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Counting on Lag B'Omer
My mother would start preparing for Shabbat -- the Sabbath -- on Wednesday.

To some, that may seem like jumping the gun, but this kind of anticipation is not uncommon in Jewish life. After all, even before the second seder is over -- while we're still at the table -- we start to count the days until Shavuot. Before the matzah crumbs have been swept away, we begin Sephirat HaOmer -- The counting of the omer.

In Temple times, the sephirah connected the seven weeks between the Passover barley harvest with the wheat harvest of Shavuot. It was a time of anxiety mixed with hope. Would the crop ripen? Would the harvest be fruitful?

Starting with the second day of Passover, our ancestors brought sheaves of grain to the Temple in Jerusalem. These sheaves (called omer -- literally, a "measure"), were brought every day for forty-nine days and placed on the altar as an offering to God. Then, on the fiftieth day, the people celebrated Shavuot. Two loaves of bread made from the new wheat crop were offered in thanksgiving for God's bounty, and the counting of the omer was finished for another year.

During the Exile, when the Jews were separated from their land, the rabbis shifted the emphasis of the omer from the agricultural to the allegorical. They made Passover the time of Israel's "betrothal" to God. They made Shavuot the "wedding day." And, reasoned the rabbis, just as a bride eagerly counts the days between her engagement and her wedding, so will Israel continue to count the days between Passover and Shavuot, when we were finally united with God through our acceptance of the Torah.

In this spirit, the ancient Israelites celebrated the omer period with joy. But after the destruction of the Second Temple, the sephira turned into seven weeks of semi-mourning. No haircuts. No banquets. No music. And no weddings.

The reason for this change from gladness to gloom is obscure, but theories abound. Scholars of a superstitious stripe claim the ban on weddings is borrowed from a pagan belief that demons stalk the earth in the spring, casting their evil eyes on marriages made in May. Some say we mourn because we could no longer bring offerings to the Temple. Others say the mourning is for Bar Kochba's failed rebellion against the Romans and for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiba who perished in the fighting. Another camp holds that the students actually died in a plague that struck on the first day of the omer in about 130 CE. A plague brought on, according to the Talmud, by the students' jealousy and lack of respect for one another.

Whatever the reason for the mournful mood of the omer, things brighten up on the 33rd day of the count with the arrival -- in the Hebrew month of Iyar -- of the festival of Lag B'Omer. (Lag from the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel which add up to thirty three).

Lag B'Omer has no religious significance and its origins are a mystery. Was it instituted simply as a joyous break in the seven solemn weeks? Is it observed because the plague that killed Rabbi Akiba's students stopped on the 33rd day of the omer? Or is it connected with the legendary mystic, Rabbi Shimeon bar Yohai, who --before his death on Iyar 18 -- instructed his disciples to observe his yarzheit -- the anniversary of his death--in joy, not in sorrow? All are interesting possibilities.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that on Lag B'Omer we get to do what is taboo during the rest of the sephirah.

In many communities, dozens of weddings are performed on Lag B'Omer. People have parties. Go to concerts. Little boys get their first haircuts. And traditionally, Jews everywhere celebrate Lag B'Omer with picnics in the woods. On these outings it is customary for the kids to carry bows and arrows and pretend they're Bar Kochba's soldiers, waging mock battles against Israel's enemies.

Lag B'Omer and the sephira. Are they in this day and age just trivia on the Hebrew calendar? Or can these seven weeks of counting still fit into our personal agendas?

While you're deciding, ponder this:

Counting has a place in all our lives, and some counting is particularly meaningful. For instance ...

  • From the Psalms we learn to number our days -- to count them -- so that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.
  • We count to ten to regain our cool. Would counting to forty-nine be even more therapeutic?
  • We count our blessings--or at least we should.
  • We try to be the kind of person that others can count on. And we try to remember that other people count, too, and should be treated with respect--lest we suffer the same fate as befell Rabbi Akiba's students.
  • And finally (to bring us back to the beginning), we never try to count our chickens. Unless, of course, it's Wednesday and you're preparing for Shabbat.

For more by the author, visit her Web site at www.rabbisdaughter.com.

This story originally appeared on JewishFamily.com.