Four Mitzvot of Counting (Part 1)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet




In blessed memory of Tsarna bat Morthe Lowenstein Reiter z”l
of Debrecen, Hungary, whose yahrtzeit is on 15 Iyar.



In memory of my aunt Goldie Bodek and in memory of my father William Rosenfeld on their Yarhtzeits




The division of the Torah into a three-year cycle of "sedarim," which was practiced in Eretz Yisrael from Mishnaic and Talmudic times up until the period of the Geonim, created units that were more uniform than the "parashot" of the annual cycle that developed in Babylonia (and which we follow today).  Let us examine the division in the case of parashat Behar.

The division of parashat Behar into three parts is logical. The first seder (section), up to 25:13, contains a definition of the Jubilee year and its principal laws, built on the foundation of the laws of the land's "rest" (shemitta year).  The two other sections (25:14-34, and 25:35-26:2, which is the end of parashat Behar) address the economic ramifications of the Jubilee year on two spheres: transactions involving real estate (land and houses), and the purchase of slaves.

The only aspect of this division that arouses a question is the location of the beginning of the first section: it is to be found not at the beginning of parashat Behar, but rather at the end of parashat Emor.  Most of the sources that list the three-year cycle of Torah readings designate the beginning of this section at 23:9 – "And God spoke… When you come to the land… and reap its harvest…" – i.e., in the middle of the parasha about the festivals.  The most puzzling thing is that this section "interrupts" both the parasha of the festivals and the laws of the Jubilee.  Why, then, was the ancient division of Torah readings established in this way?

The answer becomes immediately apparent when we compare the beginning of this seder and its conclusion.  Near the beginning of the seder, the Torah discusses the counting of seven weeks until the fiftieth day, which is to be called a "holy convocation" when "melekhet avoda" (labor of work) is forbidden.  Near the end of the seder, we find a similar "counting" – that of seven cycles of seven years until the fiftieth year, which is to be sanctified, with a declaration of freedom for the land and a cessation of agricultural activities:


(23:15) "And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the festival…

seven complete weeks shall there be.

(16) Until the day after the completion of seven weeks

you shall count fifty days, and you shall offer…

(21) And on that very day shall you call a holy convocation

it shall be for you;

you shall not perform any labor of work."


(25:8) "And you shall count for yourself seven cycles of years;

seven years times seven.

And the seven cycles of years shall be for you

Forty-nine years: And you shall sound…

(10) And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year

and you shall declare freedom in the land…

(11) You shall not sow, nor shall you reap…"

What does this obvious parallel come to teach us about each of the two countings in its own right, and about the connection between them?

The counting from the beginning of the harvest until the festival that occurs at its conclusion is addressed in one other place in the Torah – in the parasha of the festivals in Sefer Devarim (16:9-10):

"Seven weeks shall you count, from when you begin to put the sickle to the standing corn shall you begin to count seven weeks.  And you shall make a festival of weeks for the Lord your God…"

Aside from these two "countings" – counting towards the festival of Shavuot, and counting towards the Jubilee year – the Torah mentions two others that resemble one another: the counting of the "zav" and the "zava" (men and women experiencing abnormal fluid discharges) towards their ritual purification.

(Vayikra 15:13) "When the 'zav' is cleansed of his issue, he shall count himself seven days for his purification, and he shall wash his clothes and wash his flesh in running water, and he shall be purified."

(verse 28) "And if she [the 'zava'] is cleansed of her issue then she shall count herself seven days, and thereafter she shall be purified."

Today's shiur will address the intention of the Torah in each of the places where the concept of "counting" is mentioned, and the way in which this counting is to be carried out according to Halakha.


Out of the four "countings" commanded in the Torah, only the counting of the "omer" – the period leading up to the festival of Shavuot – is actually observed today, in accordance with the literal text.  This counting is listed as a positive mitzva by the various codifiers of the mitzvot, and its laws are detailed in the Gemara (Menachot 65a-66a) and in early and later authorities.  The mitzva is observed by counting verbally, each night throughout this period, the number of days and the number of weeks that have passed since the day of the "bringing of the Omer," with a blessing recited prior to the actual count.

Early and later commentators alike have discussed why the counting of the Omer is different from the other countings in the Torah, and in this regard they have also debated whether the way in which this counting is carried out arises from the literal text itself.  Ibn Ezra (23:15) comments as follows:

"Were it not for the tradition, it would appear that the counting of these days is like the years of the Jubilee."

