On the day after Passover we begin counting the Omer. We count forty-nine days until we reach the Festival of Shavu’ot. Shavu’ot is on the fiftieth day, hence its Greek name Pentecost, meaning “fifty.” Have you ever wondered why God gives a commandment to count off to Shavu’ot but not for any of the other festivals? What’s so special about these forty-nine days?
To answer this, I believe we need to first take a look at the Festival of Sukkot, which takes place seventh months earlier. The Torah commands:
On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. (Leviticus 23:39)
Seems pretty straightforward. Sukkot begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh month and lasts for eight days. What is strange is that in the following verses where the mitzvot of the sukkah and lulav and estrog are related the Torah tells us to do these things for “seven days.” Why not eight days? The sages liken the eighth day of Sukkot to an extra day a guest might spend with his host. The guest planned to stay for seven days but the bond between the host and guest was so strong that the host asked the guest to stay for just one more day. The eighth day of Sukkot is the culmination of the festival but at the same time it is an extra day where HaShem has enjoyed our company so much that he asks us to celebrate with him one more day.
Now we come to Passover:
And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work … On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. (Leviticus 23:6-8)
Why is Passover, which also begins on the fifteenth day of the month, only seven days and not eight like Sukkot? You would think it would make sense to add an eighth day so that the symmetry is complete between the first and seventh months. Yet, some commentators have insisted that there is an eighth day of Passover, so to speak. It is Shavu’ot. It’s just that instead of coming one day later it comes fifty days later.
What does that mean for the forty-nine days of counting the Omer? It means that we are not counting down to something but up to something. We are anticipating spending another day with HaShem while commemorating the giving of the Torah and the giving of the Spirit. This time he has not told us to stay such as at Sukkot but rather to go and prepare. We are getting ready to celebrate what we began at Passover. We have not truly left the slavery of Egypt until we have received God’s instructions and his Holy Spirit dwells within us enabling us to perform his will. In that sense the Counting of the Omer is a count that should count for something. This is not a passive count while we wait for the inevitable but an active count where we make each day count as we work on the personal refinement that began at Passover. May we use this time to work out our salvation with fear and trembling and continue to be nourished by the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.