Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Reflections on Sefirat ha-Omer

The mitzvah of sefirat ha-omer as it is formulated in the Torah appears to be somewhat ambiguous in terms of its essential character, purpose, and function. One verse seems to imbue the mitzvah with an agricultural motif, stating that the obligation to count begins "from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop" (Devarim 16:9). Other verses stress this mitzvah's sacrificial theme, obligating us to begin the mitzvah of counting "from the day [we] bring the omer as a wave offering" and to complete it by bringing the sh'tei ha-lechem as an "offering to God" on the fiftieth day (Vayikra 23:15-17). In fact, the sacrificial theme is echoed in the midrash,(1) and manifests itself most dramatically in the view subscribed to by many rishonim that sefirat ha-omer in our time is only a rabbinic obligation inasmuch as we no longer offer the korban ha-omer.(2) Similarly, the Semag's classification of sefirat ha-omer under the heading of eidut she-be mikdash calls attention to its sacrificial theme.(3)

In addition to the agricultural and sacrificial themes inherent in sefirat ha-omer, the Torah also presents this mitzvah as a countdown to the holiday of Shavu'ot (Devarim 16:9-10). This is strikingly reflected by the fact that in contrast to other holidays, the Torah never associates Shavu'ot with a specific calendar date(4); instead it focuses exclusively on the fact that Shavu'ot occurs at the culmination of sefirat ha-omer. Furthermore, the Torah only mentions sefirat ha-omer in the context of sections devoted to the the shalosh regalim; again implying that despite its connection to the sacrifice of the omer, sefirat ha-omer's central theme is its linking Shavu'ot with Pesach. The Rambam's view (Temidin 7:24) that sefirat ha-omer is a din di-oraiyta (Torah obligation) in our own era despite our inability to bring the korban ha-omer also suggests that sefirat ha-omer is fundamentally some form of countdown to Shavu'ot.

In fact this viewpoint is adopted explicitly and forcefully by the author of the Sefer ha-Chinuch. He asserts that the Exodus should be perceived as a mere prelude to the more important goal of receiving the Torah. Thus by counting the days between Pesach (which celebrates the Exodus) and Shavu'ot (which celebrates the giving of the Torah) we symbolize the eager anticipation of the newly freed Jews to receive the Torah, and affirm the overwhelming importance of Torah in Jewish life. The Sefer ha-Chinuch minimizes the importance of the korban ha-omer as a theme in mitzvah of sefirah, claiming that the Torah merely used the korban ha-omer as a convenient way of identifying the second day of Pesach (on which the sefirah must begin); the korban itself, however, is essentially irrelevant to the character of the mitzvah of sefirah.(5)

While the Sefer ha-Chinuch's stance has definite appeal, it still seems deficient in that it does not appear to adequately capture some of the intriguing facets of the mitzvah of sefirat ha-omer. If the sole function of sefirat ha-omer is to mark the time between Pesach and Shavu'ot, then its significance lies in those holidays themselves, and sefirat ha-omer should not have constituted its own mitzvah, nor should it require a berachah. In addition, the fact that there are definite halachic rules and regulations which govern and define the counting process itself seems to imply that the act of counting is somehow infused with meaning and inherent value. The Ramban accentuates this point when he contrasts sefirat ha-omer with another act of counting--that of a zavah (a menstruating woman who must count seven consecutive days without bleeding before she can purify herself).(6) A zavah need only keep track of her count and be aware of it, but sefirat ha omer demands a verbalized nightly counting, during an ideal time (at the onset of each evening), utilizing a precise formula; all of these facts seem to imply that sefirat ha-omer possesses its own inherent significance. Finally, the Ramban draws a parallel between the days of sefirat ha-Omer and the days of Chol ha-Mo'ed that intervene between Succot and Shemini Atzeret.(7) If the days of sefirah represent a form of Chol ha-Mo'ed between Pesach and Shavu'ot, then clearly this interim period serves an inherently important function.

To resolve some of these difficulties it may be helpful view sefirat ha-omer from the perspective of kedushat ha-zeman. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l developed this theme at length in an essay entitled "Sacred and Profane." He argues that time consciousness is a prerequisite to freedom. The slave who lives for the moment and does not control his own destiny, whose time is literally not his own, is exempt from all mitzvot asei she-ha-zeman geramah (time-restricted obligations) because he has no sensitivity to, or appreciation of, the nuances of time. Rav Soloveitchik explains the function of sefirat ha-omer:

When the Jews were delivered from the Egyptian oppression and Moses rose to undertake the almost impossible task of metamorphosing a tribe of slaves into a nation of priests, he was told by God that the path leading from the holiday of Pesach to Shavu'ot, from initial liberation to consummate freedom, leads through the medium of time. The commandment of sefirah was entrusted to the Jew; the wondrous test of counting forty nine successive days was put to him. These forty-nine days must be whole. If one day is missed, the act of numeration is invalidated.

