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Cantor Jeff Warschauer
TJC Newsletter Article for May/June/July 2019

 

The Beautiful Mitzvah of Counting the Omer
 
As I write this, on a cold and gray April day, we are preparing for Pesach. But
since this is the May, June and July issue of the TJC newsletter, by the time
you read this, the weather will be warm. We will be approaching Shavuot, and
we will be counting the Omer.

But what is the Omer? And why do we traditionally chant when we count the
Omer, and why does the chanting sound the way it does?

As you probably know, the festival of Shavuot is a sort of dual Festival:

First, Shavuot is an agricultural festival commemorating the first grain
harvest in the Land of Israel. In Temple times, during the 49 days of the Omer,
between Passover and Shavuot, offerings of grain (“omer”) would be brought
each day, to be used in the Temple sacrifice. So we still commemorate that daily sacrifice as we count
each day of the Omer.

But there is, of course, another meaning for the festival of Shavuot, which is that Shavuot is
traditionally the day that the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. In connection with that meaning, counting
the Omer takes on a very spiritual and mystical purpose.

The thought is that when the Hebrews left Egypt, because of the difficult lives that they had lived there,
they were in a very bad spiritual condition. They needed 49 days to recover and grow spiritually before
they were ready to receive the Torah.

Consequently, for Jews today, the counting of the Omer is still thought of as a very religious, very
spiritual process of purification, and of a deeply introspective period of self-improvement. It’s sort of
like a spiritual spring cleaning. We ask God’s help in this process, so traditionally, chanting the Omer
should be a deeply spiritual act.

And one more thing. When we chant the Omer, we are also mindful of the concept of “hiddur mitzvah”
(beautifying the mitzvah). If you are doing a mitzvah, if you are fulfilling a commandment, you should
make it as beautiful an experience as possible.

For example, think of the beautiful silver decorations on the Torah scrolls. The scrolls could be plain.
The mitzvah would still be fulfilled if we read from simple, unadorned scrolls.

But the decorations are a physical manifestation of the concept of beautifying the mitzvah. We get
great esthetic pleasure from seeing the beautiful decorations!

This concept of hiddur mitzvah also applies to the music of the service. We take great care to ensure
that the chanting of the liturgy, and the congregational songs that we sing together, will be as beautiful
and uplifting as possible.

Likewise, in order to beautify the mitzvah of counting the Omer, and hopefully to inspire spiritual
introspection, the cantor will traditionally chant the Omer in an emotional and somewhat elaborate
fashion.

Furthermore, the melody of the Omer chanting is evocative of the melodies used on Shavuot itself, so
the chanting also reminds us of the deep spirituality of the coming festival.

May we and our families, friends and loved ones enjoy a meaningful Shavuot, and the beautiful warm
spring and summer months ahead!
 
Please contact me at cantorjeff@thejewishcenter.org, or (347) 623-4228.
 
Cantor Jeff Warschauer