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Counting the Omer – It is something we are commanded to do every year, but how many of us know where the requirement comes from and the reason why we do it? Here are two explanations for the counting, the first from Judaism 101 and the second from Chabad.com. Read them and you will know the reasons behind this custom which is not just a tradition, but is required by Halachic law.
From Judaism 101
The Counting of the Omer
Significance: Connects Pesach (Exodus) to Shavu’ot (giving of the Torah)
Observances: Count the number of days every night
You shall count for yourselves — from the day after the Shabbat, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving — seven Shabbats, they shall be complete. Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count, fifty days… -Leviticus 23:15-16
You shall count for yourselves seven weeks, from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop shall you begin counting seven weeks. Then you will observe the Festival of Shavu’ot for the L-RD, your G-d -Deuteronomy 16:9-10
According to the Torah (Lev. 23:15), we are obligated to count the days from Passover to Shavu’ot. This period is known as the Counting of the Omer. An omer is a unit of measure. On the second day of Passover, in the days of the Temple, an omer of barley was cut down and brought to the Temple as an offering. This grain offering was referred to as the Omer.
Every night, from the second night of Passover to the night before Shavu’ot, we recite a blessing and state the count of the omer in both weeks and days. So on the 16th day, you would say “Today is sixteen days, which is two weeks and two days of the Omer.” The Orthodox Union has a chart that provides the transliterated Hebrew and English text of the counting day-by-day. Or if you’d prefer an amusing (yet still accurate!) Simpsons-themed discussion of the Omer along with an Omer calendar, check out The Homer Calendar.
The counting is intended to remind us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, and Shavu’ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. It reminds us that the redemption from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah.
This period is a time of partial mourning, during which weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing are not conducted, in memory of a plague during the lifetime of Rabbi Akiba. Haircuts during this time are also forbidden. The 33rd day of the Omer (the eighteenth of Iyar) is a minor holiday commemorating a break in the plague. The holiday is known as Lag b’Omer. The mourning practices of the omer period are lifted on that date. The word “Lag” is not really a word; it is the number 33 in Hebrew, as if you were to call the Fourth of July “Iv July” (IV being 4 in Roman numerals).
There was at one time a dispute as to when the counting should begin. The Pharisees believed that G-d gave Moses an oral Torah along with the writtenTorah, and according to that oral Torah the word “Shabbat” in Lev. 23:15 referred to the first day of Passover, which is a “Shabbat” in the sense that no work is permitted on the day (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are both referred to as “Shabbat” in this sense, though they cannot both occur on a Saturday in the same year; see Lev. 23:24 and 23:32; see also Lev. 23:39 the first and eighth days of Sukkot are called “Shabbat”). In this view, held by most Jews today, the counting begins on the second night of Passover, that is, the day after the non-working day of Passover. The Tzedukim (Sadducees) rejected the idea of an oral Torah and believed that the word “Shabbat” in Lev. 23:15 referred to the Shabbat of the week when Pesach began, so counting would always begin on a Saturday night during Passover. The Sadducees no longer exist; today, only a small sect call the Karaites follow this view.
“When you take this people out of Egypt,” said G?d to Moses when He revealed Himself to him in a burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai, “you shall serve G?d on this mountain.”
It took seven weeks to reach the mountain. The people of Israel departed Egypt on the 15th of Nissan (the first day of Passover); on the 6th of Sivan, celebrated ever since as the festival of Shavuot, they assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai and received the Torah from G?d.
The Kabbalists explain that the 49 days that connect Passover with Shavuot correspond to the 49 drives and traits of the human heart. Each day saw the refinement of one of these sefirot, bringing the people of Israel one step closer to their election as G?d’s chosen people and their receiving of His communication to humanity.
Each year, we retrace this inner journey with our “Counting of the Omer.” Beginning on the second night of Passover, we count the days and weeks: “Today is one day to the Omer”; “Today is two days to the Omer”; “Today is seven days, which are one week to the Omer”; and so on, till “Today is forty-nine days, which are seven weeks to the Omer.” Shavuot, the “Festival of Weeks,” is the product of this count, driven by the miracles and revelations of the Exodus but achieved by a methodical, 49-step process of self-refinement within the human soul.