The Conspiracy

On Scruffy Beards and Their Spiritual Significance

As you can see, Brad Pitt loves counting the omer. Credit:

My face itches a whole bunch right now, and it will continue to itch for almost two more weeks. While that may not generally be news worthy of discussion in a blog post for The Conspiracy, in this case it is. My face itches because I haven’t shaved in twenty days, and I haven’t shaved in twenty days because right now I am observing the Jewish practice known as “the omer.”

Each year, starting on the second night of Passover, many Jews decide to do a whole variety of funky things to commemorate this season. Traditionally, these observances include refraining from shaving, listening to instrumental music, and buying new clothing. Additionally, people vocally count out each day until Shavuot (49 days) and accompany that counting with a blessing.

While not universally the case, these customs are observed almost exclusively by Orthodox Jews. I personally don’t identify within any one denomination of Judaism, but it is safe to say I am not Orthodox. I don’t follow Kashrut laws or observe Shabbat in the ways a halakhic Jew would, and I do not view the Torah as the literal word of God. Yet today I’m going to try to convince you that the omer can be relevant to your life – even in the 21st century.

My first reason relates to a Talmudic legend regarding the omer. It is said that this period is a time of mourning for 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples who died during this time period. The idea is that their lives were taken because they did not respect each other fully as they studied Torah together.

I don’t believe that God kills people who do bad things or that God rewards people who do good things. But this message is nonetheless a profound one. Mistreating our friends and family can lead to harmful consequences. Maybe not death, but certainly alienation, distrust, or estrangement. Recognizing that is vital, and the omer helps us to do so.

My second reason relates specifically to not shaving. My beard doesn’t look so good right now. People also think it’s really bizarre. And like I said… it itches like crazy. But the discomfort I feel so frequently during this time period is not for naught. It serves as an important reminder of my Jewish identity.  When I scratch my beard, I’m not just thinking about what a fantastic contribution to the world the Gillette Fusion is. I’m also connecting to Jewish concepts of beauty, balance, and many other sefirot that have been coupled with each day of the omer. I do an awful lot of thinking over the course of 49 days, and that makes my day-to-day existence a little bit more meaningful.

One final reason that the omer can be so meaningful is that it serves as a beautiful build-up to Shavuot. On October 28th, or February 12th, or July 1st, I personally have these startling realizations that, “Holy smokes! Halloween (or Valentine’s Day, or the 4th of July) is right around the corner!” I have to scramble to find a costume, candy, or burger meat, and because I haven’t mentally readied myself for the holiday, it often doesn’t really mean anything to me. That is never true of Shavuot, because whenever it occurs I’ve been looking forward to it for 49 days.

When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out, there was little fanfare. Nobody knew it was going to mean so much to an entire generation of kids around the world. I loved the book, but most of us don’t remember exactly where we were when we bought it or received it as a gift. Millions of people around the world, however, can tell you exactly where they bought Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh book in the series. Many of them had the release date circled on their calendars for months (maybe even years), they dressed up in costume, and they stood on line for hours. The experience of reading Harry Potter was greatly enhanced simply because they anticipated it for months beforehand. Shavuot, in this case, is like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s so much more fun simply because we’ve literally been counting down the days for seven weeks before its arrival.

Counting the omer and observing some of its seemingly strange customs has been really meaningful for me. Meaning that comes in a scraggly and unkempt parcel, but meaning nonetheless. It’s helped me remember the important things: like how I sure as heck better buy myself some cheesecake ASAP because Shavuot’s less than 30 days away.


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