A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric, quantitatively stretching over the period of seven weeks but qualitatively forming the warp and woof of centuries of change is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.(8)

On this basis many of the peculiar and seemingly incongruous facets of sefirat ha-omer can be justified. The very act of counting acquires significance and requires a berachah in as much as it represents a process whose aim is to sensitize man to this indispensable religious dimension of time-consciousness. If we identify sefirat ha-omer with time-awareness, then our act of counting is more than a simple marking of time between Pesach and Shavu'ot, or a passive noting of time's passage (like the counting of a zavah); rather, sefirat ha-omer becomes a means of effecting an important psychological and religious transformation, which is most effectively achieved by verbal articulation and daily expression. The Ramban's allusion an analogy to the concept of Chol ha-Moed is particularly apt in as much as sefirat ha-omer constitutes an essential period of transition between the slave mentality of the immediate post-Pesach era and the time-conscious mindset of true freedom that is prerequisite for receiving the Torah on Shavu'ot.(9)

In associating sefirat ha-omer with the themes of freedom and sensitivity to time it is illuminating to examine, if only briefly, other halachot that distinguish sefirat ha-omer.

The Talmud (Menachot 65b), commenting on the words "u-sefartem lachem" ("you shall count for yourselves"), declares: she-tihiyeh sefirah le-kol echad vi-echad-that the mitsvah of sefirat ha-omer devolves upon each individual, not on the Jewish nation as whole. Some poskim take this a step further and disqualify the use of shomei'ah ke-oneh as a mechanism with which to accomplish this mitsvah. This view dramatizes the personal motif of sefirah.(10) The cultivation of sensitivity and the inculcation of a mentality can be achieved effectively only on a personal level. Individual self-development must be the focus of any such enterprise, even when the ultimate goal is the transformation of a national destiny.

The Ba'al ha-Ma'or (end of Pesachim) asks a famous question: Why should we not consider sefeikah di-yomah when counting sefirah in the Diaspora, just as we do in requiring the observance of a second day of yom tov? Some acharonim respond that the very concept of counting would be undermined by indecisiveness. If we view sefirah from the perspective of time-consciousness and human autonomy, this response takes on a new dimension of meaning.(11)

Finally, it is interesting to assess the method of counting and its implications against this background. The Talmud (Menachot 66a) informs us: "Abaye says there is an obligation to count the days of sefirah and there is also an obligation to count the weeks." This statement reflects the two types of time-awareness: the long term perspective and the immediate perspective. Clearly one of the most salient features of free and progressive man is his ability to plan ahead, to work toward a long-term objective with foresight. By living for the future and preparing for it, he asserts and demonstrates a measure of autonomy over his life. By being goal- and project-oriented, he is able to infuse his life with meaning and purpose. This theme is reflected in the concept of "counting weeks."

There is, however, a definite hazard in focusing on the future to the exclusion of the present. If long-term objectives and goals totally dominate one's actions and attitudes, the urgency of the present and its unique opportunities may be lost. In compromising the integrity of the present for the sake of the future, one generally undermines the ultimate purpose as well. Thus we are instructed to treat each day as a discrete unit--to "count days." The Rambam, in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot (asei 161) goes to great length to prove that despite the existence of these two distinct motifs--of days and of weeks--they in fact comprise one integrated mitzvah.(12)

The challenge we face, then, is clear. We must endeavor to harmonize and reconcile our long-term growth (the "counting of weeks") with our immediate needs (the "counting of days"), and to cultivate a sensitivity to time in all of its various dimensions. Then we will effectively be able to partake in the transforming process of sefirat ha-omer, the bridge which will bring us to Sinai.

1. Midrash Rabbah on Emor (Parshah 28) and Ramban on Vayikra 23:15.

2. This appears to be the view of Ameimar (Menchot 67a). Rashi and Tosafot indicate clearly that this is the pesak.

3. Semag (Asei 200).

4. See Rabbeinu Bachya (Vayikra 23:16), Ibn Ezra (Vayikra 23:11)

5. Sefer ha-Chinuch (273). He is initially troubled by the progressive nature of this counting process which might, on the surface, imply that the focus is commemorating the past (Pesach), rather than anticipating the future (Shavu'ot). However, he resolves this by suggesting that the alternative scheme would have been discouraging in that it would have accented the distance from Shavu'ot instead of its proximity, thus dampening the enthusiasm it should generate.

6. Ramban (Vayikra 23:15).

7. Ramban (Vayikra 23:36), Rabbeinu Bachya (Vayikra 23:16).

8. "Sacred and Profane," in Gesher III: 1 (1966), p.16.

9. The idea that autonomy and freedom are central themes of talmud Torah and matan Torah requires no elaboration. The principles of "The Jews are My slaves; My slaves, and not the slaves of other slaves," and "Only someone who engages in Torah-study is free" are just two of many prooftexts that illustrate this point. The connection between yovel (Jubilee) and sefirah--a prominent theme in the midrash and commentaries--also takes on new meaning if the ultimate aim of sefirah is the time-consciousness which enhances authentic freedom.

10. See, for example, Magen Avraham 489:2.

11. In addition, yemei sefirah as an independent and intrinsically valuable interim period would no longer be as closely linked with the precise date of yom tov that precedes it and follows it.

12. In this context, it is interesting to note that some rishonim adopt the position that weeks are only acknowledged at their completion, not daily--(Ba'al ha-Ma'or etc.). This view accents the tension between two motifs even if they are counted as one mitzvah. It is also tempting to interpret the argument between the Behag and Ba'alei ha-Tosafot along similar lines. They argue whether the entire interim period of sefirah constitutes one mitzvah, or whether each day is a distinct unit. This issue, obviously, requires some elaboration.

Copyright © 1999 by The TorahWeb Foundation. All rights reserved.