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The Omer

by: Rabbi Jermey Rosen - Last updated: 2005-05-27

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Somehow or other Judaism has changed over time from a religion in which the key word for religious occasions was ‘joy’ into one in which ‘fast’ and ‘mourning’ seem to have taken pride of place.

We are now into a period of mourning called ‘The Omer’ no weddings or parties (and those decadent ones amongst us, including myself, who normally do, don’t go to the Opera, Concerts, Theatre or Cinema). No haircuts allowed, and those who shave (getting fewer in Orthodox circles) do not. Isn’t it enough that we have the nine Days (and the extended Three Weeks) before the anniversary of the Destruction of the temple on the Ninth of Av? What’s this extra 49 days for? Perhaps we are heading towards the 365 days of perpetual depression!!

All the Torah and the Talmud say is that the Omer is the first sheaf of the barley harvest. It was dedicated on the first day of Pesach and then we count forty-nine days from the second evening of Pesach until the festival of Shavuot when the wheat harvest begins. Quite separately, without any connection, the Talmud (Yevamot 62a) says that twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akivah’s pupils died during this period.

In the Gaonic, post-Talmudic period, LaG BaOmer, the thirty third day of the Omer, is mentioned as a happy day because the plague that was killing off the pupils of Rabbi Akivah stopped. But it’s only in the past 1000 years (very recent in Jewish terms) that the Omer has caught on as a period of sadness. So where did it all come from?

The Talmudic source talks about the pupils of Rabbi Akivah dying because they were disrespectful one to another (now that’s an important general religious theme that we seem to have forgotten nowadays). We know that Rabbi Akivah died supporting the failed Bar Cochba revolt (132-135 CE) in which he and his pupils participated. This in itself was a highly controversial. Most of the other leaders at the time were against using force against the Romans. Was this a lesson for the exile?

As the exile wore on, the issue of insurrection will have constantly returned. Our tradition found a way of adding significance to an agricultural law that otherwise might have fallen into disuse. It gave the Omer a completely different significance that reminded us of our exile and suffering, that violence was not always a solution and of the need to maintain our inner strengths and be nice to each other, otherwise we would simply suffer even more (which sadly is precisely what happened).

Throughout the Middle Ages, Easter, the crucifixion, was a period of disaster, murder and suffering for the Jews. Christian preachers spewed hatred in their Easter sermons calling for vengeance for the death of Jesus. Passover, Easter (‘Good’ Friday indeed), was when the Blood Libel always reappeared, the myth that Jews needed Christian blood for their Matzahs and Four Cups of Wine. Strange isn’t it how Christianity transforms the Last Supper, which supposedly was a Seder Meal, into the Eucharist where wine actually turns into the blood of Jesus and the wafer into his body and then accuses Jews of doing it! And even stranger that nowadays most of this sort of arrant stupidity comes from Muslim sources where once Islam was the least susceptible to such rubbish.

This all reinforces the Omer message. We continue to suffer alienation. Yes, you might wonder that a people so well established should feel alienated. Yet we are constantly reminded of how ‘unwanted’ we are in so many circles. So we make a virtue and a religious occasion out of it.

We commemorate the baseless hatred of sick, misguided fanatics and the miracle of our survival and return after two thousand years. But it also reminds us of how self-destructive we Jews can be. Fighting tough didn’t always work, certainly not with Bar Cochba and Rabbi Akivah. Sometimes accommodation is the better part of valour.

It is appropriate that Israel remembers the Holocaust at this time of year and its fallen heroes and at the same time we celebrate Israel’s Independence. We rely on the interplay of the two forces that have helped us survive the horrors of two thousand years of exile, ourselves, when we get it right, and that inexorable spirit of history that has a Mind of Its Own that some of us call God.

As Kabbalah developed into a major mystical force within mainstream Judaism, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the great Talmudic mystic credited with authoring The Zohar, became its icon. His tomb in Meron became a place of pilgrimage particularly on LaG BaOmer, the anniversary of his death (and some say his birth).  This custom led to variations in the mourning period. Some go from Passover to LaG BaOmer and then stop. Others go from Rosh Chodesh Iyar. Break for Lag BaOmer but continue until three days before Shavuot. Here is another characteristic of exilic Judaism, that we can find something to celebrate the positive side of our great spiritual legacy. Survival requires spiritual survival not just physical.

The world needs reminding all the time of the Holocaust because it doesn’t seem ever to learn and terrible things keep on happening all the time. But so do we need constant reminding of what has happened to us, what might still happen and the part that we ourselves have played in it. Yet shinning out from the middle of the negativity is the mystical jewel of Lag BaOmer that reminds us of spirit, religious ecstasy and hope. If the Ninth Day of Av and the days before it are entirely gloom and doom, this period of the year has its silver lining. I may not enjoy it that much but I try to make it meaningful.