It is clear to Ibn Ezra that the counting of the years towards the Jubilee is not carried out verbally and preceded with a blessing, and the Omer likewise, to his view, does not obligate a verbal count.  It is the rabbinical tradition that has ruled that the counting of the Omer is to be fulfilled in this way.

The Ramban has a similar view of this verse:

"The reason for [the formulation of the commandment] 'You shall count for yourselves' is like that of (23:40), 'You shall take for yourselves…' [concerning the four species on Sukkot]: that the counting and the taking should be done by each individual, numbering aloud and keeping track, in accordance with the tradition of our Sages.  This is not so concerning [the commandments of counting of] the 'zav' and 'zava'… nor 'you shall count for yourself' referring to the Jubilee, where [the intention is that] one should take care to keep track of them and not to forget [but there is no requirement to actually count verbally]."

This being the case, the Ramban agrees that the counting of "numbering aloud and keeping track" is not explicitly commanded in the verse, but rather is a "tradition of the Sages."

Among later commentators, Rav Hoffmann writes as follows on the same verse:

"It appears to me that there is no need to recite a blessing [on the counting] for the Jubilee, for according to the literal text the command 'You shall count for yourselves' (referring to the Omer) does not imply a verbal count, but rather a keeping track [of the number of days], as is required of the 'zav' and the 'zava.'  It is only through the rabbinical tradition that we know that here, concerning the counting of the Omer, one is to count with a precise, verbally recited formulation, which is not the case… concerning the Jubilee."


What was clear to these commentators regarding the counting of the years towards the Jubilee – i.e., that there is no mitzva to count verbally – was not at all clear to other commentators and halakhic authorities, who maintained the opposite.  The most prominent among these – the Rambam – lists the mitzva of counting the years to the Jubilee in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (positive commandment #140):

"We are commanded to count the years… seven times seven years up until the Jubilee year.  And this mitzva (i.e., counting shemitta years) is the responsibility of the Beit Din, i.e., the Great Sanhedrin; it is they who count each year of the fifty in the same way that each individual counts the days of the Omer… and it involves counting the years separately as well as counting the shemitta cycles together with them."

The Rambam learns this law – that the Jubilee years are to be counted by the Beit Din "in the same way that each individual counts the days of the Omer" - from the Sifra on parashat Behar.  The verse reads, "And you shall count for yourself SEVEN CYCLES ('shabbatot') OF YEARS, SEVEN YEARS seven times."  The Rambam understands the Sifra to derive from this wording that one must count both years and shemitta cycles, similar to the way we count days and weeks in the Omer.

From the Rambam's discussion of counting the Omer in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (positive commandment #161), it seems that the laws of counting the years towards the Jubilee are the basis for the laws of counting the Omer.  The Rambam chooses to base the laws of counting the Omer upon the laws of counting the Jubilee years for one simple reason: the dual obligation of counting the Omer by days and by weeks, verbally, is quoted in the Gemara (Menachot 66a) as being deduced by Abbaye, who was an Amora of the fourth generation.  However, the similar laws of counting the Jubilee years have their source in the earlier teachings of the Tannaim in the Sifra, and therefore they should be regarded as the basis for the teachings of the Amoraim concerning the counting of the Omer.


Would the Rambam, and the large camp of those who share his opinion in this regard, support the views quoted in section B. above, according to which it is only "rabbinical tradition" that turned the counting of the Omer and the counting of the years towards Jubilee into an actual verbal count? Would they, too, agree that the literal text prescribes only a calculation of the weeks and years, with a view to observing the festival of Shavuot and the Jubilee year at their respective appointed time?

Firstly, we must distinguish between two possible arguments by the "literalists."  One is that the "countings" in the Torah, according to a literal understanding of the text, are not mitzvot at all, but rather an illustrative description of the way in which we may know the proper time of Shavuot or of the Jubilee year.

Such an argument is unacceptable, for it stands in direct contradiction to the style of the verses, which are formulated unequivocally in the imperative.  Concerning the Omer we are told:

"AND YOU SHALL COUNT FOR YOURSELVES from the day after the festival… until the day after the seventh complete week SHALL YOU COUNT… Seven weeks SHALL YOU COUNT FOR YOURSELF, from the time that you begin to put the sickle to the standing corn SHALL YOU BEGIN TO COUNT…."

