The commandment to "count the Omer" is to count the days between Passover and Shavuot. The Torah states that from the day the "wave offering", the Omer, was brought (on the second day of Passover) we should count each day for forty-nine days, which brings us right to the holiday of Shavuot on the fiftieth day.

The Hebrew word for "and you shall count" used in the Torah is "u'sefartem", which also denotes "shining" or "brilliance", as in the phrase "[gem]stone sapir" (Ezekiel 1:26) - translated "sapphire" in English. The term describing the ten principal expressions of divine manifestation, known in mystical literature as the ten sefirot, also bears this meaning. The implication is that the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer - counting the Omer - draws down upon us the influence of the ten sefirot, causes them to "shine" upon us.

In order to appreciate some of the inner significance of this commandment, we must bear in mind what the holidays of Passover and Shavuot are all about. Passover, the holiday upon which G‑d redeemed the Jews from Egyptian bondage and exile, and Shavuot, which marks the day the newly freed nation stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from G‑d, are connected by the intervening forty-nine day period of the count, called "sefira" (meaning to count) in Hebrew. The sefira represents not only the Jews' anxious counting down of the remaining days until the great gift of the Torah would be presented; the count is itself significant, and even necessary for the Torah to be given at all.

Together, Passover and Shavuot are an instance of a common spiritual pattern: first there is a "running forth", followed by a "coming back". That is, G‑d wants there to be a "give-and-take" relationship between Himself and the Jews, a relationship characterized by our own striving to initiate a closer attachment to G‑d through performance of the Torah and mitzvot. Only then, after we have ourselves made advances in this direction, does G‑d reciprocate by aiding us along and actively drawing us closer to Him. (The Hebrew terms for this, "ratzo" and "shov", meaning "running forth" and "coming back" respectively, are based upon Ezekiel 1:14, where the concept is mystically alluded to.)

Because we ran forth to commit ourselves to G‑d and receive the Torah, we merited G‑d's reciprocation….

The two holidays under discussion are an example of this. On Passover, we Jews went forth from the land of Egypt on our way to worship G‑d. One of the defining features of the Exodus was the great haste with which it took place (literally "running forth"), as it is written, "You shall eat [the Passover sacrifice] in haste" (Ex. 12:11) and "For you left in haste" (Deut. 16:13). Because we ran forth to commit ourselves to G‑d and receive the Torah, we merited G‑d's "reciprocation" - the "return" aspect of the "running and returning" dynamic - His revealing Himself to us at Mount Sinai. This event was characterized by G‑d "coming down", so to speak, to our level, as it says, "And G‑d came down onto Mount Sinai" (Ex. 19:20).

Now, the Torah is of eternal relevance: there is a living lesson to be learned at all times and by every individual from its every aspect. This is especially so regarding the Exodus from Egypt. It is written, "So that you will remember the day you left the land of Egypt all the days of your life" (Deut. 16:3); our sages have likewise declared, "in every generation [in fact, every day] a person is obligated to view themselves as though they [just] left Egypt." (Pesachim 116b) This consciousness of the Exodus, this awareness of its personal relevance to each and every one of us, is accomplished through prayer.

Specifically, the arrangement of our morning prayers, from the portion beginning Baruch She'amar through the Shema prayer, is designed to arouse within us a heartfelt love of G‑d - as we continue immediately after reciting the first verse of the Shema ("Hear, O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is One"), "And you shall love G‑d, your G‑d, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." These sections bring out our love for G‑d because they deal with His greatness, and how "the hosts of Heaven bow to You" (Nehemiah 9:6), as we recite, "and the [spiritual beings known as] Ofanim and the holy creatures, with great fanfare, lift themselves up opposite the seraphim [seraphs], opposite whom they praise [G‑d] and proclaim: Blessed is the Glory of G‑d from His place" (in the blessing Yotzer)". Furthermore, "the [heavenly] creatures sweat from the labor of [carrying] the throne", and "a thousand thousands and ten-thousand ten-thousands served Him" (paraphrasing Daniel 7:10) - and all these heavenly hosts are in a constant state of utter deference of self before G‑d.

By contemplating the awesome majesty of G‑d…we glimpse some inkling of G‑d's majesty….

All this is, as the Psalmist puts it, "…to make known to the children of man His mighty acts, and the glorious splendor of His kingdom" (Psalms 145:12). In other words, by contemplating the awesome majesty of G‑d and how even the countless hosts of unimaginably great and mighty angels are as nothing before Him, we glimpse some inkling of G‑d's majesty, as expressed by the verse "Your sovereignty is a sovereignty over all worlds" (Psalms 145:13). As explained elsewhere, "sovereignty" (malchut) refers to that abstract quality by which a king reigns, but which is not actually a part of the king himself in any way. The king's physical self is in the splendid isolation of his throne room, but by his word, his command, he rules the kingdom; his wishes are carried out throughout his realm even absent his physical presence or participation. Thus, in Jewish mysticism, the "sovereignty" of G‑d, His attribute of malchut, signifies that quality by which G‑d's will (for example, that the universe and all it contains be brought into existence) is carried out - but this creative force of the universe is actually not even of G‑d's "essence" or "self" (so to speak) at all.

