OMER (Heb. עֹמֶר, lit. "sheaf"), an offering brought to the Temple on the 16th of Nisan and thus the name of the period between Passover and Shavuot.
The Bible (Lev. 23:9ff.) prescribes that "when you enter the land which I am giving to you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest… the priest shall wave it on the day after the sabbath." After the waving, a burnt offering together with a meal offering and a libation were made at the altar and after that had been done it was permissible to eat of the new harvest: "Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears." The exact meaning of "the day after the sabbath" in the biblical passage was a major point of controversy between the rabbis and the *Boethusians (Men. 65a–b) and, later, the *Karaites. The latter argued that the ceremony was to be performed on the day after the Sabbath immediately following the first day of Passover whereas the rabbis argued that in this context the word "sabbath" was to be understood not as the weekly Sabbath but as a
The rabbis, in the light of Exodus 16:36 – "The Omer is a tenth of an ephah" – interpreted the word as a measure of grain and also ruled that it was to be brought of barley only. The ephah was three se'ot and thus on the 16th of Nisan three se'ot of barley were reaped, brought to the Temple, ground and sifted, and of this, one tenth (the Omer) was "waved" by the priest. The Mishnah (Men. 10) describes the ritual in detail. It was celebrated with a great deal of ceremony and festivity in order to stress the opinion of the rabbis that the 16th of Nisan was the correct date. The ceremony, including the reaping, took place even if the 16th of Nisan was a Sabbath; one opinion has it that on a weekday five se'ot were reaped since after sifting only three would remain but that on a Sabbath only three were reaped so as to avoid unnecessary work (Men. 10:1). If the barley was ripe it was taken from the vicinity of Jerusalem; otherwise it could be brought from anywhere in Israel. It was reaped by three men, each with his own scythe and basket. The grain was then brought to the Temple where it was winnowed, parched, and ground into coarse flour. It was then sifted through 13 sieves and one tenth was given to the priest who mixed it with oil and frankincense for "a pleasing odor to the Lord" and "waved" it "before the Lord." This was done by the priest taking the offering on his outstretched hands and moving it from side to side and up and down. This ceremony was interpreted as a prayer to God to protect the harvest from injurious winds and other calamities (Men. 62a). After the waving ceremony a handful was burnt on the altar and the rest was eaten by the priests.
Counting the Omer
(Heb. סְפִירַת הָעֹמֶר, Sefirat ha-Omer). The injunction to count the 49 days from the 16th of Nisan until Shavuot is considered to be of Pentateuchal authority as long as the Omer itself was offered; thus at present time it is of rabbinic authority only. The 49 days themselves are commonly known as the sefirah.
The counting is preceded by a special benediction "… concerning the counting of the Omer." Since the Bible states that "You shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete" and "You must count… fifty days," the counting must mention both the number of days and the number of weeks (Men. 65b–66a). Hence the standard formula runs as follows: on the first day, "Today is the first day of the Omer"; on the eighth day, "Today is the eighth day, making one week and one day of the Omer," and so on. The time for the counting, which is to be done standing, is after the evening service, that is, when the new day begins (Sh. Ar., OḤ 489:1). One who forgets to count in the evening may count during the following day, without however reciting the blessing. He may then count again the same evening, using the blessing. But if he fails to count for one complete day, he is not permitted to resume the utterance of the blessing for the whole duration of the Omer (Sh. Ar., OḤ 489:7–8). And since the sole stipulation of the commandment is that the number of the particular day of the Omer is to be spoken aloud, one should avoid uttering it inadvertently once the time for counting has arrived; for example, if one has not yet counted and is asked what the number of the day is, one should reply by giving the number of the previous day (Sh. Ar., OḤ 489:4).
The kabbalists used the 49 days (7 × 7) to form permutations of various sefirot denoting the ascent out of the 49 "gates" of impurity of the Egyptian bondage to the purity of the revelation at Sinai. In many prayer books these combinations are printed at the side of each day listed. Because the days counted "must be complete" it has become customary not to recite the evening service for Shavuot until after nightfall of the 49th day, whereas for other festivals it is permissible to start some time before nightfall (see *Day and Night).
In order not to forget the count of the day it was fairly common practice to have an "Omer calendar" in the home with movable numbers on it. These "calendars" even developed into an art form and several early specimens show intricate work and lettering.
A Time of Mourning
From an unknown date during the talmudic period, the days of the Omer began to take on a character of semi-mourning; the solemnization of marriages was prohibited, then haircutting, and, later still, the use of musical instruments was banned. The mourning is normally associated with a plague said to have decimated the disciples of Rabbi kiva, who died "because they did not treat each other with respect" (Yev. 62b; cf. Sh. Ar., OḤ 493:1). But this reason for the mourning is among the many uncertainties connected with the Omer period and with *Lag ba-Omer, the minor festival celebrated on its 33rd day. The Talmud alludes to the plague, but makes no mention of any commemorative mourning. This is first recorded in the eighth century, when Neutrino Gone issued a responsum confirming both the practice of mourning and the accepted reason for it (Levin, Oẓar, Yevamot, 141). Subsequent codes and compilations of custom up to and including the Shulḥan Aruch (OḤ 493) cite this reference; and most, although not all (e.g., Toledot Adam ve-Ḥavvah, 5, 4; Abudraham ha-Shalem (1959), 245), presume that the custom did in fact originate with the death of Akiva's disciples. On the other hand, Maimonides' Mishneh Torah and the Ashkenazi Maḥzor Vitry appear unaware of its very existence.
The origin of Lag ba-Omer is likewise shrouded in mystery. It is not explicitly mentioned any earlier than the 13th century, when Meiri in his commentary to Yevamot (Beit ha-Beḥirah, Yev. 62b) described it as the day when, "according to a tradition
One school of thought sees the 33rd day of the Omer as the anniversary of the termination of the plague. The authority for this view derives from a Midrash, no longer extant, which was handed down by Joshua ibn Shu'aib in the 14th century, or possibly based on an unknown "Spanish manuscript" cited by Zerahiah b. Isaac ha-Levi of the 12th century (see Tur, OḤ 493). In place of reading "they died from Passover to Shavuot," this Midrash adds the word "pros," i.e., "they died from Passover until before (ad pros) Shavuot." Pros" is taken to mean 15 days before; and thus implies that the plague terminated a fortnight before Shavuot, and Lag ba-Omer is the anniversary of that day. Strictly speaking, however, 15 days before Shavuot would be the 34th day of the Omer, as indeed the Shulḥan Arukh concedes.
The present custom, then, must be attributed to a different calculation which is given by Isserles in his gloss to the Shulḥan Arukh. The explanation stems from a tosafot, also no longer extant, cited by Ibn Shu'aib and most fully elaborated on by Jacob b. Moses Moellin in the 15th century in his Sefer Maharil (1873), 21b. In this work, Lag ba-Omer appears not as an anniversary at all but as a symbol of the 33 weekdays that occur during the course of the 49 days of the Omer. After subtracting the days of Passover, and those of the Sabbath and of Rosh Ḥodesh, only 33 are left from the 49 in which mourning is permissible; this fact is symbolically observed by constituting the 33rd day as a minor festival. This second mode of interpretation gave rise to three divergent customs regarding the mourning period. Some communities observed it for the 33 days from Passover to Shavuot omitting the special days, others for the 33 between Passover and Lag ba-Omer, and others for the 33 from after Rosh Ḥodesh Iyyar to Shavuot excluding Lag ba-Omer itself. The kabbalists took an entirely different approach to the matter. As to sefirah days, they stressed the idea of spiritual preparation for Shavuot, the anniversary of the revelation on Mt. Sinai (Ḥemdat Yamim, 3, 41d). Lag ba-Omer itself marked the *hillula – the yahrzeit of *Simeon. b. Yoḥai, by tradition the author of the Zohar. It was either the day on which he was ordained by Rabbi Akiva, or when he emerged from the cave in Meron where he had been hiding from the Romans (Shab. 33b), or the day on which he died; and it is observed as a hillula – a festivity or a "wedding between heaven and earth." Hence the grand celebrations which take place at Meron (Zohar Idra Zutra, end of Ha'azinu). However, although the Zohar does speak of Simeon's death as a hillula, there is no recorded reference to its date earlier than that in Peri Eẓ Ḥayyim by Ḥayyim b. Joseph Vital (16/17th century; Sha'ar Sefirat ha-Omer, ch. 7).
