Omer and Shmita: Counting Our Way into a New Season

By Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch

Recently, as I walked and drove through the Berkshires, it seemed that every tree had begun to flower, and daffodils emerged here and there, dotting our landscape with their cheery, bold-faced yellow. After a snowy, secluded winter, spring is here. As we enter this spring and early summer, the world is opening up in new ways. After over a year of separation, isolation, challenges, struggles, and loss, we are emerging into a new season in more ways than one. 

The promise of return and renewal lies before us. The simple ability for many of us, now or in a short time, to be able to visit with each other in the homes of friends and family. The return of our beloved cultural venues, albeit with limited or altered programs. And the slow and steady reemergence of Jewish life, each congregation according to its own needs and schedule. 

We are currently in a period known as the omer, the 49 days between Passover and our upcoming festival of Shavuot. Seven weeks, each containing seven days, brings us from slavery in Egypt to the foothills of Mount Sinai, preparing to receive our Torah. 

The omer provides us with a simple structure, with guideposts, and with a blessing to say each day. In some ways, in modern times, we no longer need the omer – we have accurate calendars and walk around with computers in our pockets that tell us, to the milliseconds, when Shavuot will arrive! And that is precisely the point of the omer in our modern times. We count to have a moment of kavanah, of intention, each day. We count the omer as a spiritual practice, so that each day, we have the opportunity to say at least one blessing. And we have one more marker of the passage of time, in a year that has been marked by so much sameness, now it truly feels as though we are moving toward something, climbing higher, reaching a new place.

Seven is a special number in our Torah, our text, and our traditions. Six days of creation, and a seventh day of rest - Shabbat. Biblically and for many Jews today, seven days comprise our festivals. Seven weeks of the omer. And every seventh year, shmita, the cycle of resting the land.

At its core, Judaism is an agrarian tradition, particularly in the rituals and holidays detailed in our Torah. We feel it especially at this time of renewal and spring; in the Torah, our connection to the land is strong and clear. In Leviticus 25, we learn about the shmita and the yovel. We read:

“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest - shabbat shabbaton. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce....[you] may eat all its yield.” (Leviticus 25)

If you like to garden or farm, you understand this passage inherently. The shmita allows for a period of rest for the land after we have worked it for six years, an early and ritualized form of crop rotation. Just like the omer, seven cycles of seven brings us to another special occasion. Our Torah continues:

“You shall count off seven weeks of years — seven times seven years — so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of 49 years. Then you shall sound the horn loud, in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month - the Day of Atonement... and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee - a yovel, in Hebrew - for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.”

As S. Tamar Kamionkowski explains in The Women’s Torah Commentary:

“The biblical system of a jubilee year has been described as utopian in its vision, promoting a system whereby lands sold under financial distress would be returned to the original owners every fifty years. Under this system, there are checks and balances enduring a redistribution of wealth at set intervals. This is indeed a utopian vision, grounded both in the religious belief that only God owns the land and people are but tenants on it, and in the socio-economic vision of a remission of debts at set periods.”

The shmita, that seventh year period of rest for the land, and the yovel, the fiftieth-year jubilee, and the omer can provide us with a frame for this moment, today.

We are emerging from a time of resting and pausing, perhaps against our instincts and predilections. We have all done less in the past months, for the health and safety of our community. We have had to let the land lie fallow. For some, this has been restorative, as it is for the land, which cannot continue to produce crops if it is stripped of its nutrients. Perhaps in doing less, we have found out what really matters, and we have had the chance to create new habits, paths, and opportunities.

This spring, my husband, Rabbi Neil Hirsch of Hevreh and I prepared to welcome our second child. It is a time of rebirth for our fields and hillsides, and for our family, too. Arriving at the mountaintop of Shavuot, we take with us the sense of purpose and intentionality of the omer, and the sense of pausing, of thoughtfully doing less, of the shmita cycle. We will be on family leave from our congregations for a portion of this season, to welcome in the newest member of our family and our Jewish community. We will set aside a period of months and weeks. We are grateful to our communities who have lovingly supported us at this time.

In the coming weeks, we will do a lot more at home, and at the same time, we will do less out in the world. If this unique time in modern history has taught us anything, it is in the blessing of pausing, of appreciating the moment, of knowing how much is enough, of knowing when to rest, and when to rejoice. May it be a season of renewal and blessing for all!

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch is the spiritual leader of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield.