Four Mitzvot of Counting, Part II: The Omer

  • Rav Elchanan Samet


(continued from last week)



As we discussed last week, the Torah commands us to count the days and weeks of the Omer in order that the entire nation, and each individual, will know when the festival of Shavuot is to be celebrated.  The mitzva is therefore one of clarification and calculation towards a date that depends upon our counting.  Even after this clarification turned into a mitzva that is performed in a daily religious ceremony, the fundamental nature of the mitzva remains the same: a technical clarification.

This perception of Sefirat ha-Omer is of great importance for an understanding of the literal intention of the text and the most basic reason for the mitzva, as well as the laws that are deduced from this basic reason.  Below we shall examine the ramifications of this perception in each of these areas.


(23:16) "Until the day after the seventh complete week SHALL YOU COUNT FIFTY DAYS, and you shall offer a new 'mincha' sacrifice to God."

The Tosefot (Menachot 65b) pose the following question: "But are we not counting only forty-nine days?"  Several answers are proposed by the Rishonim, but that of the Ramban (on verse 15) seems to address most directly the literal meaning of the text:

"The number of days from the day of the 'wave offering' (omer) until the day of the 'holy convocation' (Shavuot) is identical to the number of years from the [beginning of the first cycle of] Shemitta until the Jubilee.  And their reason is [likewise] identical, and for this reason [the Torah says,] "You shall count fifty days" - i.e., that one should count seven weeks, forty-nine days, AND THEN SANCTIFY THE FIFTIETH DAY ARRIVED AT BY THIS COUNTING, as we are told concerning the Jubilee."

We do count the fiftieth day and sanctify it as a "holy convocation," only there is no need to count it verbally, aloud, as we did on the previous days.  In light of our previous discussion, the reason for this is clear. The counting of the fiftieth day does not represent any clarification of something that is due to follow it; this day itself is the purpose of the clarification that we have made thus far, and is thus counted by us without verbalization.


In explaining the reason for Sefirat ha-Omer, most commentators offer the same reason as Sefer ha-Chinukh (#15):

"One of the roots of the mitzva - on the literal level - is that the whole essence of Israel is the Torah… And it (the Torah) is the purpose and reason for which they were redeemed from Egypt - in order to accept the Torah at Sinai and to fulfill it… And therefore… we are commanded to count, from the day after the Pesach festival until the day upon which the Torah was given, to demonstrate in ourselves the great desire for the great and awaited day, like a servant who looks forward and counts always towards the long-awaited time when he will go free.  For the counting shows a person that all of his longing and desire is to reach that time."

This reason, and those that resemble it, are not "on the literal level," both because there is no mention anywhere in the Torah that Shavuot is the day of the giving of the Torah and because the act of counting itself is not an expression of a "great desire for a great and awaited day" in any other instance.  The counting is a means to clarifying the proper time for a day that has no date other than that we will reach it by means of our counting.


In light of the reason he provides for Sefirat ha-Omer, the Sefer ha-Chinukh questions our formulation of the counting:

"Why do we count days 'of the Omer'? In other words, why do we say that such-and-such days have PASSED in our count, rather than counting such-and-such remain until the time [that we await]?"

His answer to this question is truly forced, for its assumption is incorrect.  The reason for formulating the blessing in such a way that we are counting days "of the Omer" rather than "until the festival of Shavuot" is simple: Shavuot exists only as a result of our counting; we cannot count towards something that does not yet exist and will exist only when our count is complete.  We must count from the starting point - from the day of the bringing of the Omer.


The Rishonim are divided as to whether Sefirat ha-Omer in our times is a biblically or rabbinically ordained mitzva.  I shall not enter here into an analysis of their dispute in understanding the sugya in Menachot 66a, but I shall ask how each side perceives the mitzva.

The Ran (commenting on the Rif at the end of Massekhet Pesachim) presents the majority opinion:

"Most of the commentators agree that Sefirat ha-Omer in our times, when there is no bringing of the Omer or of the two loaves nor any sacrifice, is only of rabbinical origin, instituted as a memorial to the Temple."

If so, then the counting is simply a ritual bridge joining two sacrifices.  When these sacrifices are not offered, there is no mitzva of bridging them by means of that counting.

But if the reason for the counting is to serve as the sole means of determining the date of Shavuot, we must understand this differently. The establishment and commemoration of the day of "holy convocation" is not dependent on the offering of the two loaves or on the existence of the harvest, but rather - as stated explicitly in the Torah:

(23:20) "And on that very day you shall call a holy convocation shall it be for you; you shall not do any labor of work, IT IS AN ETERNAL STATUTE IN ALL YOUR DWELLING PLACES FOR ALL GENERATIONS."

