Counting The Omer
By Erik Contzius
As Dr. Sarason mentioned in his "Delving into T'filah" on the counting of the Omer, the s'firah period is considered a period of mourning for the Jewish people. As such, traditional Jews refrain from the playing of musical instruments and general enjoyment of music at this time of the year. Despite this prohibition however, much has been made musically of the liturgy of the counting itself.
As in Mishkan T'filah, the traditional counting begins at the evening service with the text, "Hin'ni muchan um'zuman..." "I am ready to fulfill the mitzvah of counting the Omer." This sentence helps us focus our kavanah (intention) so that when we count, we are not merely performing a simple counting of a day on the calendar. Rather, we are eager to count another additional day, building up to the eventual arrival of Shavuot, and thus, the receiving of the Torah. Music is probably the best kavanah inducing tool we have in prayer. This setting by Michael Alexandrovich and Shmuel Alman is festive and anticipates the counting with joy (listen to track number 10).
The counting of the Omer itself is relatively direct: First, the blessing over the counting is recited, followed by the declaration of the day's counting, enumerated both in days and, once the seventh day is reached, in weeks and days. Since the period of the Omer is considered somber, the musical setting of the blessing and counting, too, echoes this sentiment. The following is a setting of the blessing and the counting for the thirteenth day of the Omer (which is one week and six days of the Omer) as composed by Israel Alter. Listen
There are many more elaborate musical settings of the counting. They usually include – in more traditional Ashkenazi settings – the text, "Ribono Shel Olam Ata tzivitanu..." This text, probably Kabbalistic in origin, suggests the reason we are commanded to count the Omer is to cleanse us of evil. By our counting, we might be purified in a fashion similar to asking for repentance on the High Holy Days. Many of these notable musical settings by cantorial greats like Yossele Rosenblatt (listen to track number 1). Moshe Ganschoff, and many others, included large choirs and even accompaniment. Even today, there is a custom of including the counting of the Omer as a part of cantorial concerts. But if music is prohibited during this period, how is this practice permissible?
Apparently, there is a legal fiction that has evolved over centuries that by virtue of centering a concert around a weekday ma'ariv (evening) service, which during this period would include the counting of the omer, one could perform a concert which included other music as well. Thus evolved the tradition of the "Sefirah Concert." Many can be found on YouTube and in Jewish communities around the world today.
Of special note is the 33rd day of the Omer (Lag B’Omer), which – although it doesn't formally end the counting of the Omer – does commemorate the Bar Kochba Revolt against the Roman Empire and has become a day of celebrating the Jewish spirit. All the mourning restrictions are lifted on this day of the Omer, and many concerts and celebrations take place.
As Dr. Sarason mentioned, the Reform Movement by and large abandoned the ritual of the counting and is only now exploring its meaning in the modern synagogue. As such, there are very few, if any, modern settings of these liturgies. I would encourage people interested in this tradition to explore the following two recordings. Perhaps, as this practice is more widely explored, composers may become inspired to write settings of these prayers that will echo the sentiments of the past while embracing the aesthetic of the future:
Leil Shimurim - a Collection of Prayers for Passover and the Omer Counting Days
Ribono Shel Olam
Erik Contzius serves Temple Israel of New Rochelle as Cantor.
Enjoy a summer of learning and renewal! Join us for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Summer Learning Institute, August 8-12, 2012 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati Campus with housing at Kingsgate Marriott Conference Center at the University of Cincinnati. Our programs include Kallah, an Adult Learning Retreat, Had’rachah, ritual training for lay leaders, and Schindler Fellows for Interfaith Certification, training to provide support for conversion candidates. Registration is now open!