Had the Torah merely wanted to tell us that Shavuot falls on the fiftieth day of the Omer, it could have formulated it in a simpler way: "Seven weeks after the sickle is put to the standing corn shall you make the festival of Shavuot," etc.  Similarly, concerning the Jubilee, we are told, "AND YOU SHALL COUNT FOR YOURSELF seven cycles of years…." Had the Torah wished only to give an "accounting description" of the time of the Jubilee, it could have said, "Following seven cycles of years that will be forty-nine years for you, you shall sound the shofar…." The repeated use of expressions based on the root "s-f-r" in the imperative case cannot be understood in any way other than as an outright demand, not as a description or as advice.

Further proof that in these sources the Torah means to command a counting, rather than to illustrate the keeping track of a calculation, is that there are other places in the Torah that require a calculation, and in those cases the matter is not presented in the form of counting.  An outstanding example is provided by the laws of the impurity of a woman who has given birth, in chapter 12 of Vayikra: if she has given birth to a boy then she is impure for seven days, "and thirty days and three days shall she remain in the blood of her purification."  If she bore a girl, she is impure for two weeks, "and sixty days and six days shall she remain in the blood of her purification."  Despite the complexity of the numbers and the lengthy duration of time, the Torah explains this process with no reference to or use of the term "counting."  Hence we may conclude that there is no need for counting in the case of a mother who has given birth.

Even so, the "literalists" would respond, there is an alternative argument: assuming that the counting is indeed a mitzva in both of the sources addressed here, as the style of the verses would suggest, why should we conclude that this counting must be done specifically by means of verbal expression? The Torah's intention is that we should take care and pay attention to the number of days and weeks leading up to the day of bringing the two loaves – the festival of Shavuot, and similarly to the number of years and shemitta cycles leading up to the Jubilee year, in order that these will take place at the proper times.

How, then, are these mitzvot of counting to be fulfilled? "In one's heart," the literalists would reply.  But a counting of units of time over an extended period is not compatible with the typical mitzvot obligating the heart – such as love of God, or fear of Him.  Mere thought is not sufficient: a mitzva of counting, such as these, must be accompanied by some external act, ensuring one's consciousness of time and its continuity in order that the counting not become mixed up.

"Well then," they could still claim, "what about counting in writing?" This question is actually addressed in responsa by Rabbi Akiva Eiger (#29-32), and there is room to consider that such a counting may indeed fulfill the obligation.

But in the verses that command the counting, in the two places discussed, there is an additional phenomenon, indicating that the counting must in fact be done specifically in verbal form.  The verses prescribe a dual counting: both small units (days or years) and larger units (weeks or shemitta years).  The simultaneous counting of different units of time is not a matter for mental calculation, but rather requires explicit verbal expression.  And the teachings of the Sages, both in the Sifra and in Menachot, are built around this idea, and present the mitzva of counting as a double verbal expression of two timetables.

Thus we may say that the halakhic framework presented by Chazal for the mitzvot of counting the Omer and counting the years leading up to the Jubilee arise directly from the literal text itself.


Thus far we have discussed only two out of the four countings that are commanded in the Torah.  What is the status of the countings by the zav and the zava?

Unlike the counting of the Jubilee, concerning which the discussion in the sources is not practical Halakha (since the Jubilee ceased to be observed long before Chazal and the Rishonim began to discuss it), the law of purification of the zava is still observed today (since we are stringent and treat every menstruant as a zava).  And here – as every woman knows – there is no tradition that the seven days of purification must be observed by means of a verbal count.  Why not? After all, in the verses discussing the zav and the zava the Torah uses the term "counting" in the imperative: "AND HE SHALL COUNT FOR HIMSELF seven days for his purification…"; "AND SHE SHALL COUNT FOR HERSELF seven days, and thereafter she shall be purified"! If there were no command here, the law of the zava should have been formulated like that of the metzora, without mention of counting (14:8-9), "And he shall dwell outside of his tent for seven days, and it shall be on the seventh day… and he shall wash his flesh in water and he shall be purified."

Indeed, there are some who would require the zava to count the days of her purification by means of an explicit numbering, as we shall see below.  In Ketubot (72a) we find a statement by the Amora Rav Chinena bar Kahana, in the name of Shemuel:

"From where do we learn that a woman who is 'nidda' must count to herself? 'And she shall count for herself seven days' - 'for herself,' i.e, to herself."