The simple understanding of this text pertains also to the counting.  As the Seforno notes:

"'An eternal statute in all your dwelling places' - Even though none of the sacrifices is offered in the various dwelling places in exile, THE MATTER OF COUNTING AND THE MATTER OF THE HOLY CONVOCATION DO NOT CEASE."

In truth, the latter depends on the former: without a counting, how would we know which day is to be called a "holy convocation"? And so, according to this view we must accept the position of the Rambam (Hil. Temidin 7:23-24) and the Rishonim who rule in accordance with him, that:

"It is a positive commandment to count seven whole weeks from the day of the bringing of the Omer… This commandment pertains to every Jew, IN EVERY PLACE AND IN EVERY TIME."


Early and later authorities have addressed the question of why no blessing of "she-hecheyanu" is recited at the beginning of the counting (i.e., on the first night), as is customary for any mitzva that is performed for the first time in the year.  Many different answers are proposed.  The most accurate answer appears to be that no blessing should be recited for the clarification and preparation towards the festival of Shavuot, since we recite a blessing over the result.  The blessing of "she-hecheyanu" on Shavuot itself applies also to the clarification in which we were engaged in the time leading up to the festival: the counting of the seven weeks.  The Chizkuni offers this type of explanation in his commentary on verse 21:

"And since the counting of the fifty days is only for the purposes of Shavuot, the day of bringing the Omer (the beginning of the counting) is not a proper time to recite the blessing of 'she-hecheyanu.'"


The Devar Avraham (I:34), by Rabbi Avraham Duber Kahana-Shapira of Kovna, contains a fundamental responsum concerning Sefirat ha-Omer, which dovetails with the analysis in this shiur.  The question posed there is:

"Someone who was in a distant place among gentiles, and was in doubt as to his count of Sefirat Ha-Omer - whether he was up to three days of the Omer or four days: may he recite a blessing and count both numbers, in order to cover the doubt? I.e., may he say, 'Today is three days, Today is four days'?"

The beginning of the answer provides a definition of the mitzva:

"On the literal level, it would appear that the essence of the counting is not that he utter the words naming the numbers, but rather that he know and be consciously aware of the number that he is counting.  If this is not the case, then (his action) is not called counting at all, but rather the uttering of the words of the counting.  It is not actual counting."

In accordance with the above definition, there follows an explanation of the words of the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 489:2): "One counts only in a language that one understands, and if he does not understand Hebrew and he counted in Hebrew - he has not fulfilled the mitzva, for he does not know what he has said, and this is not called counting." The Devar Avraham then asks:

"Why does the Magen Avraham insist that he understand Hebrew (in order for his counting in Hebrew to be valid)? After all… Hallel and Kiddush and all the blessings for the mitzvot are recited in Hebrew, even if one does not understand - so why does he say that (counting in Hebrew for) Sefirat ha-Omer, specifically, requires that one understand Hebrew?

The above explains it well: One 'reads' Hallel or 'recites' Kiddush … and it is still called 'reading' or 'reciting' even though he has not understood… But counting… by its own definition is not a count unless the person who is counting understands the number.  Otherwise, it is like a mere recitation of the words, not a counting.  This is very simple.

If so, then in our case - concerning one who is muddled concerning the days of Sefira - he should certainly not count two days out of doubt. How can he say, 'Today is three days, today is four days' - what number does he mean? If he means that it is maybe three and maybe four, then this is no number at all… And likewise I would say concerning one who was muddled during the days of Sefira and counted only one day out of doubt, thinking that perhaps it will turn out that he counted the correct number: even if it turns out that he did hit upon the correct number, he has still not fulfilled the counting because at the time of the count he did not know for sure, and this is not called counting."

By means of his definition, the author then goes on to answer the question posed by R. Zerachia ha-Levi, the Ba'al ha-Maor," at the end of Massekhet Pesachim: Why do we not count two countings outside of Israel out of doubt (as to the proper date), like the celebration of a second day of Yom Tov (including Shavuot) out of doubt?  The Devar Avraham replies:

"We are, after all, quite certain as to the dates of the months (since we now have a fixed calendar and no longer rely on reports by individuals to the Beit Din as to sightings of the New Moon).  (And the fact that we celebrate a second day of Yom Tov is) because it is the custom of our forefathers (who relied on receiving notice from the Beit Din as to the new month, based on eye—witness reports).  The crux of the question (of the Ba'al ha-Maor) is… that we should count two countings, like (a second day of) Yom Tov because of the custom of our forefathers… But according to what we have said it would seem that we should say something else: on Yom Tov, our forefathers (who had no fixed calendar) had the custom of celebrating two days of Yom Tov out of doubt, but when it came to counting - it was impossible for them to count two countings together out of doubt, for this would not be considered counting at all.  In a place and at a time when they were in doubt, no such dispensation was given, and we must assume that he did not count at all."

