The Mysticism Behind the Counting of the Omer

A look at the Kabbalistic significance of the Counting of the Omer, which culminates in the festival of Shavuot

"The Counting of the Omer by Way of the Kabbalah", Italy, 1782, the National Library of Israel collections

The Counting of the Omer (Sefirat HaOmer) – the commandment to count the 49 days from the second day of Passover until the festival of Shavuot – was just one of the 613 commandments (mitzvot), and over history was performed, more or less, according to the particulars of Jewish law. In the Biblical text, the idea behind this mitzvah was to focus on the critical period between the barley and wheat harvests and the bringing of seasonally appropriate sacrificial offerings.

Yet quickly, over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the commandment became especially significant as a result of the great influence of Lurianic Kabbalah and the influence of the Kabbalistic circle in the city of Safed. As a result, new elements were added to the prayers recited during the Counting of the Omer, additions that focused on the mystical meanings attributed to the seven-week cycle of seven days each. Through the performance of this seemingly minor mitzvah, worshippers were not only able to purify and sanctify themselves; they were also given the opportunity to assist in bringing forward the Messianic Era and redeeming the entire cosmos.

An Ashkenazic rite siddur (prayer book) from Bratislava, 1734, the National Library collections; click on the image to browse through the book

The new mystical focus that Lurianic Kabbalah brought to Jewish prayer caught on rapidly and reached circles far beyond those adept at the study of the secrets of Kabbalah. Very soon, special editions of prayer books were printed specifically for the Counting of the Omer, while exquisitely illustrated manuscripts were also inscribed, all for the purpose of beautifying the performance of the mitzvah and helping the worshiper to focus on the Kabbalistic meaning of the Counting.

Lurianic Kabbalah was often the impetus for attributing new mystical meanings to existing Jewish rituals, especially in relation to the desire to unite and join the disparate and separated elements of the spiritual worlds of Jewish mysticism. While performing the mitzvot, the believer can focus his or her attention on uniting and connecting the Kabbalistic sefirot (the mystical powers or elements of the Godhead) in order to achieve unity, cohesion and coordination in a broken and disjointed universe. Despite the opposition of certain circles to the spreading of Kabbalistic customs to the masses, Lurianic Kabbalah also played a popularizing role, creating rituals and prayers shared by both learned sages and less knowledgeable Jewish worshippers. Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, which quickly became an integral part of the Jewish Shabbat prayer routine around the world, are a clear example of this.

The Counting of the Omer by Way of the Kabbalah, Italy, circa 1850, the National Library collections; click on the images to browse through the book

With the internalization and acceptance of the ideas of the Kabbalah, believers began to understand the concept of seven-week cycles and each of the seven days of the week as parallel to the seven lower sefirot of the Kabbalah, which were perceived as a more accessible unit in the heavenly spheres. Thus, the words Sefirat HaOmer, (The Counting of the Omer), also stimulated a connection to the Kabbalistic sefirot. One of the central concepts of Lurianic Kabbalah is that of tikkun – the ability of a person, through actions made with special intentions, to bring about harmony in the heavenly realms. The special prayers of the Counting of the Omer envision seven internal sefirot within the seven lower sefirot so that each week is dedicated to the tikkun of one sefira, while each day of the week is dedicated to the tikkun of one internal sefira.

In honor of the festival of Shavuot, the National Library is unveiling several examples of these prayer books, which clearly reflect a growing enthusiasm for the fulfillment of the Counting of the Omer.


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Prayers, Amulets and Spells to Ward off Plague

The sages of Safed created amulets, the Jews of Italy wrote prayers and other Jews warned of less conventional plagues…

An amulet attributed to Isaac Luria, "The Holy ARI", 1855

The first occurrence of plague in the recorded history of the Middle East was known as the “Plague of Justinian”, named after the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I. It made its way to the Land of Israel from Egypt around 541-542 AD. The results were documented in detail by the emperor’s court historian.

A thousand years later, the residents of the land were still dealing with fairly frequent outbreaks. Throughout the 16th century, plague spread across different parts of the Middle East. The common wisdom in Jerusalem of the period spoke of a new wave of pestilence hitting the city every six or seven years. In the writings of the sages of the holy city of Safed (Zfat), in the northern Land of Israel, we find evidence that these rabbis sought to fight off the plague with the help of special amulets, among other things.

We found the amulet below in a copy of the book Shaar HaYichudim (“The Gate of Unifications”) by the famous Safed Kabbalist Hayyim ben Joseph Vital. The Hebrew title appearing at the top reads “This amulet is for plague from the holy ARI…” (The holy ARI was Rabbi Isaac Luria, Vital’s teacher). The charm in fact consists of two different amulets joined together, one on top and one below. The image here is taken from a later printing of the book which includes various commentaries on the writings of Vital and Luria, but the amulet, or similar versions of it, appear in earlier printings as well. This edition was published in 1855 in the city of Lemberg, today’s Lviv, in western Ukraine. Isaac Luria perished during an outbreak of plague in the year 1572, when he was only 38 years old.

