The Jewish Practice No One Knows About


People who have converted to Judaism often tell me about holiday overload. They go from celebrating a handful of holidays to almost a dozen.

Yet, above and beyond the holidays we have certain practices. One of these practices -- which I did not learn about until rabbinical school -- is called "Counting the Omer." It consists of saying a blessing and counting each day between Passover and Shavuot.

Omer is the Hebrew word for grain, suggesting that the counting practice originated in agricultural times. Today, however, it marks the transition from the Exodus from Egypt (Passover) to the Giving of the Torah (Shavuot).

Positive vs. Negative Freedoms

What possible reason is there to count each day? To understand this practice, we need to familiarize ourselves with one of history's great philosophers -- Isaiah Berlin. Berlin taught at Oxford for several decades. He came from a family that fled Nazi rule in Europe. His most important contribution to philosophy was the distinction between negative freedoms and positive freedoms.

Negative freedoms are "freedoms from." These include freedom from slavery, from coercion, or from unjust imprisonment. These freedoms are necessary but insufficient.

Real human flourishing requires positive freedoms. Positive freedoms include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." They rest on choice. They emerge out of our ability to make decisions, to pursue opportunities, to use our unique gifts.

From Freedom to Flourishing

From a spiritual perspective, negative freedoms provide a context for a life of faith and purpose. Positive freedoms are the way we realize it.

Passover symbolizes the attainment of negative freedoms. In Egypt, the Israelites had no freedom from oppression or coercion. When God led them out of Egypt, they attained those negative freedoms. Yet, without a set of laws and sense of responsibility, freedom can quickly descend into chaos.

Shavuot -- the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai -- symbolizes their embrace of positive freedom. For Jews, the laws of Torah provide the path to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Counting the Omer is the bridge between the two. It symbolizes the journey from freedom to flourishing. Crossing the Red Sea was only the beginning of the journey. The most important part was yet to come.

Today we can count the omer in meaningful and creative ways. We can, for example, connect each day with a value or historical event. To get a free omer calendar, click here.