While the celebrations at Meron excited enthusiasm among all sections of Jewish society and particularly from the kabbalists, they also provoked severe criticism. R. Moses *Sofer of Pressburg (d. 1839), after opposing the popular observance of lighting bonfires and questioning all of the reasons given above for the observance of Lag ba-Omer, offered his own explanation for the holiday. Lag ba-Omer is the day when manna began to fall in the wilderness (Resp. Ḥatam Sofer, YD 236). Since, however, the Talmud (Shab. 87b) and the Sefer Olam calculate that this happened two days earlier, there is, in the last resort, no unassailable determination of what actually took place on Lag ba-Omer; the only definite tradition is that the day is a holiday.
It has for a long time been considered–Nachman Krochmal (d. 1840) being the most notable to express this view–that the cryptic reference in the Talmud to the disciples of R. Akiva and their mysterious death is in fact a veiled report of the defeat of "Akiva's soldiers" in the war with Rome (cf. Maimonides, Yad Melakhim 11:3; probably based on TJ, Ta'an. 4:5). As a result, a variety of new theories have arisen among modern writers as to the origin of Lag ba-Omer. R. Isaac Nissenbaum of Warsaw, author of several books on religious Zionism, suggested that Lag ba-Omer is the anniversary of some great but brief triumph by the Judeans in their forlorn war with the Romans–possibly the recapture of Jerusalem, for which special coins were struck (Hagut Lev (1911), 181). Y.T. Levinsky, in Sefer ha-Mo'adim (1955), 340–2, pursues this line further; he cites Josephus (Wars 2:402ff.) as authority for the fact that a Judean uprising commenced in 66 C.E. in the days of the procurator Florus. At the same time he concurs with the tradition associating the victory on Lag ba-Omer with Bar Kokhba 70 years later, as well as with the story that Julius Serverus' campaign against the insurrectionist Judeans was most severe during the period between Passover and Shavuot.
Eliezer Levi (Yesodot ha-Tefillah (1952), 232) advanced a hypothesis endeavoring to resolve another problem sensed by earlier writers; namely why we should mourn for the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, since they died as a punishment for their unseemly conduct? In view of the veiled references to the war with the Romans, he suggests, the judgment of the Talmud is to be understood not as condemning Akiva's disciples and their lack of respect for one another, but on the contrary as praising their dedication and teamwork. On the other hand, it may be that the phrases in the Talmud are to be understood in their literal sense: "Akiva's soldiers" were defeated due to a lack of coordination and unified command (see Panim el Panim, no. 574, May 22, 1970). The earlier traditions surrounding Bar Yoḥai's connection with Lag ba-Omer are entirely in accord with these theories, and one might then draw up a summary or composite theory in the following vein: Bar Kokhba's (i.e., Akiva's) men suffered an overwhelming defeat during the weeks between Passover and Shavuot; on the 33rd day of the Omer they enjoyed an important, though brief, change of fortune; and on this day Bar Yoḥai, one of the leading fighters in the uprising, either emerged from hiding in Meron, or lost his life in securing the victory.
