From barley to holiness in 49 days

We have a tendency in the Jewish world to jump very quickly to the meaning of things. A good example is the tradition of counting the Omer, the 49 days from Passover to Shavuot. This odd ritual is loaded with symbolic meaning. You can read many commentaries on how the 49 days are a period of spiritual preparation for the awesome experience of receiving the Torah on Shavuot, how each day represents an opportunity to repair our impurities, and so forth.

But while I do enjoy the jump from ritual to meaning, there’s also something to be said for the value of a story itself. Where does this unusual ritual come from? And what can it tell us about our people and our tradition?

It turns out it all started with a little barley.

The Jews were very much a people of agriculture during biblical times. Their Whole Foods was really whole foods. Their ability to work the land, especially for the making of bread, was a matter of holiness and survival. It was an elaborate process: Oxen helped plow the land, seeds were sown by hand, grain was reaped with a sickle and brought to a threshing floor, where it was ground and then winnowed of debris, and so on until a beautiful loaf of bread was born.

There was a sense of miracle about all this. Our ancestors were intimately aware that growing food could never happen without the raw gifts from God, from rain and earth and wind, to the sun, fire and animals. Finding ways of thanking God was a dominant theme of the time, and bringing sacrifices to the Temple was one of the holier ways. It’s not well known that many of these sacrifices did not involve animals but agricultural produce.

The tradition at harvest times was to bring as an offering a part of that harvest. Each Jewish farmer, for example, was required to bring to the Holy Temple the first of each fruit that ripened on his farm.

Which brings us back to barley, the crop harvested at Passover at the beginning of the harvest season. To show gratitude to God and pray for continued blessings, on the second day of Passover, our ancestors would bring an omer (“sheaf”) of barley to the Holy Temple.

Forty-nine days later, on Shavuot, the kohanim (priests) would bring two loaves of bread as an offering to God. These loaves came from wheat, which was considered a higher-grade crop than barley. One interpretation for the ritual of counting the 49 days is that it was a way of ascending from the humble barley crop to the majestic loaf of bread.

It makes sense, then, that Shavuot would be the time to celebrate the receiving of the Torah. The Torah is God’s ultimate gift to our people — the spiritual loaf of bread that has kept us nourished for millennia.

The Jews were very much a people of agriculture during Biblical times. Their Whole Foods was really whole foods.

The power of this gift is not just that it is full of fascinating stories and moral ideas,  but that these stories and ideas are embodied in concrete rituals that keep us connected to God and our ancestors.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the Jews were faced with perhaps their greatest challenge: How do you continue a tradition of rituals without the physical structure upon which so many of these rituals revolved?

How do you suddenly shift to a new way of thanking God after doing it the same way for centuries? And who decides on this new paradigm?

The sages of the Talmud did. It was the centuries of talmudic debate and argument that created Judaism 2.0 and enabled the tradition to survive without its physical core.

One of the ways we bring offerings to God in our days is through prayers and the recitation of blessings. It’s not the same, of course, as bringing a sheaf of barley to a magnificent structure in Jerusalem, but that’s not the point.

The point is this: Holy Temple or not, can we still strive for holiness? And can we honor the rituals that help us strive for that holiness?

Finding personal meaning when we practice the rituals is one way to honor them. Another is to delve into the stories in which these rituals are rooted.

I love seeing how far our ancestors went to honor God. I love imagining the elaborate process they went through as they trekked from the fields to the Temple to thank their Creator for the simple miracle of barley.

And I especially love that a few thousand years later, we’re still talking about it.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at




Hike Griffith Park and relax in Amir’s Garden ( with the young professionals of Valley Ruach. A barbecue and picnic with kosher and veggie hot dogs and salads follows. Wear sturdy and comfortable shoes, sunscreen and a hat. The easy hike lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. Sun. 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. $4 (members), $6 (general). Meets at: Mineral Wells Picnic Area, Griffith Park Drive (near Harding Golf Course), Los Angeles. (818) 835-2139.


JConnectLA and Jewlicious invite 20- and 30-somethings to their annual Lag b’omer party at Dockweiler State Beach. Bonfires, music and games rage along the shoreline. Make sure to bring to bring guitars, tambourines or bongos to take part in jam sessions.  Last year, 600 people turned out. Don’t forget to bring a coat. Sinai Temple’s AtidLA participates. Wed. 6-10 p.m. Free. Dockweiler State Beach, 12501 Vista Del Mar, Playa del Rey. (310) 277-5544.


Orthodox singer Lipa Schmeltzer blends music and comedy; the Cheder Menachem Boys Choir and a juggler perform, and The Jewish Journal’s David Suissa and Rabbi Shlomo Cunin of Chabad-Lubavitch of California speak. Hebrew Academy Huntington Beach, Conejo Jewish Day School, Cheder Menachem, Bais Chaya Mushka Chabad, Congregation Kol Yakov Yehuda and others attend. Organized by Chabad Youth Programs. Thu. 11 a.m.-1 p.m. $18 (general, advance), $25 (general), $54 (premium seating, advance), $75 (premium). Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (424) 242-2239.

