Sefirat ha-‘omer – the counting of the days and the weeks from Passover through to Shavuot – is layered with different strata of significance from various periods in Jewish history.
Originally, the counting was part of the agricultural calendar endowed with religious meaning. Thus the counting signified the time from when an omer (less than four litres) of barley was brought to the Temple on Passover, until a wheat sacrifice was brought seven weeks later on Shavuot (Leviticus 23:15-16).
The period also serves as counting the days with anticipation from the Exodus commemorated on Passover, until the giving of the Torah at Sinai commemorated on Shavuot.
Later in Jewish history the period became a time of semi-mourning for deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva in the second century. The mourning took on added significance during the Crusades, when Jewish communities in the Rhine Valley were devastated during this period. In our times, two more days of mourning have been added to the Omer calendar: the day we commemorate the tragedy of the destruction of European Jewry, and the day we set aside for remembering those who fell defending the State of Israel or those murdered in terror attacks.
The Sages in the Midrash focused on the agricultural aspect of the Omer as the time for harvesting grain, emphasising the Divine hand in the long process of producing bread (Vayikra Rabba 28:2-3). Thus, for instance, Rabbi Levi says that even if a person ploughs, sows, hoes, weeds, reaps, gathers into sheaves, threshes, and brings the corn to the granaries – without the Almighty bringing wind for winnowing we would not have bread. Another sage, Rabbi Elazar focuses on God’s role in preventing harmful winds that would destroy the grain. Surprisingly, in between these statements in the Midrash, we have a tenuously related tale.
When Rabbi Shimon was married, his father – the famed Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, known simply as ‘Rebbi’ – invited all the rabbis to the festivities. For some unexplained reason, Bar Kappara did not received an invitation. Bar Kappara was apparently offended, and he left a note on the gate of Rebbi’s house: “After your rejoicing you will die; what profit is there in your joy?”
When Rebbi saw the note, he immediately understood who may have written these words: “Who is it whom we have not invited and who has written these words?” When people told Rebbi that the anonymous author was Bar Kappara, Rebbi decided to make a celebratory lunch the next day especially in Bar Kappara’s honour.
When the guests arrived and the first dish was served, the guest of honour – Bar Kappara – arose to speak. Bar Kappara then set about relating three hundred parables about a fox. In the meantime, the dishes went cold and the guests did not taste anything.
Rebbi asked the attendants why none of the guests had tasted any of the food. The attendants responded: “There is an old man there, and as soon as the food was brought in he began relating three hundred parables about a fox and the food went cold.”
Rebbi approached Bar Kappara and asked him why he did not let the guests dine. Bar Kappara explained: “So that you should not say that I came to eat. Rather, my conduct was because you did not invite me together with my colleagues.”
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein of Krakow (1751-1823), author of the classic Hasidic work Maor VaShamesh (Breslau 1842), noted the anomaly of this weakly connected passage in the Midrash. Commentators on the Midrash suggested that the passages all focus on the futility of human endeavour – be it in the field or at celebratory meals – without Divine assistance.
Instead of following this line, Maor VaShamesh connected the Midrash to other historic Omer themes. According to the Sages, Rabbi Akiva’s students died between Passover and Shavuot because they did not act appropriately to one another. Despite their great achievements in Torah learning, they did not care for each other or act respectfully to each other (B. Yevamot 62b). The tale of Bar Kappara reminds us that the Omer is not just about seeing the Divine hand in the miracle of agriculture; it is also a time to promote unity. Indeed, Bar Kappara had explicitly stated that he did not come for food, but for friendship. Thus the Omer – explained Maor Vashamesh – is a time for meditating on unity and promoting this lofty objective.
Maor Vashamesh buttressed his reading by recalling another tradition of the Sages. The verse states that the Israelites travelled from Refidim and came to the Sinai Desert, where they camped at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:2). In the verse, the verb for travelling is presented in plural (vayisu), presumably because all the Israelites were travelling, yet strangely the verb for camping is presented in singular (vayihan). The Sages teach us that the many Israelites camped at the foot of Mount Sinai “as one person, with one heart.” Despite their differences, the Israelites reached Sinai as a unified people.
This is an Omer theme that we dream of realising on our day: a dream of unity, of fraternity, of love for each other. This is what we count towards; this is what we are counting on.