Counting Our Days

“Ima, how old am I today?”

My oldest son’s sixth birthday is coming soon. Recently, he has developed a near obsession with calculating exactly how old he is on a daily basis, practically down to the hour. Of course he is hardly unique. From our earliest years, we humans feel the compulsion to mark the passing of time, to define who we are by counting our years and months and days.

After all, how do we tell the story of ourselves? We do it by remembering times, by reliving eras, by noting the years.

How do we measure the quality of our lives? By judging each period of time — the hours, the days, God has given us on this earth. We find meaning in marking and counting the times we changed, the times we stayed the same, the times we moved and the times we remained.

And now is a new season of counting.

On the second night of Pesach, Jews around the world ushered in this season of day-marking. We began to count the Omer. For 49 consecutive days — starting from the second day of Pesach and ending, seven weeks later, at the holiday of Shavuot — we mark each day just after it begins. And we do so, not by evaluating it or by considering its quality. We simply note that it, that very day, has arrived.

There is some debate over the origins of this practice. Some scholars explain that the Omer counting refers to the days of an agricultural cycle that lasts seven weeks. Other sources teach that the Omer commemorates a more historical timeline: the “countdown” of days the biblical Israelites waited from their first moment of post-Exodus freedom to the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Whatever its origins, the practice of counting the Omer has taken on a life of its own in Jewish tradition. Meticulous laws detail just how the counting might best be done: ideally, it should be performed at night; it is recited with a particular formula; it is said with a blessing.

Why all the details? Why such formulaic precision? Attention to details always signals something important. Counting the Omer teaches us something significant about ourselves: By counting, we are marking time — setting aside a period of time for a very particular focus.

These days, we’re marking 49 nights and days. Why these seven weeks? The classical Bible commentator Ovadya Soforno understood this counting to be a form of prayer. In agricultural times and places, that meant that it was a time of praying for the success of crops. In these times, it means that we are entering a critical period — with a discernible beginning, middle and end — and by doing the counting, we are essentially reciting an ongoing prayer about this period. A prayer for success. A prayer for ongoing health. A prayer for sustenance for both body and soul.

This season of marking time is called sefirat ha-Omer. The word sapar (to count) is very similar to the word si-payr (to tell a story). In fact, this is true in both Hebrew and English. The act of counting is closely linked with the act of recounting, that is, of telling a story. By counting, we take the time to recount: to tell and thereby hear something over and over again, to mull it over in our minds. To change it from something we did, into a part of who we are.

In a matter of weeks, my son’s birthday will, God willing, have come and gone, the cake and candles and the presents becoming mere memories. But it won’t be long before the question comes again: “Ima, how old am I now?” And every time I help him figure it out, it will feel like a prayer, thanking God for the days he has had, and for the days still to come, and for the stories left to tell.

Shawn Fields-Meyer, of Los Angeles, is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands. She is instructor of liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.