This Week's Torah Portion: Counting the Omer

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Emor (Leviticus XXI, 1-XXIV, 23)

Our parasha discusses the present season:

Usëfartem lachem mimochorath hashabbath miyom havi’achem eth ‘omer hatënufa sheva‘ shabbathoth tëmimoth tihyena. ‘Ad mimochorath hashabbath hashëvi‘ith tispëru chamishim yom vëhiqravtem mincha chadasha la-Shem.

And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the sabbath, from the day when you bring the sheaf of the wave-offering, seven complete sabbaths shall there be. Until the day after the seventh sabbath shall you count fifty days, and you will bring a new grain offering [mincha chadasha] to Ha-Shem (XXIII, 15-16).

Thus, the period between Passover and Shavu‘oth is known as sëfirath ha‘omer, “the counting of the sheaf,” or simply sëfira for short. Beginning from the second day of Passover (the word shabbath here being a reference to the holiday, rather than the weekly sabbath) the observant Jew assiduously counts each day of the intervening seven “weeks,” first reciting the blessing, and then counting:

Baruch Atta Ha-Shem El-heinu Melech ha‘olam asher qiddëshanu bëmitzvothav vëtzivvanu ‘al sëfirath ha‘omer … Hayom yom echad la‘omer.

Blessed are You, Ha-Shem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us concerning sëfirath ha‘omer … Today is Day One of the ‘omer.

Obviously, since through our many sins we have not yet merited to see our holy Temple rebuilt, we currently bring neither the ‘omer hatënufa of barley on Passover nor the mincha chadasha on Shavu‘oth. Yet still we continue counting. The obvious inference is that the process of counting down the days between Passover and Shavu‘oth has some significance all its own. What might that be?

A number of early commentators (cf. Shu”t haRashba III, 284; Ran, sof Pësachim; and Abarbanel on our parasha) cite an explanation in the name of the midrash which seemingly has nothing to do with agriculture and grain offerings. Moshe, they write, addressed G-d at the time of the Exodus, reminding Him that Israel were to receive the Torah on leaving Egypt. Now that they were on the way out, where was the Torah? G-d responded that they would have to wait another fifty days. Immediately, says the midrash, the bënei Yisra’él began counting in eager anticipation of the great event. Observing their enthusiasm, G-d declared: “By your lives, you will merit to count sëfirath ha‘omer.”

We thus see that sëfirath ha‘omer has to do with the world-shaking event, the giving of the Torah, to which it led up. In this light, certain later commentators have observed other ways in which the sëfira is tied to Torah.

The Talmud (Qiddushin 30b) asks why it is that the earliest rabbis are known as the sofërim, and offers the answer, “that they would count (shehayu sofërim) all of the letters in the Torah.” In Tzemach Tzedeq (Orach Chayyim 389), comments on this passage and calls our attention to the fact that the word safar (“count”) shares its root not only with sofér (“scribe”) but also with sappir (whence, through a Greek borrowing, the English word “sapphire”). As he explains it, the sofërim “lit up the letters, and [in turn] the letters lit up their hearts.”

In an observation attributed to the Rizhiner Rebbe, the connection of safar to sappir indicates that the process of sëfira is one of “refining and purifying one’s thoughts like a sapphire,” in anticipation of mattan Torah, the giving of the Torah.

It thus seems that the mitzva of sëfira is born of ahavath haTorah and so of anticipation and serious preparation for acceptance of the Torah. As such, it is a fit and relevant observance for our time as well, for there is, in a sense, a mattan Torah in each and every generation, as the previous generation hands on its precious inheritance to the next. The process of preparation for the transmittal, of “refining and purifying one’s thoughts” to become a fit vessel to be filled with the holy elixir of Torah, is something to which every generation can relate.

The notion that sëfira is something more than the mere enumeration of the days of the interval between Passover and Shavu‘oth, that the process has value in and of itself, would also seem to be behind a comment by the great 17th century sage Rabbi Avraham Gombiner (Magén Avraham on Orach Chayyim 489:1, note 2) in which he writes “that if one does not understand the Holy Language and yet counts in the Holy Language, he has not discharged his duty.”