Juggling sensation Josh Horton infuses his show with comedy and audience participation at tonight’s Lag B’omer celebration.  Plus, a moon-bounce, music, bonfire and roasted marshmallows please all ages. Thu. 5:30 p.m. $10 (adults), $5 (children, 13 and under). Chabad of Calabasas, 3871 Old Topanga Canyon Road, Calabasas. (818) 222-3838.

7:00 pm
Dockweiler State Beach
Playa Del Rey between lifeguard stations 52 & 53
Join Rabbi Naomi Levy and members of the Nashuva Band for a nighttime bonfire, kosher hot dogs, fresh homemade hummous, S’mores and the traditional (for Nashuva anyway) bubbling kettle of fresh, sweet mint tea.  Every one of all ages is welcome!  We’ll have a drumming circle and plenty of singing. For more information see  There is no cost, but please RSVP at  Bring a blanket and dress warmly.

VideoJew gets shaved

For the record, I didn’t grow a beard for this video. I did it for God.

But in keeping the Omer tradition, I realized this was a tremendous opportunity to
educate the world about the promises and immense potential of a truly
rewarding Lag B’Omer.

But before I really develop that thought, here’s ” title=”Wikipedia entry”>Lag B’Omer (in English is translated to the 33rd of the Omer

While the majority of Lag B’Omer could be spent at parties, weddings or
concerts, when you¹ve been growing hair on your face for over a month, its
removal becomes the utmost priority.

As you can see from the video, I’m a new person without all the hair. I feel
” title=”greatest VideoJew videos”>VideoJew Jay Firestone

Make Days Count

When I was in my early 30s I joined a havurah, a group of professionals seeking a deeper Jewish involvement. And during this time of year, just after Passover, we didn’t know what to do with the counting of the Omer. How could we make it relevant and purposeful?

We studied the commandment of counting 49 days from the second night of Passover until the night before Shavuot, which is featured in week’s Torah portion. The mitzvah reflects the agrarian society that existed during the time of the Bible. Passover was the beginning of the barley harvest, and the ancient Israelites were told to bring an “omer,” literally a “sheaf of grain,” as a sacrifice, a giving back to God, in gratitude for a successful harvest.

After seven weeks, the holiday of Shavuot was celebrated and the bikkurim, the first fruits of the next harvest, the wheat harvest, were brought as another sacrifice of gratitude to the ancient Temple.

An interesting lesson in ancient biblical culture, but what could a group from the Upper West Side do to make this commandment meaningful in the middle of New York City?

Someone suggested that we get together and do our counting each time at different locations. One night would be on top of the Empire State Building, another night would be in Central Park, and a third night would be alongside the Hudson River and so on. This made our counting an exciting, new adventure. It was creative, fun and gave us a chance to socialize. The Sefirat Ha’Omer has never been the same for me since.

Yet, there is an important lesson that stayed with me. The rabbis teach that we count our days to make every day count. Instead of just doing a rote counting, we created opportunities for us to feel alive and full of new spirit.

The challenge is for each of us to create this feeling even when we are counting the Omer at night in our homes. We can move past the agricultural connection and remember our religious history, which states that the counting of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot was the opportunity to prepare to “receive” the Torah, like the ancient Israelites, as if for the first time.

According to kabbalah, we can link each of the 49 days to the seven sefirot, specific aspects of God, which reflect various character traits. Following this profound system each day is an exciting opportunity to explore one aspect of our personality and consider the potential for change and spiritual growth. Each day is unique and what we learn about ourselves can be an unexpected surprise.

We do not bring sheaves of barley when we count the omer in modern times, but we remember that every sheaf brought to the Temple was unique. Like snowflakes and flowers, no two sheaves were ever alike. Each day that the measurement, the omer of barley, was brought, was special, fresh and new.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman notes that there is an important parallel between the uniqueness of barley and the words of Torah. As we prepare to receive the Torah on Shavuot, we exclaim how each encounter we have with Torah is unique and creative just like nature itself. Hoffman quotes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who thought of the universe as a river, holding that everything is in such a flux that nothing is ever repeated, which is to say we “never step in the same river twice.”

We do not have to go to the top of the Empire State Building to have an adventure. Counting the omer with the kabbalistic system reminds us we never step in the same river twice. Each night is an adventure as we explore hidden aspects of our personalities and revel in the awareness of our unique selves. The counting of the omer reminds us that we count.

Toba August, rabbi of Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles, can be reached at


Over Mourning

It used to be that when I wanted to throw a party, attend a rock concert, go for a swim or even take a haircut, I stopped myself and thought: Wait. Can I do this? What month is it? Am I allowed to celebrate? Or is it a Jewish mourning period?

