Counting the Omer/Measuring Freedom

Yesterday was Lag B’Omer, a special day in the Jewish calendar. I posted this on Lag B’Omer four years ago and am re-posting with updates.

Most devoted Jews have particular aspects of Jewish practice — rituals, holidays, customs etc. — that particularly resonate with them. Many love the tradition of cleaning the house before Pesach as a symbol of renewal and change. Others are dedicated to sitting the Sukkah, as a reminder of the impermanence of all that people have built — as Koheleth tells us “All is vanity.”

For me it is the Omer, the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. Pesach, which celebrates the exodus from Egypt, symbolizes freedom. Shavuot remembers the giving of the Torah, the great Revelation of Sinai. Freedom comes with choices. The Torah is the guidebook to life, how to best use freedom. The challenge of balancing freedom and responsibility is a — if not the — great challenge to human societies and politics and thus an area of fascination to me.

The period of the Omer connects these two concepts by counting. Starting the second night of Pesach, one counts:

Tonight is the first night of the Omer… Tonight is the second night of the Omer… And so forth up until 49 and then it is Shavuot.

So the Jewish people connect freedom and responsibility by counting. The Greeks say man is a speaking animal, but logos — the word for speech — also means thinking. Adam named the animals, Noah counted them. Speech and counting go hand in hand. Humans would be severely constrained if they had one ability, but not the other.

Just as words have power (my own Bar Mitzvah portion, the story of Balaam and his talking donkey, is one example in Jewish lore as well as highlighting the deep Jewish abhorrence of and temptation to gossip) so do numbers. Seven is viewed as significant and the Omer is counted to 49 — seven sevens. Omer is counted to 49 — seven sevens. Shavuot means Feast of Weeks.

Omer, the period of counting means “measure.” Measure can be more then strictly numerical, it can refer to proportion, that is what to what. These concepts are essential to commerce, science, and rule of law. Consider the difficulty of voting without counting.

A final, unrelated observation, Omer refers to a measure of grain. Pesach celebrates spring and Shavuot is the first fruits. It is also an agricultural festival. Modern statistics was developed in great part hand in hand with agricultural research. Advancements in statistics helped spark the relative bounty of food in today’s world, as well as contributing to enormous improvements in public health and many other fields.

Today, as I write this, it is Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, a minor festival. In other interpretations the Omer is also a period of mourning and the 33rd day is a break (or an end depending on which Rabbi is consulted — two Jews, three opinions, count ‘em). Mourning too must be kept in proportion, thus we count and we get a break.

This year, my wife got me a traditional Omer counter (sort of a pre-electronic app for following the tradition. Because what’s a hobby without some gear!

34th Day Update: I neglected to mention the obvious. Counting the omer counts time. Of all of the things it is important to count, perhaps nothing is more significant than time. This capability underpins modern society. It also has deeper implications. Humanity — with our opposable thumbs and big brains — has become adept at manipulating space. But time is beyond our control. A fundamental theme of Judaism and its practice is coming to terms with time.

In the words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (from his The Sabbath):

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Originally published at on May 27, 2016.

AAAS Policy Fellow, formerly @UMIACS (specializing in international security), did a PhD on vice presidents, interested in a lot of stuff

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