Before we explore the topic of the Counting of the Omer, a little background information on the Omer itself is helpful.
On the second day of Pesach, there were two special sacrificial offerings brought by the Kohen, the priest, in the Bais HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. The first is the Mussaf – the sacrifice that is brought in honor of Pesach, a sacrifice which is in addition to the daily sacrifices. The second is the Omer HaTenufah, the “Omer which is waived.” The Torah tells us about this offering in Vayikra, 23:9, where the verse tells us ” …you are to bring an Omer of the first of your reaping to the Kohen. And he shall waive the Omer before Hashem to your satisfaction….” Prior to the time that the Omer was brought, it was forbidden to use any of the new grain crop that was in the fields. Once the Omer was brought, the use of all grain that had taken root beforehand was permitted. The Omer was harvested amidst much fanfare. The Mishnayot in the tenth chapter of Menachot describes the procedure. Here is a brief sketch: The Omer was to be from barley, and no other grain. The Omer should be harvested from a field close to Jerusalem, as we have a tradition to do a mitzvah as soon as we have the opportunity, “ain ma’avirin al ha’mitzvos.” Therefore, as the harvesters of the Omer leave from Jerusalem, they should harvest from the field closest to Jerusalem, which provides the earliest opportunity to perform the mitzvah. However, a field in any place will do, in the event no ripe barley is found near Jerusalem. On the day before Pesach, agents of the court would go out to the barley field and tie together fistfuls of barley stalks at their tips. This made the Omer easier to reap on the second day of Pesach. As the end of the first day of Pesach neared, inhabitants of all nearby towns would come and assemble near the harvest site. Three men were designated to do the reaping. As soon as it became dark outside, the three appointees began to ask questions of all those assembled:
Did the sun set? Is this the sickle I am supposed to use? Is this the basket I am supposed to use? Is this the Sabbath I am to do it on? Should I reap? Each question was asked by each of the appointees, and for each question, the crowd answered yes.
What was the reason for all this fanfare and questioning? At the time of the Mishna, there were a group of Jews who followed the teachings of a man named Baytus, Boethus. The Baytusim, as this group was known, followed what the Written Torah said literally, and rejected the Oral Torah, the Mishna, Torah SheB’al Peh. In the Torah, it says the Omer is to be brought “me’macharas ha’shabbos,” the day after the Sabbath. According to the Oral Law, we know that the Sabbath being referred to is the first day of Pesach. The term Sabbath is used because of the obligation to cease performing labor on the day. However, the Baytusim interpreted the term Sabbath literally, and therefore they held that the Omer was to brought on a Sunday, the day after the Sabbath. In order to demonstrate that the interpretation of the Baytusim was erroneous, the Sages set down that the reaping of the Omer be done with great fanfare, with great crowds, in a way which would clearly demonstrate that they were not acting in accordance with the opinion of the Baytusim.
Once the Omer was reaped, it was placed in baskets and brought to the courtyard of the Temple, the Bais HaMikdash. It was then roasted. After being roasted, the kernels were spread out, to assure that they would be dry. The barley was coarsely ground. A measure called an Issaron was taken from the ground barley, and it was sifted with thirteen sieves. The Issaron of flour was taken, and oil and frankincense were added to it. These ingredients were poured and mixed by a Kohen (although a non-Kohen could do this as well). It was waved and brought near the Altar. The Kohen then performed a process called Kemitzah ( of which in part entailed of gathering a certain amount of flour with his hand ), and then the part which had Kemitzah done on it, the Kometz, was burnt on the Altar.
Why do we have the Mitzvah of bringing the Omer? (Although we know that we cannot truly explain the reasons behind Mitzvos, the Sefer HaChinuch explains underlying reasons and ideas about mitzvoth that we should recognize and motivate ourselves with.) In regards to the bringing of the Omer, the Sefer HaChinuch writes that this offering allows us an opportunity for reflection. We are to understand that it is only because of the kindness of Hashem that all of the Earth’s creatures are sustained, ourselves included. Each year, Hashem provides for us by causing the grains and vegetation to grow. It is fitting that we acknowledge that the grain which has just ripened, that we are about to benefit from, is there only by the grace and kindness of Hashem. We therefore bring an offering of thanks to Hashem from the first of that which we are about to consume, from the first of the grain we are about to harvest, with the hope that Hashem will continue to shower us with blessings, and provide us with further sustenance.