Counting the Days
On the sidebar of our website you can see that we are “Counting the Omer.” Last week I talked about Passover, and now that it is over I figured I could continue by talking a little bit about the meaning of this time that we have transitioned into.
What is “Counting the Omer”?
The first Scripture where this period of time is mentioned is in Leviticus 23:15-16. Following the instructions regarding how to celebrate Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Firstfruits, we read, “You shall also count for yourselves from the day after the sabbath, from the day when you brought in the sheaf of the wave offering; there shall be seven complete sabbaths. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath; then you shall present a new grain offering to the LORD.”
A question naturally arises when we read this command: which sabbath are we supposed to be counting from? Does “sabbath” here mean the weekly sabbath, the seventh day of the week? Or does it mean one of the days in Unleavened Bread which are days of rest, or “sabbaths” (Leviticus 23:7)? We find no help by looking to the other Scriptural reference to this period of counting: “You shall count seven weeks for yourself; you shall begin to count seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain. Then you shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks to the LORD your God with a tribute of a freewill offering of your hand, which you shall give just as the LORD your God blesses you” (Deuteronomy 16:9-10). These two verses are even less specific than those in Leviticus 23! All they tell us is that seven weeks are to be counted from the grain harvest, but doesn’t give any specific date.
There are, in fact, four possibilities as to which sabbath Leviticus 23:15 is referring to. It could be the first day of Unleavened Bread or the last day of Unleavened Bread, both of which are referred to as “holy convocations” on which Israel is commanded to rest; or it could be the weekly, seventh-day sabbath following either of these convocations. It is interesting that each one of these four possibilities has been practiced in different Jewish sects. Karaite Jews believe it is the weekly sabbath following the first day of Unleavened Bread, and so they begin counting on the first day of the week following this. The Essenes and Sadducees believed it was the weekly sabbath following the last day of Unleavened Bread, and thus they began counting the omer on the first day of the week following this. This is also the current practice of the Samaritans. The Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) consider this sabbath to be the last day of Unleavened Bread, and so they begin counting on the day after Unleavened Bread ends. Finally, we have the mainstream view that is practiced by modern Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Jews as inherited from the Pharisees. It is also attested to historically by Philo, Josephus, and the Targums. This view takes the sabbath in Leviticus 23:15 to be the first day of Unleavened Bread, and thus the period of counting begins on the second day of Unleavened Bread. For more information on these four views, you can read this informative article, When Does Counting the Omer Begin?.
Another question that arises is, what are we counting to? The former question, regarding when to start counting, was an important one to answer because it determined on what date the next holiday, the Feast of Weeks, should be celebrated fifty days later. You may have heard the Hebrew name Shavuot used to refer to this holiday. Shavuot simply means “weeks.” If you are attentive you will not be surprised to hear that the reason it is called the Feast of Weeks is because it takes place seven weeks after the firstfruits offering, on the fiftieth day. If you are coming from a Christian context, you may know this holiday by the name Pentecost. “Pentecost” is from the Greek word meaning “fiftieth.” In the Septuagint this word is used in a non-technical way simply as a number, for example in Leviticus 25:10 when it talks about the fiftieth year. The word translated as “Pentecost” doesn’t appear to be associated specifically with Shavuot until some of the Deuterocanonical writings. Prior to the writing of the New Testament, the word Pentecost is used in 2 Maccabees 12:32 to refer to the Feast of Weeks: “After the festival called Pentecost, they hurried against Gorgias, the governor of Idumea.” And the Book of Tobit 2:1 does likewise: “At our festival of Pentecost, which is the sacred festival of weeks, a good dinner was prepared for me and I reclined to eat.” Of course, the term has entered our vocabulary from Acts 2:1, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.”
So much for the counting. Now, why is this period called the Counting of the Omer? What is an omer?
An omer was a unit of dry measurement. An omer of manna was sufficient for one day’s portion of food for the children of Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 16:16). The Jewish Study Bible says that one omer is equivalent to about 2.1 quarts in modern measurements. In Leviticus 23, we saw that the countdown begins on the day after the sabbath when the offering was brought. This offering consisted of, as you can probably guess, one omer of the firstfruits. Most translations of Leviticus 23:11 say, “And he shall wave the sheaf” (thus also in 23:15), but in Hebrew the word translated as “sheaf” is omer. Thus, this time is called the Counting of the Omer because we begin counting to Shavuot from the omer offering.
