Summer weather in Israel extends from sometime in May through September in most years. By now, nearly in the middle of June, the trees are maturely in bloom, most flowers have appeared (and many have gone,) and the greens are still lush, not yet showing the dusty look that comes late in the dry summer months. We are approaching the Summer Solstice, which marks the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere; even after the solstice, the length of the days changes little for weeks.
But the summer has segments that can be seen to be distinct from one another. For those attuned to the Jewish calendar, there is a period of about six weeks within this long stretch of summer that is different from what preceded it and what follows. This period, and we are in the middle of it now, could be called “Plain Old Summer Time.” Why is that?
It’s a period without conscious counting. From the second day of Passover until the day before Shavuot, there is the seven week counting of the Omer. This daily count from 1 to 49 is also expressed in its equivalent number of weeks and days. Thus, the 13th day of the Omer is “one week and six days;” the 22nd day is “three weeks and one day,” the 39th day is “five weeks and four days”, and the 49th day is “seven weeks.” The process of counting inevitably leads one to focus on the end of the count, which is the holiday of Shavuot, marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Many have commented that while Passover celebrates freedom, Shavuot focused on a set of rules about how we use that freedom – both things to do and things not do to.
The message of Judaism regarding this conscious link between Passover and Shavuot is that the celebration of freedom, by itself, is not enough. People can do much harm to others and to the world about us if they exercise their freedom without restraint. Of course, the “dos and don’ts” of Judaism are not totally in agreement with those of other ethical systems; but the need to set limits on the exercise of freedom seems clear. The counting of the Omer very consciously links freedom with a set of rules that instructs us on the use of that freedom.
“Plain Old Summer Time” starts the day after Shavuot and concludes with the 17th of Tammuz. Why? Because on that day we start counting again. The 17th of Tammuz is a minor fast day that marks the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached, leading to the subsequent destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Thus, the 17th of Tammuz begins a three week downcast period that terminates on the ninth of Av, Tisha b’Av, the day that marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. On the Shabbatot during the three weeks we read special Haftorot of warning. And immediately after Tisha b’Av, we start a new count – there are seven Shabbatot between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah. On these Shabbatot, we read seven Haftorot of consolation, beginning most famously with “Be comforted, be comforted, my people.”
Just as the counting of the Omer focuses the mind on the approaching holiday of Shavuot, the ten-week count that starts on the 17th of Tammuz brings to mind the realization that Rosh Hashanah, and the Days of Awe, are now coming into view, are approaching.
So, during “Plain Old Summer Time” we can savor each day with a relaxed feeling. We are “in the middle of things,” as it were. We know that soon enough, we will resume a conscious, forward-looking count. But not yet.
Of course, “count” and “counting,” like many words in English, have more than a single meaning. I pointed out to my dermatologist, who is an observant Jew, the contrast between “Plain Old Summer Time” and the periods of “counting” that precede and follow, and he agreed, smiled, and said, “even now, we have to make each day count.”