Counting the What?
On the second night of Passover, many Jews around the world ended their zeders by starting to count the omer.
Where to start with this kinda strange, not very well-known Jewish tradition? I know a little bit, and the rest I'm figuring out as I write this. We count 49 days, or 7 weeks, or a week of weeks, from Passover until Shavuot. That's all I've got, where leaves a lot of questions like anything good and Jewish does. First, WHY? Second, did the math just work out like that? Or did they* do that on purpose?
I started by going to the collection of haggadot on my bookshelf (yes, I have a small collection of haggadot and they were pretty helpful and insightful). Three of the haggadot didn't have anything about the omer, one had the blessing but no explanation, and three were great! Just like rituals in most cultures and religions, there is symbolism in the holidays and the transition from one to the next. Passover is a holiday of freedom and signifies when we left Egypt. If you remember from the seder, we are supposed to experience the holiday as though each of us was freed from slavery, so we'll be using the royal we here. Shavuot is all about receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. So the time between the holidays is like the FORTY-NINE days that the Jews spent in the desert between the Exodus from Egypt and receiving the Torah at Sinai. Well...that answers one question. This is also probably the most straight forward part, because it says in the Torah, "And from the day on which you bring the offering . . . you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete." (Leviticus (23:15-16) And don't we all count down to things we're excited about? I've even used apps to help me keep track of how many days until my birthday, until I get to see my best friend, or until a vacation. So why wouldn't we also count up until the holiday that commemorates receiving the Torah??
Now that we know about the timing...what the heck is an omer?! Omer means sheaf, like a sheaf of wheat, and was also a certain measure of wheat. Weird, but fine. What does the time between Passover and Shavuot have to do with wheat? Many Jewish holidays and traditions were originally based on agriculture and the calendar of crops. In the days of The Temple in Jerusalem, we brought offerings from the new crops. Passover marked the beginning of the barley harvest and Shavuot was the beginning of the wheat harvest. So that's counting and omer...but there's some holiday in the middle?
Wait! Before we get to that it's important to know about some rituals and traditions for how to act during the omer. These 49 days are considered a time of semi-mourning, which seems odd given that it comes between two big celebrations — freedom and Torah. Here's where it gets strange. Traditionally, the reason for these practices—not listening to live music, not cutting your hair or shaving, not having weddings or other big celebrations—is because of a plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students. Plague? No cutting hair? No concerts? Sounds familiar. These 24,000 men died during the omer, during the days between Passover and Shavuot. The plague is said to have been lifted on the 33rd day of the omer.
Okay. Now we get to the holiday in the middle. Between Passover and Shavuot, on the 33rd day of the omer (because I know you've been counting) is something called Lag B'Omer. Like a few other Jewish holidays, the name comes from something called gematria, which basically assigns each letter in the aleph-bet to a number. Lamed is 30 and gimel is 3. The two together are Lag, hence Lag B'Omer! So on this day, we have a nice break from the semi-mourning that we may or may not have been doing and have a big party! Lots of people get married, young boys often get their first hair cuts on Lag B'omer, and there's almost always a bonfire. For the bonfire part, I found four or five different explanations all of which boil down to: it's a celebratory custom and it's not required or part of Jewish law.
So let's light it up, grill out, shave those quarantine beards, and maybe hold off on bangs until you can safely go to a salon. And in 16 short days later we'll be celebrating Shavuot with cheesecake and blintzes galore...and maybe some lactaid!
*not really sure who "they" is—God? The ancient rabbis? The questions just keep comin'!