The letters appearing in the upper amulet – אנקתם פסתם פספסים דיונסים, likely transliterated as Anaktam Pastam Paspasim Dionsim – form one of the secret divine names, according to certain Jewish mystical traditions

Another interesting text can be found in a manuscript which is part of the Bill Gross Collection and which received the rather generic title, “Prayers Against the Plague“. The text begins with the words שויתי יהוה לנגדי תמיד (“I have placed the Lord before me constantly“), followed immediately by Psalm 91, in which the speaker tells of the refuge provided by the wings of the Lord, while also citing the various evils from which he is protected, including “devastating pestilence” (דבר הוות). Later, the story of how Aaron the High Priest was able to halt the plague with incense is recounted, along with what appears to be a recipe.

As opposed to the Kabbalists of Safed, who invoked the secret divine names to save themselves, the scribes of this manuscript decided to make use of canonical texts telling of the victories of God over the various plagues which threatened the People of Israel. Judging by the style of script, as well as the name of the youth to whom the manuscript was dedicated – Yosef Tzemach Gabriel Donati – which appears on the last page, it is likely that the manuscript was inscribed in Italy during the 18th or 19th century.

The manuscript ends with a dedication to a young man: Yosef Tzemach Gabriel Donati

Over time, the Hebrew word for “plague” – Magefa (מגפה) – has come to be associated with other meanings as well. In the pashkevil broadsides which are popular in ultra-orthodox Jewish communities, the word is often used to describe various “ills” which have spread throughout modern Israeli society, whether they be of a biological, theological or moral nature. In 1980, this Pashkevil poster warning of the plague of archaeology spreading throughout the Holy Land was printed and hung up in various ultra-orthodox communities. The text states that “new areas are discovered from time to time, where the plague of archaeology has taken hold in the northern, southern and central regions“.

“The plague of archaeology”, a pashkevil from 1980

Another pashkevil, seen here below, which dates to the period of the British Mandate, warns of the “plague” of eating and selling non-kosher meat, which had “broken out” among the Jewish community.

A “plague” of non-kosher meat, from the British Mandate period

The last manuscript which we will present also hails from 19th century Italy. It is preserved today in the British Library in London.

The main difference here relates to the type of pestilence which was spreading across the country, with the text mentioning an outbreak of “cholera morbus” (קולירה מורבוץ) and expressing the hope that “no harm will befall us, nor will a plague draw near to our tent“. Like other manuscripts of its kind, it draws a link between observance of the laws handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai and the health of the individual and the community. This promise is expressed in the quote: “I, the Lord, heal you, for it is written – and the sun of mercy shall rise with healing in its wings for you who fear My Name.”

A prayer warding off the effects of cholera morbus, Italy, 19th century, the British Library


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Erasing the Name of Haman the Wicked: The Origin of the Grogger

How does one drown out the name of the most hated, evil man in the Megillah? By making good use of a Christian folk tradition of course!

Haman meets his end, Scroll of Esther, Ferrara, Italy, 1617, the National Library of Israel

There are few people in Jewish history who are despised as much as the wicked Haman, the villain of the story of Purim and the Book, or Scroll, of Esther. As the saying goes, “in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us” – words embodied by the figure of Haman, whose actions fulfill the supposed prophecy/timeless historical truth. Haman the Wicked, Haman the Evil, and various other derogatory epithets have been attached to his name – even in the Scroll of Esther itself. The story even links his name to Israel’s greatest enemy – the Amalekites. He is described as “Haman the Agagite” in the Megillah (scroll) of Esther, thus linking him to Agag, king of Amalek. In the book of Deuteronomy (25:19) Israel is ordered “blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven”.

So how do we erase the name of the man who is mentioned repeatedly in the Megillah, which we read during the festival of Purim?

Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan writes of a 13th century custom, in which young boys “would take pebbles from a stream and write ‘Haman’ on them. Then, they would knock the stones together while citing the name of Haman and his crimes, ‘and the name of the wicked shall rot’“. This idea quickly gained popularity among European Jewry and was manifested in various ways, such as breaking clay pots or banging on synagogue tables – with one’s hands or with wood sticks prepared in advance.

About three hundred years later, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (“The Rema”) also wrote of a custom popular among children, who would bang pieces of wood or stone with the name of Haman written on them against each other, all with the purpose of erasing the name of the wicked foe.

“So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai”, Scroll of Esther, 18th century, Amsterdam, the National Library of Israel

The common theme is that the very purpose of mentioning Haman’s name is to erase it, in both the literal sense – the gradual disappearance of the letters of Haman’s name from the river pebbles as they are knocked together – as well as in the sense of noisily drowning out the name of Haman with the sound of objects banging against each other. Rabbi Isserles added that this customary noise making evolved into the practice of “beating” Haman by producing similar noises whenever his name was mentioned during the reading of the Megillah in the synagogues.

