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Rosh Chodesh Iyyar: Seeing Ourselves Among the Barley

Blog post by Josh Boydstun, Jewish Farm School Rabbinic Intern

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During the month of Iyyar (April 10-May 9, 2013), we traditionally engage in S’firat Ha’omer (“The Counting of the Omer”), which begins on the second day of Pesach (the 16th of Nissan) and ends on the festival of Shavu’ot (the 6th of Sivan). This intervening period comprises 49 days—seven weeks of seven days—with Shavu’ot falling on Day 50. The 18th of Iyyar (April 27-28, 2013) is Lag Ba’Omer: the 33rd day of Counting the Omer. (In Hebrew, numbers are typically represented by letters. “Lag” is just a quick and easy way of pronouncing the Hebrew letters that add up to 33.) This holiday, which honors a number of historical, religious and legendary events in ancient Israel, is typically observed with hikes, games, bonfires and other festive, outdoor activities.

During Pesach, we retell our liberation from Egyptian slavery. According to the Mishnah, it is insufficient to recount the exodus as an abstract myth or historical event. Rather, “In every generation, a person must see oneself as though one personally went out from Egypt” (Pesachim 10:5). In other words, each person should strive to regard the exodus from Egypt as a personal memory, a lived experience.

Fifty days later, on Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. And again, our tradition encourages us to commemorate this not merely as a historical event or thrilling legend, but as a personal experience of enduring significance. The early rabbis were vexed by Moses’s puzzling speech in Deuteronomy 29:13-14: “I make this covenant… not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our G-d [at Sinai] and with those who are not with us here this day.”

According to the Babylonian Talmud, “those who are not with us here this day” means that all future generations of Jews—including converts to Judaism—must understand ourselves as having been present to receive the Torah at Sinai (Shevu’ot 39a).

Retelling our beloved stories and reliving important episodes in our history has served to keep our precious traditions alive. The practice of ancient rituals has fulfilled a similar purpose. Consider the Counting of the Omer: Each night between the second day of Pesach and Shavu’ot, one recites a Hebrew blessing (“Blessed are you, Hashem, our G-d, ruler of the universe, who has made us holy with your commandments and commanded us regarding the Counting of the Omer”) and then declares in Hebrew, “Today is Day __ of the Omer.”

But what is the significance of Counting the Omer? In his classic book, Seasons of Our Joy, Rabbi Arthur Waskow explains that in ancient Israel, the grain harvest occurred in the Springtime. (Indeed, many scholars argue that Pesach and Shavu’ot began as agricultural festivals, before being effectively “rebranded” to commemorate the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah, respectively.) The barley crop would ripen and be harvested first, early in the Spring—about the middle of Nissan. The wheat crop would ripen and be harvested in the late Spring—approximately 50 days later, in the month of Sivan.

To mark this 50-day period between the barley and wheat harvests, the Israelites performed the following ritual:

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf [omer] of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:15-16)

While the dates originally varied according to the weather and the status of the crop, the rabbis of the Mishnah eventually fixed the dates for Counting the Omer and for Shavuot, so that they fell on the same days every year. Even after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and it became impossible for priests to provide a grain offering, the tradition was kept alive through the symbolic practice of Counting the Omer.

Through the ritual of S’firat Ha’omer, Jews have maintained a connection—however abstract and tenuous—with our agricultural past. However, in my experience, few Jews who observe the Counting of the Omer understand and appreciate its agricultural origins. Even for those who do, the Counting of the Omer symbolizes something our ancestors did in ages past, something that has little bearing on our modern lives.

I would argue that the agricultural origin of S’firat Ha’omer is no less deserving of a personal connection than the liberation from Egypt or the encounter at Sinai. Obviously, it is hard to literally count sheaves of barley if we live in a place where barley does not ripen until Summertime. However, we are not required to make a pilgrimage from Egypt to Israel in order to relive the exodus, nor are we required to stand at the base of Mount Sinai in order to relive the giving of the Torah. Rather, it is through the performance of ritual and the cultivation of spiritual investment—equal parts memory and imagination—that we form meaningful connections to Pesach and Shavu’ot.

Therefore, I would like to propose the following kavanah (intention) for those Counting the Omer: “In every generation, a person must Count the Omer as though one personally harvested the barley.” Likewise, for Shavu’ot: “In every generation, a person must observe Shavu’ot as though one personally harvested wheat and brought it to the Temple as an offering.” For those of us who struggle to find a way of connecting Jewish texts and traditions with the hands-on work of farming and gardening, perhaps this blending of ritual, memory and imagination can provide a valuable link between our agrarian past and a sustainable future.

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