What it Means
The Torah doesn’t give any reason for why these days are to be counted. The reasoning of the rabbis is that it serves as a way of spiritually preparing for the revelation at Mt. Sinai, which took place on Shavuot. Exodus 19:1 says, “In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.” This is interpreted as “on the first day of the third month.” Then we must account for the time Moses spent travelling up and down the mountain to speak with God in preparation for the giving of the commands, and finally God says that the people are to be consecrated for a period of two days in preparation, and on the third day of consecration God will finally reveal Himself and give the Torah. Adding all of this up, the rabbis reasoned that God gave the Torah on the 6th of Sivan, that is, Shavuot, fifty days after the omer offering. If this is the case, then the Counting of the Omer serves to connect Passover with Shavuot, redemption with the giving of the Torah. After bringing His people out of their slavery, He gives them commands to follow and reveals Himself to them in a more relational way. The covenant at Sinai has been compared to a marriage covenant, and thus the Counting of the Omer represents this time of preparation for the wedding.
It is a time of anticipation. When we are really excited about some future event, we are naturally more aware of the time which separates us from that future point. Sometimes this is unintentional, like when we are anxiously waiting for something to be over. We stare at the clock, counting every second/minute/hour in the hope that the time will move faster (it doesn’t). Other times we intentionally focus on the time that separates us from the event in order to increase the drama of the experience and the gratification once it finally is fulfilled, for example, children counting down the days until their birthday arrives, or adults counting down the seconds to New Year’s Eve. This is the idea behind the Counting of the Omer. It’s supposed to be a reminder of that initial period of anticipation when Israel was in between Egypt and Mt. Sinai.
Another Jewish tradition is based on this chronology of 50 days from redemption to Sinai. This tradition teaches that when Israel left Egypt, they were on the 49th lowest level of spiritual impurity. By the time they reached Sinai, they were at the 49th level of holiness. The idea is that not only did God redeem Israel bodily from Egypt, but he also redeemed them spiritually and helped them to reform the old sins they had picked up in Egypt. Thus, one traditional practice is to use this period of seven weeks to focus on spiritual self-improvement and growing closer to God.
Once we understand this period through Yeshua, it takes on new significance. We know that Yeshua was crucified on the 14th of Nisan and He resurrected on the Feast of Firstfruits, the same Firstfruits when the omer offering was given. Thus, He is surely the firstfruits from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20). Just as there was fifty days between the redemption from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, so too there were fifty days between the resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, that is, on Shavuot (Acts 2:1).
Celebrating the events of the resurrection and the baptism in the Spirit at Pentecost both became associated with holidays in Christianity, but the correct days and the practice of counting between them was lost. If you decide you want to revitalize this practice in your own faith, what value and meaning can it have in Yeshua?
We see that during this period between Resurrection and Pentecost, Yeshua spent time with His disciples and taught them about His Kingdom: “To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). We could use this time to really reflect on the resurrection appearances and the teachings about the Kingdom that Yeshua taught.
After Yeshua’s ascension on the fortieth day of the Omer, we see that the disciples gathered together to pray: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Just like the Israelites when they were preparing for Sinai, so too the disciples were consecrating themselves in preparation for the revelation of God. In the same way, we could likewise use this time to devote ourselves to prayer leading up to Pentecost, asking God to fill us up again with His Spirit and give a fresh outpouring so that we can be empowered to do His will.
In Israel this was a time of harvest and offering of firstfruits, and we too can devote our attention to the fruit of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). We could spend this seven week period focusing specifically on these spiritual traits and allowing God to work in us so that we demonstrate these qualities in abundance.
You can check out our other resources here on our website. We have other articles, such as Why the Countdown?, a series of devotionals Counting Down to Pentecost, and we invite you to follow along on our Omer Calendar as we count the Omer every day and read an accompanying Scripture. This is a meaningful time for believers, and we hope you will take full advantage of it.