The heavenly hosts sense their own nothingness before G‑d because they perceive that all worlds, spiritual and physical, are nothing more than a manifestation of G‑d's attribute of malchut, G‑d's "word" or command, and do not reflect anything of G‑d Himself. We, too, by deeply reflecting upon these things as described in our prayers, should automatically arouse within ourselves an appreciation for G‑d's greatness and an earnest longing to break free of our physical limitations and attach ourselves to none other than G‑d Himself. This is the "running forth" we strive to experience at prayer: the yearning to leave our physical existence behind and unite with G‑d alone. It is the daily expression of our "exodus from Egypt", for the Hebrew word for "Egypt", "mitzrayim", is spelled identically with, and alludes to, the word for "boundaries", or "limitations". This is why the Exodus from Egypt, or the limitations of our worldly existence, is mentioned at the conclusion of the Shema prayer, which is the expression of this boundless love for G‑d.

Our sages taught, "The prayers were established by [our] Patriarchs." (Berachot 26b) In addition to its plain meaning, this teaching alludes to the content of our prayers. For our Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are each identified with a particular quality in the service of G‑d: Abraham, with love of G‑d , corresponding to the sefira known as chesed; Isaac, with gevura; and Jacob with tiferet. The text of our prayers is arranged around verses touching upon all three.

Love of G‑d is aroused during prayer, as explained above, through contemplation of verses such as those mentioned, leading to the Shema's "And you shall love G‑d". Fear and awe of G‑d (Isaac) are likewise aroused by contemplating the verses in our prayers appropriate to those themes. And as for compassion (Jacob), that comes into play where a person, despite their sincere efforts to concentrate on his or her prayers and to feel true love and fear of G‑d, is not getting anywhere, so to speak.

Arousing compassion on our soul in this way has the power to rekindle that lost feeling of love for G‑d….

The person can be so steeped in a worldly mindset and so accustomed to thinking of himself as "number one" that their heart has become like a stone, utterly insensitive to spiritual matters. In such a case, the worshipper should realize that this condition is a symptom of how very far they have drifted from G‑d, Who is in fact the only true reality whether they feel it or not. They should try to arouse compassion on their poor "lost" soul and beseech G‑d's merciful help in finding their way back, as we pray, "Exalted King ... in Your great mercy, be merciful to us ... our Father, Merciful Father, have mercy upon us and grant understanding in our hearts, that we may understand and comprehend, and not be embarrassed forever." That is, we should have the perceptiveness and the insight to realize that this world is not, in fact, significant at all, and only G‑dly matters count. For if we fail to realize this during life, then, in the hereafter - where we will see so clearly the error of our ways and how absurd were our beliefs - we will be eternally embarrassed at the greatest mistake of our lives.

Arousing compassion on our soul in this way has the power to rekindle that "lost" feeling of love for G‑d within us. This concept is hinted at in the verse "to Jacob who redeemed Abraham" (Isaiah 29:22). As mentioned above, our patriarch Jacob is identified with the G‑dly attribute of compassion, and Abraham with love; this verse is telling us that Jacob - compassion - is the key to unlocking and redeeming our lost attribute of Abraham - love for G‑d.

The Exodus from Egypt on Passover symbolized our breaking free of our worldly inhibitions….

In sum, the Exodus from Egypt on Passover symbolized our breaking free of our worldly inhibitions and limitations with respect to the service of G‑d, after which we received G‑d's reciprocal "coming down", as it were, to grant us the Torah on Shavuot. And in each and every generation, we must all experience this in our own daily lives, accomplished by arousing yearning for G‑d during prayer, to the point we want to leave our own personal boundaries and "run forth" to Him.

The problem is that it's not so simple. The reason is that each Jewish person has two souls: one, known as the "G‑dly soul", literally a part of G‑d, which seeks only spiritual pursuits; the other, called the "animal soul", is responsible for animating our physical bodies and is the source of all worldly temptations and desires. All that we have said above about arousing a longing for G‑d and experiencing our own personal exodus from "Egypt" - worldly constraints in our worship of G‑d - is only effective for the G‑dly soul. That is the soul which is sensitive to spirituality and responsive to the sort of prayerful meditation described above. The animal soul, however, just isn't "into" these things, and is unaffected by the "exodus" - both on an individual level and, in a broader sense, with respect to the Jewish people as a whole. When the Jews actually left Egypt during historic Passover, it was likewise only their G‑dly souls and not their animal souls that were inspired. For G‑d Himself to "come down" to our level, though, no such "half-hearted" commitment would do. We had to somehow inspire and elevate even our animal souls to appreciate spirituality and G‑dliness before we would be fit to receive the Torah on Shavuot.