Extra-rabbinic sources do not help to clarify the matter. Some students of folklore trace the mournful nature of the days of the sefirah to the Roman superstition against marriages in May. The fullest statement of this theory was made in the 19th century by Julius Landsberger of Darmstadt (see bibl.). The author cites Ovid (Fast 5: 419ff.), who explains that the Romans did not solemnize marriages in May due to the fact that this was the month of the Lemuria when the souls of the departed returned to wander over the earth and disturb the peace of the living. Funeral rites (Lemuria) were held to appease the spirits, and no Roman maiden would jeopardize her happiness by marrying during a month associated with funeral ceremonies. According to Landsberger, the Roman superstition was adopted by the Jews, who subsequently lost all recollection of its origin and found a new rationale for it in the tragedy of Akiva's disciples. Landsberger's theory leaves many questions unanswered. It does not explain why there is a ban on haircutting during the Omer as well as on marriage, or why the custom prevailed in geonic countries. But it does, however, offer an ingenious explanation of the origin of Lag ba-Omer. Among the Romans, the period of superstitious fear lasted for 32 days starting from Walpurgis Night (the last night of April) and continuing throughout the 31 days of May. In commemoration of this period of 32 days, its conclusion on the 33rd day was celebrated as a festival.
Theodor H. Gaster (Festivals of the Jewish Year (1953), 52) suggests that Lag ba-Omer, especially with its custom of children going forth with bows and arrows, is a Jewish version of the English and German custom of shooting arrows at demons on May day, i.e., the day after Walpurgis Night. In the view of Joseph Naphtali Derenbourg (in REJ, 29 (1894), 149), Lag ba-Omer is a day in the middle of the sefirah period when mourning is to be relaxed, comparable to mi-carême observed midway during Lent. There were 34 (twice 17) bad days during the sefirah; a respite was needed and the first day of the second half was chosen. J. Morgenstern (in: HUCA, 39 (1968), 81–90) points out that the date of Lag ba-Omer is the approximate midpoint of the 49-day period for those dissidents who begin their Omer offering the day after Passover. L.H. Silberman (see bibl.) following H. Grimme, regards the day as commemorating an anniversary celebrated in honor of Marduk; and Gustav Dalman conjectured that it may have marked the first day of summer between the 13th and 25th of May, which was distinguished by the early rising of the Pleiades (cf. RH 11b).
Later Events During the Omer
If the origins of the mourning during the sefirah period remain obscure, more identifiable subsequent events add justification for its observance today. According to 13th-century authorities, the melancholy of the season was in remembrance of the victims of the Crusades in the Rhineland in 1096 and 1146 (Sefer Minhag Tov, Sefer Asufot). These Crusades are recollected in piyyutim of lament during the Sabbaths of the sefirah, together with mention of another series of massacres that took place in the springtime, i.e., those perpetrated in 1648–49 by the Cossacks and the Poles. Later and modern sources, such as the siddur of Jacob Emden and the Arukh ha-Shulḥan (OḤ 493:1) include these together with the earlier events. And in J. Vainstein's Cycle of the Jewish Year (1953), 131–2, the revolt of the ghettos against the Nazis in the month of Nisan is included in the discussion of the sefirah and mention is made of the Knesset's decision to fix the 27th of that month as a memorial day for the victims. On the other hand, Israel Independence Day (5th of Iyyar) has the status of a half-holiday, and has been included among the days on which mourning restrictions are suspended (Resp. Kol Mevasser pt. 1, no. 21).
S. Goren, Torat ha-Mo'adim (1964), 346–58; J. Landsberger, in: JZWL, 7 (1869), 81–96; L.H. Silberman, in: HUCA, 22 (1949), 221–37; J. Morgenstern, in: HUCA, 39 (1968), 81–90; D.M. Feldman, in: Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly (1962), 201–24; E. Munk, World of Prayer, 2 (1963), 137–42; S.Y. Zevin, Ha-Mo'adim ba-Halakhah (196310), 292–304.
[David M. Feldman]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.