Kezayit: Counting the Omer

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Gif_Omer1Another Pesach (Passover) has come and gone. The next Jewish holiday on the radar of many Jews is Rosh Hashanah, but even if we ignore the "minor" holidays and observances -- if, for example, you won't be fasting on the 17th of Tammuz (July 24) -- Shavuot is a big deal, and it's just over a month away!

Shavuot is such a big deal, in fact, that we have a countdown until it arrives...or maybe it's better called a "countup"? The 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot is referred to as the omer, and it's a mitzvah (commandment) to count the days as they pass (Sefirat HaOmer).

So what's an omer, and why are we counting it? Way back in the days of the First Temple, an omer (a sheaf, or an ancient unit of measure) of barley was brought to the Temple as an offering to HaShem, an expression of gratitude for the harvest season. The Omer period begins with this barley offering, and the Torah dictates the aforementioned counting:

Gif_Omer8 Gif_Omer5You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to G-d (Leviticus 23:15-16).”

In the Torah, this counting seems connected only to the agricultural calendar, a way of reckoning when the wheat harvest should begin (i.e., when the count is completed, on Shavuot). Over time, however, Shavuot became associated with the giving of Torah to Israel at Mount Sinai. In fact, for contemporary Jews, Shavuot is more closely associated with divine revelation than with agricultural bounty.

Likewise, the counting of the Omer has also taken on metaphysical significance. Today, the Omer is interpreted as a bridge between Pesach and Shavuot. Writing for MyJewishLearning.com, Rabbi Jill Jacobs explains:

"While Passover celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one."

The remarkable transformation from close-minded slaves to liberated souls prepared to receive Torah didn't come easy for our ancestors, and it doesn't come any easier for us. To help Jews carry out the spiritual and personal work of the Omer, Jewish mystics of the 16th century assigned the weeks and days of the Omer count to particular characteristics or emotions, drawing on their knowledge of Kabbalah and the sephirot of the Tree of Life. The Chabad website includes a detailed primer about how observant Jews should "examine and refine" each attribute or feeling as they move through the Omer season. It's worth exploring this approach to the Omer; it has mystical roots, but it's a remarkably practical self-improvement system and offers us a wonderful way to make the season meaningful, even profound.Gif_Omer15

The animated GIFs that accompany this post are highlights from graphic designer and artist Hillel Smith's GIF the Omer: Best Omer Ever project, "a fun, daily typographic Omer counter" that Smith has launched as part of his ongoing effort "to create new takes on traditional forms, melding ancient practices with a contemporary aesthetic."

We encourage you to visit GIF the Omer regularly to check out more of Smith's animations. (You can even opt to subscribe for daily email updates.) And, hey, if you decide to start working the Omer program, so much the better!

Image credits and captions:
All GIF artworks by Hillel Smith, 2016
From top:
Day 1 of the Omer
Day 8 of the Omer (Note: 8 = ח)
Day 5 of the Omer (Note: Numeral systems depicted include Arabic, Burmese, Braille, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Korean, Sundanese, and a bunch more.)
Day 15 of the Omer (Note: 15 = טו)

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): Man As Technicolor Dreamcoat

In the wake of David Bowie's passing, we're sharing another Kezayit feature here. What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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On Sunday, January 10, the world lost a great pop culture trendsetter and zelig, David Bowie (1947-2016).

Bowie, born David Robert Jones in South London, wasn’t Jewish, but he was among the first celebrities to dabble with Kabbalah. In the title song of his 1976 album, Station to Station, he sings,

"From where dreams are woven
Bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circle
Here am I, flashing no color

Tall in this room overlooking the ocean
Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth
There are you, you drive like a demon from station to station


At the time, even Bowie’s most ardent fans were confused — what are Kether and Malkuth? A clue was provided by the photograph that appeared on the back cover of Station to Station. The picture shows Bowie at his most androgynous drawing the Tree of Life, the diagram representing the relationship between the Ten Sefirot, the Divine Emanations of G-d according to Kabbalah. Kether (or Keter, crown) and Malkuth (or Malchut, kingdom) are the top- and bottommost sefirot, respectively. Bowie’s lyrics seem to suggest that he and his companions "overlooking the ocean" had tapped into some esoteric knowledge that allowed them direct access — “one magical movement” — from the realm of the Earthly (Malkuth) to the realm of the supernal (Kether), a channel not accessible to most of humanity, who need to “drive like demon[s] from station to station.” There are, of course, both healthy and unhealthy ways to tap into mystical revelation, and according to many sources, the Station to Station portion of Bowie’s career was informed by his being “bombed out of his mind on cocaine.”

Bowie’s legacy, though, will not be his flirtation with Jewish esoteric traditions, his battle to overcome drug addiction, or his acting and painting forays. As Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times obituary, "Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called 'plastic soul,' but it was suffused with genuine soul. […] Throughout Mr. Bowie’s metamorphoses, he was always recognizable. His voice was widely imitated but always DB-Transformation-Colourhis own; his message was that there was always empathy beyond difference.”

We leave you with an animated representation of Bowie’s metamorphoses by illustrator Helen Green.

Lead image credit: "David Bowie draws the Tree of Life," photographed by Steve Shapiro, 1975