This is where the Omer - the waving of the Omer offering and the counting of the Omer period - comes in.

Regarding the "wave offering," we are told, "…and he [the priest] shall wave the Omer before G‑d so that it be favorable for you; on the morrow of Shabbat shall the priest wave it." (Lev. 23:11) The word "omer" is actually a unit of volume; the reference is to the first-fruits of the harvest, an omer of which had to be consecrated unto G‑d, as commanded in the previous verse. This was done by the priest physically waving that omer of first-fruits, which, the Talmud (Menachot 84a) teaches, consisted of barley.

The significance of this is that the act of raising up and consecrating the omer of barley to G‑d symbolizes our own consecration of the animal soul, since barley itself is cattle fodder. On a deeper, mystical, level, the omer offering symbolizes the elevation and consecration of the entire world to the service of G‑d. This is because, in the spiritual realms as well, there is a counterpart to the "animal" which eats "barley".

It is our task to elevate these sparks back to their heavenly source….

It is part of the spiritual structure of the universe that fragments or "sparks" of G‑dliness (so to speak) are embodied within the substance of the physical world, and it is our task to elevate these sparks back to their heavenly source by utilizing material things for holy purposes. When we do this, the sparks of holiness are raised up to the spiritual level known as malchut of Atzilut, which is the limit of human capability. However, once we have done all we can on our part, the sparks are drawn from there even higher by a still loftier spiritual level.

The prophet Ezekiel had a vision (Ezekiel chapter 1) representing something of the "inhabitants" of Heaven and the spiritual levels they symbolize. Among other things, Ezekiel's vision tells of four creatures with the faces of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle, and that above the creatures there was "the likeness of a firmament". One characteristic of cattle is that they eat constantly. Jewish mysticism interprets these "animals" as a reference to the spiritual source of our own animal souls; "barley" - that which is consumed and absorbed by actual cattle - represents the "food" of the spiritual "animals," i.e. the sparks of holiness which are constantly absorbed and elevated.

The likeness of a firmament above the heavenly cattle symbolizes the spiritual level mentioned above, malchut of Atzilut - the level to which all the "barley", or sparks of holiness, elevated by our own spiritual activities is raised. This higher level is mystically called the "great cattle" ("beheima rabba") and is identified with the divine name of 52 letters, numerically equivalent to the Hebrew word for "cattle", "beheima". Thus, the image of cattle - which always eat - with a "firmament" stretched above them represents our actions in consuming, or "eating", the material things of this world for higher, spiritual, purposes, and our elevating the sparks of holiness within them to the level of malchut of Atzilut. This is the deeper symbolism of the waving of the measure of barley known as the omer.

Now, we said above that malchut of Atzilut, the limit of how high we can elevate the holy sparks, is nevertheless not where they remain due to the even higher spiritual level which sort of "reaches down" and pulls them farther up. Similarly, the omer was raised up by a superior level that represented by the priest, for the priest derives from the spiritual level known as chesed, which is superior to malchut. That is also why the omer was offered up "on the morrow of Shabbat", and "before G‑d": both of these expressions allude to a spiritual level even higher than those symbolized by Shabbat and by the name of G‑d, the lofty level to which our elevated sparks are ultimately raised.

We have thus explained, in a general way, that the waving of the omer offering is symbolic of the elevation of our animal soul, necessary for us to merit that G‑d should come and meet us, so to speak, to give us the Torah on Shavuot. In a more specific way, this is accomplished through the counting of the 49 days of the omer period.

For the animal soul has seven emotional attributes, each of which is itself a composite of all seven. They parallel, and are called by the same names as, the seven sefirot: chesed, gevura, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod and malchut. Since they are composites, we may speak of the chesed aspect of chesed, the gevura aspect of chesed, and so on all the way through the malchut aspect of malchut, giving a total of 49 specific emotional attributes of the animal soul. (This is the significance of these pairs of words - chesed of chesed, etc. - found in many prayer books next to the day's omer count.) On each of the 49 days between Passover (when we "ran forth" from the limitations of Egypt) and Shavuot, by counting that day we draw down G‑dly revelation from on high that makes it possible for that particular day's aspect of our animal soul to be refined and elevated into holiness, until finally, by the end of the omer period, not just our G‑dly soul but also our complete animal soul can be aroused to desire G‑dliness. At that point, we are indeed ready for G‑d's reciprocation, the "return" to us - the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.

And that is the inner implication of the phrase "and you shall count [u'sefartem] for yourselves". Not only are we literally counting these days, but in addition, we are eliciting from above the influence of the divine attributes (sefirot), which shine upon us.

Adapted by Yitzchak Wagshul from a discourse in Likutei Torah
Copyright 2001 Yitzchok D. Wagshul /

Translator's disclaimer: The Hebrew original contains much more than could possibly be presented here. Thus, for those with the ability to learn in Hebrew, this synopsis should not be considered a substitute for the original discourse.