Jewish Artistic Creativity for the Days between Passover and Shavuot

May 12, 2023 | Sarah Ogince
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Following Leviticus 23, observant Jews ritually count the 49 days from the second day of Passover (when, in ancient times, the annual barley offering was brought) until the eve of the holiday of Shavuot. This practice, known as “counting the omer” after a biblical measurement of grain, has inspired various artistic works, as Sarah Ogince explains:

Tobi Kahn grasps an asymmetric block of wood in both hands. He turns the piece, a fluid combination of angles and curves painted a rich metallic pewter, to reveal the base: a perfect rectangle, soft gold and marked with a hand-written number eight. Behind him, 48 similar blocks sit in a wooden grid suspended from the wall. “I didn’t want each individual piece to look the same because every day is a different day,” he says.

Very much a work of 21st-century art, Kahn’s sculpture is also part of a tradition that stretches back centuries. . . . Omer counters have been a staple item of Judaica since at least the 18th century. “We see so much artistic creativity: paper cuts, books—handwritten and printed—parchment scrolls in calendar boxes,” says Abigail Rapoport, curator of Judaica at the Jewish Museum in New York, which has a large collection of omer counters, including Kahn’s.

A parchment counter from the 18th century in the Netherlands depicts the numbers intertwined with tulips—not long after the region’s “tulip mania”—and colorful birds. Portuguese script next to the numbers hints that the counter was made by descendants of refugees fleeing that country’s inquisition.

A counter produced in early 20th-century Rochester, NY shows a darker aspect of the counting of the omer: the Talmud relates that 24,000 students of the [2nd-century] sage Rabbi Akiva perished in a plague during this time, and many Jews observe it as a period of mourning. The intricate papercut counter doubles as a memorial plaque that includes hundreds of names of deceased congregants.

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