Objects Tell Stories: Counting the Omer with Tobi... Read More
Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, begins at sundown on Saturday, May 20. Each year, the Jewish holiday is viewed as a renewal of the Torah’s spiritual gifts. The interval between Passover (the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt) and Shavuot (the giving of the law at Mount Sinai), is marked by the ceremonial counting of the omer. The omer refers to a measure of barley that was originally offered at the Temple of Jerusalem on the second day of Passover. From that point, seven weeks — 49 days — would pass until Shavuot, the day the wheat harvest began. The omer is counted each evening and accompanied by the recitation of a blessing and prayers.
Over the centuries, various forms of ingenious calendars have evolved to aid in the counting of omer. One unique calendar in the Jewish Museum collection was designed by artist Tobi Kahn, entitled Saphyr (2002). A sculpture made of wooden pegs, the interactive work facilitates the countdown from Passover to Shavuot with 49 pegs, of which one can be removed on each day. Alternatively, one could start with an empty grid and replace the pegs.https://medium.com/media/7c59ef936c6ed72c8410dee0812541aa/href
Like much of Kahn’s work, Saphyr is inspired by the artist’s personal reactions to Jewish culture and is intended to encourage viewers to engage with Jewish traditions and invest them with personal meaning. In a series of video interviews from the Museum archives, the artist describes the creation of the omer calendar and his childhood counting memories. The pegs were conceived as miniature houses with compartments painted in gold to symbolize the spiritual journey embodied in the interval between Passover and Shavuot. Each peg on his counter is unique, but they all fit together as a whole, with their combined form suggesting rooftops of a village.https://medium.com/media/ca186a1946d1a490717e7aeca6890229/href
Increasingly, historical material in the Jewish Museum’s holdings can be found in digital formats. Leading up to the holiday, Senior Curator Susan Braunstein unearthed a digital file from 2006, which contained an interactive website counterpart for Saphyr. While Kahn’s omer calendar was on display at the Museum, visitors could access the website on a laptop in the exhibition gallery, allowing users to count the omer with the sculpture as Kahn designed it.https://medium.com/media/85e4952756c4c6111f35f912f8ed92a5/href
Fast-forward over a decade later as we count the days to Shavuot in 2018: technology and web browsers have evolved, and the Museum was not able to recreate the Flash environment of Kahn’s interactive website from 2006. To place the interactive omer calendar online once again would not be functional for most users, given that the original content is now in an ancient format (by internet standards). As a multimedia software platform, Flash is nearly obsolete, and set to be phased out by the year 2020. To simulate the original web experience from 2006, video screen recordings on local PC environments from a similar era were created to make the program’s interactive functionality accessible for the online audiences of today.
Kahn’s contemporary take on centuries-old Jewish practices surrounding Shavuot through sculpture and then technology, turns the practice of counting omer into a physical, then responsive act, engaging the user in the performance of the ritual. The piece, as he explains, permits infinitely unique use, from year to year, and person to person:
[The work] leaves your hands, it leaves your studio, and it becomes something totally different for everyone else. You have to learn how to let go.
— Elisabeth Rivard, Interim Digital Marketing Associate
Celebrate Shavuot at the Jewish Museum
- Join Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum, open late on Thursday, May 17 for a Shavuot dinner celebration. The restaurant will offer a special Shavuot-themed menu of homemade blintzes, noodle kugel, and other traditional dairy delights. Dairy-based foods like blintzes and cheesecake have traditionally alluded to the Torah’s nourishing qualities in Judaism.
- Shavuot Free Admission days: In addition to Free Saturdays, the Jewish Museum will be open with free admission on Sunday, May 20 and Monday, May 21. See what’s on view and plan your visit.
Objects Tell Stories: Counting the Omer with Tobi Kahn’s Interactive “Saphyr” was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.