Tonight after sundown is the last night of counting the Omer among certain Jewish sects. Today is also the date in 1947 on which their first motor car prototype was unveiled by the Saab company, which previously had been solely an aircraft manufacturer. In keeping with this year’s theme of moveable feasts in this blog, I’ll go with the former.
Counting of the Omer (ספירת העומר, Sefirat HaOmer, sometimes abbreviated as Sefira or the Omer) is the verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot as commanded in the Hebrew Bible in Leviticus 23:15–16:
15 From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.
16 Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord.
Chapter 23 in Leviticus sets out all the holidays that Jews should observe and their dating, and this particular span refers to the distance between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot (coming up). Whether an observant Jew is supposed to literally count each day out loud is a matter of dispute among rabbinic scholars. My reading of the Hebrew leads me to the conclusion that the text is simply saying “make a calculation,” and not literally calling for a daily count. But the tradition of counting day by day got established at some point and has stuck.
There is something to be said for religious periods of anticipation and preparation – firmly established in the Christian traditions of Advent and Lent (leading to Christmas and Easter respectively), and rooted in the Jewish tradition of periods of prayer and fasting before significant events. I’ve said many times, here and elsewhere, that I find big celebrations to be much more satisfying if they are approached slowly and carefully, rather than by just coming upon them with a big bang. However, times of preparation are not popular in the modern – breathlessly hurried – world, so that counting the Omer is a rare practice nowadays, confined only to the most observant of religious Jews. Observant Jews sometimes have a device or calendar as a concrete reference to what day it is within the Omer.
As soon as it is definitely night (approximately thirty minutes after sundown), the one who is counting the Omer recites this blessing in Hebrew:
Baruch atah A-donai E-loheinu Melekh Ha-olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al S’firat Ha-omer.
(Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.)
Then he or she states the Omer-count in terms of both total days and weeks and days. For example, on the 23rd day the count would be stated thus: “Today is twenty-three days, which is three weeks and two days ‘of’ [or] ‘to’ (לעומר) [or] ‘in’ (בעומר) the Omer”. The count is usually said in Hebrew but it can be said in one’s native language.
In Kabbalistic Judaism the period of the counting of the Omer is considered to be a time of potential for inner growth – for people to work on their good characteristics (middot) through reflection and development of one aspect each day for the 49 days of the counting. In the Kabbalah, each of the seven weeks of the Omer-counting is associated with one of the seven lower sephirot. The Hebrew names do not have an easy English translation, and they have very complex associations in the Kabbalah:
Each day of each week is also associated with one of these same seven sefirot, creating forty-nine permutations. The first day of the Omer, for example, is associated with “chesed that is in chesed” (loving-kindness within loving-kindness), the second day with “gevurah that is in chesed” (strength within loving-kindness), and so on.
Symbolically, each of these 49 permutations represents an aspect of each person’s character that can be improved or further developed. If you are interested there are numerous books and websites devoted to daily interpretations and practices, such as Simon Jacobson, The Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer, or Yaacov Haber and David Sedley, Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement through Counting the Omer, or go here http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/276672/jewish/Spiritual-Guide.htm
As it happens, the night of the final count this year is also the beginning of the Shabbat, so a special dinner is in order. In Britain and the United States, certain dishes are traditional for Shabbat dinners and are referred to as “Jewish” cuisine. As I have said before here, this is a misnomer. Many Jews in the U.S., especially the northeast, descend from Germanic or eastern European Jews, and their cooking reflects the heritage of these cultures, not something that is uniquely Jewish, although it is important to keep kosher, so that there are no dishes that use pork products, or mix meat and dairy.
Here’s a Sephardic dish, Moroccan Lemon Chicken, that I like. Chicken, and chicken soup, are proverbially Jewish dishes in the U.S., and this is one of my favorites.
Moroccan Lemon Chicken
1 chicken (4 lbs), skinned and cut in 8 pieces
½ tsp powdered saffron
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 qt chicken stock
fresh chopped cilantro (for garnish)
salt and pepper
Mix the saffron powder, cumin, paprika, turmeric, ginger, cayenne pepper and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture evenly on the chicken pieces.
Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a deep skillet large enough to hold all the chicken pieces in one layer. Sauté the onions until they are softened. Add the garlic for an additional minute, and do not let it take on any color. Add the chicken pieces in a single layer.
Pour the stock over the chicken pieces so that they are barely covered. Add the juice of the lemons and the peel, thinly sliced. Bring to a very gentle simmer, cover and cook for about 60 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. Cooking time is highly variable depending on the quality of the chicken and your personal tastes. I tend to stop once the chicken is fully cooked and no more.
Remove the chicken pieces to a warm plate, and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce for about 2 minutes. You can add extra lemon juice at this point if you like. Taste first!
Place the chicken pieces over boiled basmati rice on a serving platter. Pour the reduced sauce over the chicken pieces, and garnish with cilantro.