This statement serves, in this sugya, as a source for the husband relying on his wife when it comes to her nidda status, but the language itself would imply that the woman who is waiting seven days for her purification must actually count these seven days to herself.  The Tosafot ask,

"Why does the zava not recite a blessing for her counting, as one recites a blessing for counting the Omer, for here to it is written, 'she shall count'?"

In the writings of the Rishonim, the "blessing for the counting" is sometimes identified with the actual verbal counting itself.  Therefore, we may interpret the question of the Tosafot in two ways: a.) Since the literal text of the Gemara would suggest that the woman must count to herself, why is it that the zava does not in fact count verbally, as we do when we count the Omer? b.) The literal reading of the Gemara would imply that the woman must count, and it is clear that women must count verbally.  Why, then, was no blessing instituted for this counting?

The Tosafot provide the following answer:

"We must say: A blessing is recited only for the Jubilee counting, and it is recited by the Beit Din every year, for this counting will always proceed in the proper order, and likewise the Omer.  But [this is not the case] in the case of a zava - if she sees [blood] it will contradict [her counting thus far, and will then have to start a new count of seven days], so she should not count."

From the final words of the Tosafot – "she should not count" – it would seem to appear that the question concerned the actual verbal counting, and the answer is that the zava should not count the seven days at all.  But then the reason is not clear: why does the fact that "if she sees blood, she will contradict her counting" nullify the need to count these days?

Therefore, it seems that the Tosafot means that "she should not count" WITH A BLESSING, in which case the reasoning is clear. Since the conclusion of the counting is not up to the woman, since "if she sees [blood] it will contradict [her counting]," she should not recite a blessing over the counting of the days, in order that this not become a "berakha le-vatala" (a vain blessing, entailing an unnecessary or unlawful mention of God's Name) if she is later forced to start her count anew.  According to this explanation of the Tosafot, the zava must in fact count verbally the seven days of purification.  This is the conclusion drawn by R. Yeshaya Horowitz in his "Shenei Luchot ha-Berit" (Sha'ar ha-Otiot, 101a in the Amsterdam edition).  [A number of Rishonim adopt a position similar to this, some based on the Tosafot and some independently.  See the discussion by R. Yerucham Fishel Perlow, Commentary to R. Saadia Gaon's Sefer Ha-mitzvot, p. 795.]

The words of the "Shelah" (Shnei Luhot Ha-Berit) are discussed at length in the works of later halakhic authorities, and most reject his position.  It seems that one of the main reasons for this is that there is no Jewish tradition of such a counting.  As the Shelah himself testifies, his wife did not practice such a counting herself until her husband advised her to do so.  And in truth, Jewish women throughout the generations have not made a verbal count – neither before the time of the Shelah nor thereafter (except for those who follow his teachings).

Hence, we return to the question of how the countings of the zav and zava are different from the counting of the Omer and of the Jubilee.  Several differences between these two types of counting are apparent:

  1. The length of time to be counted: seven days as opposed to fifty days or fifty years.
  2. Complexity of the counting: units of time of a single, uniform type, as opposed to counting two sets of time units.
  3. Purpose of the counting: a personal counting related to a private aim (the purification of the one who is counting), as opposed to a communal counting by the entire nation (Omer) or by its authorized representatives (Jubilee) leading towards a public, national event.
  4. Security of continuity of the time counted: the counting of the zav and zava may be undermined – they may return to the state they were in prior to the beginning of their count.

Do any – or all – of these differences provide a reason as to why the zava does not make an explicit, verbal count?

The Ramban (23:15) maintains that it is the third difference listed above that is the key:

"And the reason for the Torah saying, 'and you shall count for yourselves' (concerning the Omer) is … that one should count verbally and keep track of his count, in accordance with the tradition of our Sages. But this is not so in the case of 'and he shall count for himself' and 'and she shall count for herself' concerning the zav and zava, for if they wish to, they may remain in their state of ritual impurity; only they must not forget it."

