“Therefore, the Lord, blessed be He, decreed that we count these days in order that we remember the trepidation of the world.”
– Rabbi Moses ben Abraham of Premysl
We count 50 days between Passover and Shavuot, officially called the Omer. Traditionally, this is regarded as a time of mourning because of the infighting and death of thousands of students in the talmudic era and the fact that the Omer sacrifice, which was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem on Shavuot, could not be given once the Temple was destroyed.
The Omer, however, originated as a biblical concept before there was an actual Temple or any rabbinic scholars: “You shall count from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you bring the sheaf of the wave offering [the Omer] … you shall count 50 days until the day after the seventh week; then you shall present a wheat offering of new grain … as first fruits to the Lord.” (Leviticus 23:15-17)
Spring naturally gets our attention as the weather and the plant life around us change. If we were farmers, we would be even more cognizant of our surroundings, counting the days until the harvest. With the harvest came our economic security for the year. On Passover, we recite the blessing for dew as a way to replenish the world with moisture, and we recite the Song of Songs, which takes us deep into the lush world of fruit and fragrance. The book, too, notes the changes: “For now the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of pruning has come.” (2:11-12)
Between Passover and Shavuot, new grain was harvested and people brought baskets of new produce to the Temple as a way of thanking God for their bounty. The grain offering was one of joy precisely because it meant that we had sustenance for the year ahead. We also had taxes connected to this bounty. Before we could partake of our own food, we had to take off a portion for the poor, the priests and, of course, bring an offering to God. We sanctify the fruit of our labors so that we understand that we work not only for ourselves.
But the joy we experience upon bringing the offering represents the end of weeks of tension, hinted at in the quote above. Rabbi Moshe (d. 1606), the scholar cited above, wrote a work called Mateh Moshe, mostly about customs and laws observed by Polish Jewry. He calls the countdown between Passover and Shavuot “days of trepidation,” probably based on his reading of a midrash (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, Emor 23:654). He understood that farmers felt themselves to be in peril until they were sure that the harvest would be plentiful in any particular year. The economic insecurity had an impact on their spiritual life. Counting for them was not only about waiting to relive the giving of the Torah on Shavuot; it was about the fiscal expectations and the worries connected to farming.
Nogah Hareuveni, in Nature in Our Biblical Heritage, sensitizes us to some of the natural phenomena that would have made Middle Eastern farmers anxious: “Each of these 50 days can bear either blessing to the crops or irreparable disaster. It was natural that the farmers of the Land of Israel should count off each day with great trepidation and with prayers to get through these 50 days without crop damage.” Rain or harsh eastern winds could wreak havoc on the harvest.
Shavuot is the only one of our three pilgrimage holidays (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) that is not marked by a specific date but is dependent on our act of counting. Some believe that this counting connected Shavuot to Passover in powerful spiritual ways, averting pagan celebrations that had to do with marking agricultural accomplishments alone. Seeking to spiritualize economic stresses and economic gains, we think of Passover and Shavuot within fiscal terms and religious frameworks, elevating pure agricultural anxieties and expressions of happiness to a spiritual art form.
We know all about economic downturns. We know about the 99 percent and Wall Street bonuses. What we don’t always appreciate are the spiritual, emotional and psychic costs of changing economies and how important it is to acknowledge trepidation within a religious framework. Money is powerfully connected to identity. Our capacity to count down or count up means something more if we see it within a sacred lens. Trepidation can be paralyzing, but sometimes it gives way to joy. And when it does, we count the days for the blessing they are.
Happy counting, and happy Shavuot.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish nonprofits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid), Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist, Spiritual Boredom and Confronting Scandal. Subscribe to her Weekly Jewish Wisdom list at leadingwithmeaning.com.