Jews have many mourning periods. Each one is unique and has its own special prohibitions. During the seven weeks between the second day of Passover and Shavuot — when we count down the 49 days of the Omer — we commemorate the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students. For at least 33 of those 49 days we don’t listen to music, have weddings or other Jewish life celebrations, cut our hair or even shave our beards (this last one is not a problem for me).

Then there is the current mourning period, "The Three Weeks," between the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and the fast of the Ninth of Av (Tisha B’av, which begins at sundown on July 26), when we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. During this three-week period — and especially the last nine days, which this year begin on Sunday night — the Omer prohibitions primarily apply, plus the proscription against engaging in potentially life-threatening activities, such as swimming, boating and plane trips.

In addition to the aforementioned 10 weeks, we celebrate six fast days, two remembrance days (for Israel’s fallen soldiers and for the 6 million Holocaust victims), 10 Days of Awe (between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) and a whole month of solemnity in Elul, the final month of the Hebrew calendar, when we engage in repentance in preparation for Judgment Day.

No wonder why I was always afraid to throw a party. The Jewish calendar is replete with prohibitive periods. Why so much mourning? Are we, the Jewish people, obsessed with sadness?

These are not questions of the nonbeliever. Perhaps it was these questions that actually caused the first rift in my belief. During the Omer, the Three Weeks, the fast days, I began to wonder: Why do we have to mourn, what can I not do, and for whom am I doing this? What is the reason for sadness during what should have been a period of joyful anticipation? The death of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students, who lived 1,850 years ago in the Roman-dominated Land of Israel, seemed too distant to commemorate meaningfully for the seven weeks. But maybe that was my failure as a religious Jew: the inability to connect with our disastrous history and to "view yourself as if you yourself left Egypt," as we say on Passover. We also say it about Shavuot — that every Jew, you and I — were at Mount Sinai, receiving the Torah.

Jews have old souls. Instead of the "original sin" the Christians carry, we seem to carry the "original sadness." We remember every tragedy, from the slavery in Egypt to the Spanish Inquisition to the pogroms to the Holocaust to the current deaths in the State of Israel.

Even our happy days are tinged with sadness: Purim, when we were saved from Haman’s evil decree, is preceded by the Fast of Esther, to commemorate her three days of prayer before King Antiochus. Even at a Jewish wedding — what is supposed to be the happiest time in a couple’s life, the culmination of every parent’s dream! — we break the glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple. Our historical sadness leaves almost no joyous occasion unscathed. (Maybe the bar mitzvah is unmarked by a sad ceremony, but the out-of-pocket expense alone is enough to kill you.)

Why do Jews mourn so much? Is this what it means to be the Chosen People? I’m sure there are many great thinkers who could answer this question, but their pat apologia can be summed up by a Tevye-like character who answers the question with a question of his own: "So, nu, wouldn’t you mourn, too, if you had our history?"

But I wonder. I wonder if we’ve grown accustomed to sadness, to negativity, to looking at our defeats rather than our victories, to remembering what we don’t have (the Messiah, coexistence with our Arab neighbors, the end of anti-Semitism), rather than what we do (our own country, economic prosperity, continual survival)? Are we afraid to celebrate, to rejoice, to enjoy, because we think it will bring about the evil eye and the end?

Have we become so attuned to all the bad things that happened to us, that we can’t see the good things that have happened to us, and the bad things that have happened to other peoples? Is it possible to reverse this type of negative thinking, of the expect-the-worst-and-"Look!-I-told-you-so" nature of the Jewish people? Are we forever victims because we are historically trained to believe so?

The creation of the State of Israel marked the first modern turnaround in negative/victim mentality (Jews have had other periods of strength, from the Bar Kochba rebellion, which we celebrate on Lag B’omer, to the Warsaw rebellion in the Holocaust). Israelis shunned the image of the poor defeated Jew and created an image of the strong Jew. American Jews, too, enjoy a success heretofore unknown for the stiff-necked people.

But today, many of us feel threatened. Many Jews resort to the age-old reasoning, "Well, a Jew can never be safe, never count on a foreign power," they say when confronted with a resurgence of anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism. "What do you expect from the non-Jews? We are always persecuted," they say with the sigh of an old soul.

I’d like to think differently. I’d like to think positively. We Jews are doing better than ever. We have a few things going wrong, it’s true, but can’t we think with our positive hearts, from our position of strength, not of victimhood? Can’t we view what’s wrong as aberrations, not as fulfilled expectations?

Lag B’Omer

OK. Now what’s an omer?

It is a unit of
measure — like a pound or a kilo. That is how sheaves of barley were measured. The Israelites were commanded to bring an omer of barley to the Temple on the second day of Passover. If you don’t believe me, read this week’s Torah portion, Emor. It says it right there. Then they were supposed to count 49 days from that day, until Shavuot. Lag B’Omer falls on the 33rd day of the counting of the omer. Get it?

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.