The son of the Noda Bi-Yehuda, in a gloss to father's responsum (2nd ed., #124), poses the following question on the Ramban:

"I am puzzled by the words of the Ramban, for according to what he says, even the immersion [of the zav and zava in the mikve for purification after the seven days] is not a mitzva… for if they wish to remain ritually impure, they may do so.  But the Rambam lists immersion in the waters of the mikve as a positive commandment… so it must be that the mitzva is as follows: if we wish to become purified, then we must do so by means of the mikve, as is set down explicitly in the Rambam (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, positive commandment #109).  If this is so, then the counting, too, is a mitzva, for if he wishes to become purified, then his purification process is by means of counting and immersion… So just as immersion is counted as a positive mitzva, so the counting should be too."

The answer he provides to his own question brings us to a definition of the mitzva of counting in every place where it occurs.  The son of the Noda Bi-Yehuda perceives the counting as part of the process of purification; it is a ritual utterance that represents a precondition for purification, just like the immersion in the mikve.  But it is difficult to accept such a contention.

The "literalists" (quoted in section B. above) are correct in maintaining that the purpose of the counting is to clarify the date for a certain action or of a certain occasion; the counting is never an independent ritual whose purpose is simply the utterance itself.  Even if we believe that the most basic understanding of the counting is that it is a mitzva requiring a verbal utterance, ultimately this mitzva serves as preparation for another mitzva, which is the purpose of the counting: the celebration of Shavuot, or the sanctification of the Jubilee year.

Hence, the Ramban must be interpreted literally: it is not reasonable that the process of purification of the zav and the zava includes a mitzva to count seven days towards their purification.  Counting is always an instruction for a person to calculate precisely the date when he must perform a certain obligation; what would be the point of warning a person to calculate carefully and count days towards an act that he isn't obliged to perform? It is enough for the zav and zava to know that following seven days from the day when the reason for their impurity ceased, they may be purified if they so wish.

There is an additional reason why it would not be logical for the Torah to command the counting of these seven days: a timeframe of only seven days does not require a calculation and counting by means of an act – even if the purpose of the counting is really a mitzva.  Thus, the Torah does not instruct us to count six days in order to be able to sanctify the Shabbat, nor to count seven days after a male child is born in order to circumcise him on the eighth day.

If this is so, then why does the Torah specifically command, "And he shall count," "And she shall count," concerning the zav and zava, while no such instruction applies to the metzora and other situations of impurity? It would seem that there is some intention behind this special instruction; if it can't be referring to an explicit, verbal counting, then what is its intent?

The Torah is apparently commanding the zav and the zava to live with an "active consciousness" of the days going by until their purification.  This consciousness of time must be that these seven days are "seven clean days," i.e., that they see no further emission that would again render them impure.  This requires special attention, and even an active examination.  In this sense, the zav and zava are distinct from the metzora, who dwells passively outside of his tent for seven days, with nothing required of him until the seventh day arrives.

The Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De'ah 196:4) rules thus concerning the zava:

"On each of the seven days of counting, she should preferably examine herself… and some say that [after the fact, if she did not do so] she must at least have examined on the first day of the seven and on the seventh, and there is no room for leniency in this."

The source of this law is to be found in the Mishna and Gemara (Nidda 68b):

"A zav and a zava who examined themselves on the first day and found themselves to be pure, and on the seventh day and found themselves to be pure, and on the intervening days did not examine themselves – Rabbi Eliezer rules: They are assumed to be pure."

In the Gemara, the halakha is established in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer, but even according to his lenient opinion in this Mishna it is clear that the zav and zava are ideally meant to examine themselves on each of the seven days, as set down in the Shulchan Arukh.

The "time consciousness" required of the zava during those seven clean days led later halakhic authorities to rule that:

"A woman counted two or three of the seven clean days, and thereafter her husband traveled to some far-off place, with the understanding that he would not be returning home for a while, and the wife therefore forgot to continue counting.  The husband then returned from his journey, arriving before the seventh day of her seven clean days.  We rule strictly in this case, i.e., she cannot join the previous days that she counted (to her counting of the seventh day now); she must count seven clean days anew." (Taharat Yisrael, 196:3:20, based upon responsa of later authorities)

This woman examined herself properly at the beginning of the seven clean days and at the end, but nevertheless – since she forgot about counting the clean days between the beginning and the end, she has not fulfilled the Torah's command that she "COUNT FOR HERSELF seven days" in the sense explained above, and therefore she must start again.


[This shiur will be continued next week.]


(Translated by Kaeren Fish.