Contemporary Jews associate the Omer with the mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer, counting the days from the second day of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot. In truth, the Omer is the name of a special offering that was brought on the second day of Passover. As we will discuss, it is connected with the seemingly separate mitzvah of counting the Omer.

New Grain - the Omer Offering

The omer is actually a biblical-era measurement (equivalent to approximately 43 oz.). On the second day of Passover, the 16th of Nisan, in addition to the regular holiday offering, a lamb was offered together with an omer of barley taken from the first harvest of the land of Israel.1

It was forbidden to eat or even reap any newly grown crops of the five species of grain (wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt) before the harvesting of the Omer.2

Unique among offerings in the Temple, the Omer offering was brought with great fanfare. This is how Maimonides describes it:

On the day before the festival of Passover, the agents of the court would go out [to the field] and tie [the barley] into bundles while it was still attached to the ground so that it would be easy to reap. On the evening after [the first day of] Passover, all of the inhabitants of all the neighboring villages would gather so that it would be reaped with much flourish. They would have three men reap three se'ah of barley in three baskets with three sickles.

When it became dark, the reapers would ask those standing in attendance:

"Has the sun set?" They would answer: "Yes." "Has the sun set?" They would answer: "Yes." "Has the sun set?" They would answer: "Yes."

"Is this a sickle?" They would answer: "Yes." "Is this a sickle?" They would answer: "Yes." "Is this a sickle?" They would answer: "Yes."

"Is this a basket?" They would answer: "Yes." "Is this a basket?" They would answer: "Yes." "Is this a basket?" They would answer: "Yes."

If it was the Sabbath, they would ask:

"Is it the Sabbath?" They would answer: "Yes." "Is it the Sabbath?" They would answer: "Yes." "Is it the Sabbath?" They would answer: "Yes."

Afterwards, they would ask:

"Should I reap?" They would answer: "Yes." "Should I reap?" They would answer: "Yes." "Should I reap?" They would answer: "Yes.”3

(For the reason for this great fanfare, see Why Do Jews Start Counting the Omer Early?)

After reaping, they would bring the barley to the Temple courtyard, where they beat, winnowed and roasted the kernels over the fire in a cylinder. The kernels were then spread out in the Temple courtyard and the wind wafted through it. The barley was then brought to a mill and ground to produce three se'ah4 (approximately 6.5 gal.), and after it had been sifted with 13 sifters, an issaron5 (one-tenth) was removed.

This issaron of fine barley flour was taken and mixed with oil, and a handful of frankincense was placed upon it. It was waved in the eastern portion of the Temple courtyard in all four directions—up, down, right and left. It was then brought close to the tip of the southwest corner of the altar like the other meal offerings. A handful of the meal was taken and offered on the altar's pyre. The remainder was eaten by the priests like the remainder of all other meal offerings.

Counting of the Omer

The Torah commands us to count 50 days from the day we brought the Omer, and on the 50th day another grain offering was brought. However, unlike the one brought on the second day of Passover, this offering, known as the Shtei Halechem (“two loaves”) was brought from the new wheat. Although the grains from the new crop had been allowed for personal consumption since the Omer offering, they would not use any of the new grain for Temple offerings until this second offering of the two loaves was offered up in the Temple.

As the verse states, “You shall count for yourselves . . . from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks . . . You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the 50th day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the L‑rd.”6

(For more on this offering, see The Shtei Halechem)

This counting between these two offerings is known as the Sefirat Haomer, “ Counting of the Omer.”

Wait! What Are We Counting To?

At this point, the obvious question arises: Isn’t Sefirat Haomer the counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the Giving of the Torah? Yet, it seems that the counting is actually associated with the Omer offering (not Passover) and leads up to the wheat offering, not necessarily Shavuot!

Don’t Mix Celebrations

Some explain that, in truth, we should begin counting the days to the holiday of Shavuot from the first day of Passover. After all, the point of counting is to show our desire and yearning to get the Torah. However, we don’t want to detract from the celebration of the Exodus by already talking about the next holiday, so we begin counting from the second day of Passover. However, rather than count each day by saying “It is X days from the second day of Passover,” we count the Omer offering that was brought that day.7

Internalizing Faith

Others explain that as indicated by the verse, the counting is indeed connected to the two offerings. We start counting from when the Omer offering was harvested until the offering of the two loaves. Since these are the days that the new crops are harvested, we are commanded to count these days to remember to pray to G‑d that the new crop be bountiful.8

Yet others explain that since people are occupied with harvesting their crops, the Torah commands us to count so they don’t get sidetracked from the upcoming holiday of Shavuot.9

Barley, Wheat and the Giving of the Torah

Based on the above, it seems as though there are disparate opinions regarding the reason for counting: (a) that it is connected to the Giving of the Torah, and the omer is really a side point; or (b) that it is connected to the new wheat and not so much to the Giving of the Torah. However, if one looks a bit deeper, both explanations are connected.

Barley is generally considered to be a grain fit for livestock, as opposed to wheat, which is considered fit for humans.10 Thus, commentaries explain that we aren’t just counting the days from the Exodus until the day we were given the Torah; rather, these are meant to be days of refinement. Each one of the 49 days corresponds to another one of the 49 drives and character traits we have within us.

Thus, we are commanded to start counting and refining ourselves from when the offering consisting of barley was brought. For at the onset of this spiritual journey, we are coarse and similar to an animal. But by the end of our spiritual journey, we have refined ourselves and we are ready to bring an offering consisting of wheat, the food staple of mankind.11