Spring in Israel
Every year between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot religious Jews do a strange ritual of counting every night. The ‘counting of the Omer’ starts the night after Passover and ends the night before Shavuot. But what is an ‘Omer’ and why do we count them? Why this time of year? And what is the connection to what you see around you all over Israel this time of year? And what do Jews do today to commemorate and practice this commandment?
Barley and the Fertile Crescent
The ‘Omer’ is a biblical measurement equal to 2.3 quarts or 2.2 liters. One ‘omer’ was the amount of freshly harvested barley that would be brought as a sacrifice in the Temple at the beginning and again at the end of this period. If you travel around Israel in the Spring months around April-May, there is picture perfect, dry barley everywhere. Israel is part of the Fertile Crescent, an area full of life but surrounded by desert. This is where grains, notably barley and wheat were first cultivated. This is where bread was invented. And this is the place where grains have served as the staple food longer than anywhere else in the world.
Counting the Omer
So it should be no surprise that the barley harvest is celebrated with a special sacrifice. But what is ‘counting the Omer?’ Passover celebrates the Jews escaping from slavery in Egypt. Shavuot 50 days later celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish People on mount Sinai. Some rabbinic commentaries discuss the counting up from Passover to Shavuot as a way of building up to the giving of the Torah, hopefully with growing excitement and anticipation. Others talk about a need to stress the connection between the two holidays, that the exodus from Egypt was for the purpose of receiving the Torah.
Barley grows wild in empty fields, unkempt front yards, in cracks in the sidewalk and in planted fields all over the country. Now that you know about barley in Israel, you’ll notice it everywhere!