For each person, that nightly moment can be a time of introspection, an effort to become closer to the Torah, and a meditative practice to consider the events of the day, before moving on to the next.
"It's not just about counting numbers," said Rabbi Simon Jacobson, author of A Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer. "Hopefully by the end of 49 days, you've refined your character, or if nothing else, become more aware of your strengths and weaknesses.
The practice is rooted in an agricultural ritual cited in Leviticus 23:15-16 in which the Israelites waved an omer (a measurement) of barley in the field for seven weeks as a way of insuring a good harvest, Levy said.
Later, the practice was adapted by rabbis to commemorate the journey from slavery in Egypt to Mount Sinai. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Jewish mystics created a system that dedicates each week to a specific quality or characteristic, and each day to two-part combination of the seven qualities, Levy said.
The seven qualities assigned to each week are love/generosity; discipline/discernment; balance/harmony; endurance/ambition; gratitude/humility; bonding/connection; dignity/divine presence.
Jews are to contemplate their relationship to the qualities on each of the days. For instance, on the day that combines love and discipline, the personal lesson could be not to smother someone with love, Jacobson said.
Jacobson and Levy say they believe the practice is gaining popularity as Jews seek an increased spirituality and connection to God.
Levy was introduced to Counting the Omer 30 years ago at a seder hosted by a friend who took his guests outside to count.
"It was the beginning of my Jewish path. I had no idea" about counting, said Levy, author of Journey Through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer.
Levy went on to adopt the practice, which she said gained deeper meaning for her after trips to Israel, and later to the Red Rock Canyons of Utah, when counting the Omer occupied nearly all of her days.
"I had a journal and a book of Psalms. I would hike, write, and just sit," Levy said. "I feel my relationship with [the practice] deepened."
Levy has taught a class on the ritual for at least 15 years and also sends daily counting reminders, prayers and mediations via e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook. Jacobson sends daily e-mails to about 25,000 people.
Practitioners often use a special calendar to help them count the days. Amy Meltzer, who writes for beliefnet.com., created a candy calendar for her children, who get a sweet treat after each day is counted.
At Congregation Mikveh Israel in Old City, an ancient Omer calender is displayed each year beginning at Passover. The calendar, which is made of parchment and kept in a wooden case, predates the founding of the congregation in 1740, said Rabbi Albert E. Gabbai, of Mikveh Israel.
Last year, Linda Tarash, of Temple Sholom in Broomall, counted the Omer for the first time. She nearly forgot several times during the 49 days. (When a day is forgotten, a person can pick up with the next day, but some rabbis say that the ritual blessing can't be said once a day is forgotten, although the count itself can continue).
Tarash called the process a calming influence.
"All of us are so busy and we so infrequently take time to think about what the day means and how we treat people," Tarash said. "You won't get this day back again."
Susan Windle, a writer who converted to Judaism in 2008, learned about the practice from her teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold. Lance Laver, a member of Mishkan Shalom, has been counting the Omer for 10 years.
The Bala Cynwyd architect views it as more than a time of self-improvement.
It's about "being able to repair the world [Tikkun Olam, a Jewish principle] and getting connected to the other person," Laver said. "If you are struggling with anger, apathy or mistrust, it's harder to be there for others. So this is a period to look inside and outside at the same time."
Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or email@example.com.