When, therefore, do we meet the Purim noisemaker – the grogger?

It seems as though this unique toy only became popular among Jewish populations during the 19th century.

Reading the Megillah in Tel Aviv, 1985; The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Before the grogger, came the firecrackers. In 17th-century Germany, from the moment gunpowder became an affordable commodity, young boys began adding early forms of firecrackers to their noise-making tools. These crude explosives were made of various combustible materials that were relatively available and easy to find, with sulfur or gunpowder sprinkled generously on top. This custom quickly spread to Poland, Lithuania, Russia, and Romania, and from there to other Jewish communities. Occasionally, a hollow key was filled with gunpowder and then lit ablaze; a practice that could still be observed in 1930s Tel Aviv.

Regarding the noisemakers and groggers, in addition to written testimony from different periods, we also have physical examples which survive from the 18th-century onwards. They first appeared in Europe and later spread to Eastern communities. Ethnographer Yom-Tov Lewinski, noted that “groggers originated in Greece” – meaning Ancient Greece. The Romans used them in various magical rituals and ceremonies, and during the Middle Ages, noisemakers became popular among Christian communities.

“He robed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city streets, proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!” The Scroll of Esther, 18th century, Amsterdam, the National Library of Israel

The custom of using groggers on Purim was likely born out of popular folk traditions (common among Middle Age Christians) that held that such noisemakers contained the power to exorcize evil demons and spirits. Groggers were used during weddings and violent storms, and even to welcome the coming of spring. During the buildup to Easter Sunday, when church bells were ordered silenced, groggers were used to summon Christian worshippers to prayer. On the eve of Easter, Christian youths used groggers to “beat” or punish Judas Iscariot, and from there, we can assume that the custom extended to Ashkenaz Jewry, who “beat” the figure of Haman the Wicked.

The first direct evidence of the use of Purim groggers dates to 19th-century Europe. We also have examples from the same period in the United States, especially in New York. This being said, in Mimi Reuter’s doctoral thesis, which assisted us greatly in the preparation of this article, she writes that “there appear to be two Purim groggers, which are dated to the 18th century, but it is likely that they are actually from a later period.”

Two early examples of groggers, Holland (left) and Italy (right), from The Book of Festivals – Purim, Lag Ba’Omer, Tu Be’Av, Yom-Tov Lewinski, Agudat Oneg Shabbat, (1950)

The Jewish grogger, or gragger, or gregger is known by many names. In Polish it is called a terkotka, in French crécelle and in Hungarian kereplő. In Hebrew the word for noisemaker is ra’ashan, derived from the root ra’ash (רעש), which simply means “noise”.


Thanks to Shirat-Miriam Shamir, aka Mimi Reuter, for her assistance in the preparation of this article.


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A 15th Century Jewish Prayer Book Has Been Fully Restored by the National Library

The "Moskowitz Mahzor" was created by one of the Middle Ages' most important Jewish artists, Joel ben Simeon; It is now available to the public online

The renowned Moskowitz Mahzor is a manuscript inscribed on parchment in the 15th century by Joel ben Simeon, considered by many to be the most important Jewish artist of the Middle Ages. Ben Simeon was a scribe and illuminator active in Germany and Northern Italy. The manuscript is considered exceptional due to the stunning illustrations and illuminations found throughout, including images of rabbits, bears, fish, squirrels, and birds, as well as imaginary creations such as a unicorn, and a diverse range of mythological, religious and astrological symbols.

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The restoration work on the Moskowitz Mahzor has now been completed and the exquisite manuscript is available online for the first time.



מחזור התפילה לפני השחזור
The Moskowitz Mahzor, before its restoration

It includes prayers according to the Jewish Roman rite for the entire year, including weekdays, the Sabbath, holidays, Torah readings, the Passover Haggadah, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) with Maimonides’ commentary, various blessings, and rulings related to Jewish law.  It is also exceptionally full of piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poetry), slichot (Jewish penitential prayers), as well as rare formulas of other prayers.

After restoration


The months long restoration work on the 376 page treasure was extremely complicated, primarily because poor attempts over the centuries to fix its binding had made it difficult to open without causing damage. A number of Latin texts found inside the binding, attest to some attempts to strengthen the cover. Many of the manuscript’s illustrations had also faded over time.


Several examples of decorative elements found in the Moskowitz Mahzor

The Mahzor was donated to the National Library of Israel in 1970 by Henry and Rose Moskowitz of New York in memory of Henry’s parents, first wife, daughter and other relatives murdered in the Holocaust.

According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Head of Collections and Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection curator at the National Library of Israel, “For a long time we unfortunately could not offer physical access to one of the most important and beautiful manuscripts in our collection due to its fragile condition. Now, as a result of the wonderful work done by the team in our Conservation and Restoration Laboratory, the manuscript has been restored and digitized, opening access to the world for the first time.”

The complete restored Moskowitz Mahzor is now available online.


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