At first blush the ruling is very surprising. In what way is the sëfira different from other mitzvoth, e.g. reciting the Shëma‘ or reciting qiddush on the sabbath and holidays? In all of these cases, one is required to make the recitation in the prescribed words in the Holy Language, and if one does so, one has discharged one’s duty regardless of the degree of one’s conscious understanding of the words’ meaning.

The 20th century halachic compilation Mishna Bërura elucidates the difference: “It follows from this that regarding sëfira it is unlike other mitzvoth dependent upon utterance … [such] that if one hears one’s fellow [with the intent to discharge one’s duty] one discharges it in this way.”

In short, the nature of the mitzva is different. In all of the other cases, the point of the mitzva is the qëri’a, the reading, the proclamation, which has to be made in a prescribed language; in the case of sëfira, the whole point is the process of counting. The necessity is to know with precision and exactitude where, precisely, one is in the process of “refining and clarifying one’s thoughts.” For that, one has to understand the count.

Granting, then, that sëfira is a mitzva in and of itself, and not merely a preparation for the holiday of Shavu‘oth, we can ask another question. Concerning other annual, cyclical events, such as the holidays, the practice is to recite a shehecheyanu:

Baruch Atta Ha-Shem Elo-heinu Melech ha‘olam shehecheyanu vëqiyyëmanu vëhiggi‘anu lazëman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Ha-Shem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has given us life and granted us existence and brought us to this time.

Why do we not say a shehecheyanu before the sëfira?

The Rashba (op. cit. I, 126) was asked this question, and he offered two possible answers. His first suggestion is that, since the reason given by the written Torah for the sëfira is the bringing of the mincha chadasha in the Temple fifty days after the ‘omer had been offered on Passover, (cf. XXIII, 9-13) , then since we no longer have the Temple and can bring neither the ‘omer nor the two loaves of the mincha chadasha, so the count in our day is a mere remembrance of the mitzva and was decreed by the Rabbis, rather than the mitzva as originally laid out in the written Torah. The count causes us a measure of tza‘ar, grief, because it reminds us of what we no longer have.

He then goes on to give another reason. He points to a mishna in ‘Eduyoth: “The judgment of evil-doers in Gehinnom … Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri says is from Passover until Shavu‘oth” (II, 10), and further, as we learn in the Talmud (Yëvamoth 62b), this period was the occasion of a plague which lasted 33 days, killing many of the students of Rabbi ‘Aqiva. Therefore, concludes the Rashba, the practice is to count sëfira at the beginning of the night, to weaken the force of judgment that rules the night. And we do not recite shehecheyanu, which should only be said on joyous occasions.

This leaves us with a final question: the fact that we have two reasons for this mitzva, the counting up from the ‘omer of barley on Passover to the offering of the mincha chadasha mentioned in the written Torah, and the counting up to Mattan Torah on which the Oral Torah is most insistent. It follows that there is some necessary connection between the two. What might that be?

The Maharal miPrag (Dërashoth haMaharal, pp. 15-16) finds significance in the fact that the ‘omer was an offering of barley, a grain more often used as animal feed than for humans. In this he finds an allusion, at the very beginning of the process, to the physical, animal nature of man.

To be sure, the human body is animated and can be directed by a spiritual component, the soul. This soul has aspirations to return to its Source in a condition unsullied by its stay here below, in the physical realm. The problem is that the soul needs the body’s cooperation to achieve this.

Enter, therefore, the Torah. The Torah is the instruction manual, as it were, telling the soul how to guide the body in using this world and its contents to perform mitzvoth, thereby negotiating the “minefields” of materiality to achieve the soul’s ambition of a triumphant return to its Maker. The Torah (as the midrash asserts) is the “blueprint” according to which the universe was created, for the observance of which the time-bound, material world came into being.

In recognition whereof, concludes the Maharal, the Torah contains exactly 613 mitzvoth: 365 negative mitzvoth, matching the number of days in the solar year (and thus symbolizing the limiting factor of time), and 248 positive mitzvoth matching the number of limbs in the human body, by which the mitzvoth are performed at the soul’s direction.

Therein lies the connection between the most physical of grain offerings, the ‘omer of barley, at the beginning of a process which, done properly, culminates in worthiness to receive, accept, and observe the sublime and holy Torah.