By Mendel Levison
The Omer was a measure that existed during the time of the Temple. When we use the word ‘omer’ today we are usually referring to specific measure of barley flour that was offered on the second day of Passover in the holy Temple in Jerusalem. This flour was prepared fresh from the newly harvested crop. It was brought to the Temple and there it was offered as part of the sacrificial service. Before the Omer was offered in the Temple it was forbidden for anyone anywhere to eat from the newly harvest grain crops. Once the Omer was offered, then the new grains became permitted to eat even outside of the Temple.
The Omer that was brought to the Temple was brought from barley that grew in the vicinity of Jerusalem. On the day before Passover, agents of the Sanhedrin (Jewish courts) were sent out to the fields to inspect and prepare the barley. They selected only the finest barley that could be found. They tied the the stalks together on the day before Passover (before they were cut) so that when it was time to harvest them it would be easier.
It was on the second night of Passover that the barley was harvested in a special ceremony. The people from nearby villages would come specially to Jerusalem and join with the local people there to watch the harvesting ceremony. Three outstanding and dignified members of the Jewish community would be selected to reap the barley. Each one had a sickle and basket large enough to reap ten omer measurements which is called a ‘se’ah‘.
When it was dark the ceremony began. They marched into the field which was illuminated by many torches. The person who was to do the harvest first turned to the people assembled and began to ask them questions. First he began by asking if the sun had set since the requirement was for the day after the Passover. Those assembled answered him in the positive. Then he would ask them if what he was holding was a sickle and they would answer again in the positive. Then he would ask if what he had with him was a basket and they would again answer in the positive. If it were Shabbat, when normally this type of work was prohibited, he would ask if it is the Shabbat and they would answer again in the positive. (Since this is a positive commandment it over rides the prohibition of harvesting on the Shabbat.) Then he asked them if he should cut the barley and they would answer “reap!” This whole ceremony was repeated three times.
The harvested barley was then dried and afterwords ground into fine flour. Then it was sifted thirteen times each time with a finer sieve so that the flour was the finest of the fine. The omer measure was now taken and mixed with oil and frankincense and from all of this just a handful was taken and offered on the altar. The rest was eaten by the priests.
After the omer was offered in the Temple, the farmers could now bring their newly harvested grain crop to the market place and sell it.
When we lived in our land and the holy Temple stood, this ceremony helped us realize that it is G-d who gives us the produce of the field. It is to Him we must thank for all benefits that we reap. This is also true for us, too. Even though we live in an age when we live and work at quite a distance from the agricultural mode of life of Temple times, and most people today earn a living with a 9 to 5 type of job, still, the message is clear: All of our blessings come from Him, and it is to Him we are obligated to thank.
Today all that remains from this important ceremony is the obligation to count the omer, meaning the days that have passed since the offering of the omer that was made on the second day of Passover. This counting continues until we come to the holiday of Shavout.
Needless to say we do not today have this ceremony since we do not have the Temple. But perhaps G-d in His great mercy will bring about a change and we shall merit to see the rebuilding of the holy Temple in Jerusalem and the re-institution of these important ceremonies that will bring back the blessings and closeness that we enjoyed with G-d. Until then, we must be patient and pray for Him to have mercy on the remainder of His people.