malchut/Shechina -- Majesty, Divine Presence
On each of the 49 days, two of the qualities intersect with each other so that each day is unique.
The invitation is to count each day and, as we do, to meditate and reflect on the spiritual qualities. Week by week, day by day, let these qualities focus our attention, pose questions and challenge our perceptions.
The Israelites' journey took place in the vastness of the desert where they encountered their deepest fears and their most expansive visions. It was in that desert that they heard the Divine speak, instructing them how to live in relationship to themselves and all creation with awe, reverence and gratitude.
The Hebrew word for "desert wilderness" -- midbar -- is the same word for "speak," midaber. The mystics teach that when we leave our routines, habits and expectations and allow ourselves to go into the unknown -- to traverse the wilderness of mind and spirit -- we open ourselves to receive Divine guidance. "God midaber in the midbar." The Divine speaks in the wilderness. Our task is to open and to listen.
What follows is a guide for the journey.
Some of these offerings might speak to you deeply. Others will seem less relevant.
Pay attention to the stirrings of your own heart and the yearnings of your soul.
Take what is helpful and leave the rest.
May the Journey be for Blessing.
Rabbi Yael Levy is the founder of A Way In Jewish Mindfulness Center. Her book about the Omer is 'Journey Through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer.'