We may summarize by saying that Sefirat ha-Omer is not a "reading" nor an "recitation," but rather a calculation that a person must make.  The regular laws applying to mitzvot of recitation and speech do not apply to it, since the speech is not the actual mitzva, but rather the external expression of the calculation and clarification that the person is performing mentally.


In the previous section we noted repeatedly that the purpose of the mitzva of Sefirat ha-Omer is to calculate the proper time for the festival of Shavuot, which is dependent on this counting.  At this point one may ask: does Shavuot then have no fixed date in the year? The calendar notes the date of Shavuot as the 6th of Sivan every year! What, then, is the point of counting the Omer?

A review of the parashot in the Torah dealing with the festivals reveals that nowhere is there any mention of the date of Shavuot.  The date is absent both from the parasha of the festivals in Vayikra 23 and from the one in Bemidbar 28-29 - the two parashot that designate the dates of all the other festivals.  When does this festival fall? The Torah gives a clear answer, in two different places: in Vayikra 23 the date is determined as the fiftieth day after bringing the Omer offering, and in Devarim 16 it is determined as following seven weeks after the beginning of the harvest.  Since the Omer is the "beginning of your harvest," and since the day that comes after seven weeks that have been counted is the fiftieth day, the two parashot identify the date of Shavuot as the same day.

But how do we know the date of Shavuot - the date marked on the calendar as the 6th of Sivan?

The answer is related to two teachings by Torah sages, the one quite ancient, the other a later innovation.  The more ancient teaching is one that establishes the date of the bringing of the Omer "on the day after the festival (literally, 'the Shabbat')" as being the day after the first day of the festival of Matzot - the 16th of Nissan.  This by itself does not yet cause Shavuot to fall on a fixed day, as we learn in a baraita (Rosh Hashana 6b):

"Rav Shemaya taught: Shavuot falls sometimes on the 5th, sometimes on the 6th, and sometimes on the 7th.  How is this so? If both (Nissan and Iyar) are full months (30 days) - then it falls on the 5th (of Sivan); if both are 'lacking' (29 days), then it falls on the 7th; if one is full and the other is lacking, it falls on the 6th."

Thus, so long as the months were established and sanctified on the basis of eye-witness reports, Shavuot could occur on any one of three dates.

But the establishment of the fixed calendar - a later innovation from the time of the Amoraim - made Nissan always a full month and Iyar always lacking, such that Shavuot always falls on the 6th of Sivan.

In these circumstances, Sefirat ha-Omer loses the crux of its reason, and the counting becomes, in the minds of many, an unintelligible ritual.  Throughout the generations, explanations have been offered to assuage this alienation: they explained the counting as an expression of our longing for the day KNOWN IN ADVANCE, the 6th of Sivan, which - according to one of the opinions in the sugya in Massekhet Shabbat (86b-88a) - is the day of the giving of the Torah.  Obviously, this was not the original reason for the counting when Shavuot did not have a fixed date, but rather depended on the conclusion of the counting on the fiftieth day.

Hence, the question is posed by the commentators: why does the Torah not establish a precise date for Shavuot, as it does concerning all the other festivals, but rather makes it dependent on the counting of fifty days? Even in the days when the New Moon was sanctified by the Beit Din, its date could be the 5th, 6th or 7th of Sivan.  Why did the Torah not establish its date as one of these three, and save the need for counting?

In the commentary of Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid on Vayikra 23:16, we find an interesting reason:

"Why does the Torah make Shavuot dependent on counting, in contrast to the other festivals? [R. Yehuda HeChassid} explained that it is because on Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Sukkot everyone is at home and knows when the 15th of Nissan is, and knows whether the previous month was full or lacking (i.e., knew when there was a New Moon).  But when it comes to Shavuot everyone is busy with winnowing and harvesting and all the other agricultural activities; who would tell all the rural population whether Iyar had been a full month or lacking? Therefore the Torah says: Remember the day of Pesach, when you made your pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and at night, when you harvested the Omer - (the inhabitants of) all the towns gather together, and it is a great public event… Therefore the Torah tells Israel: All you need to do is to count fifty days from that night of harvesting the Omer.  In the morning (of the 16th of Nissan) each person would start to make his way home (from Jerusalem) and would remember the day of his journeying, and would remember when the fifty days were up."

This reason is condensed in the long commentary of the Tur on the Torah:

"'And you shall count for yourselves' - There are some who explain the reason for Sefirat Ha-Omer as being because these are the days of the harvest, and the people are busy; they are not at home to hear (of the New Moon) from the messengers of the Beit Din who go out, and would not know when the new month had been sanctified; therefore the Torah commands to count.  For the same reason, the counting is done at night - because in the day they are occupied."

From the explanation offered by these commentators, which is entirely compatible with Shavuot being the "festival of the harvest" (Shemot 23:16), we learn that Shavuot was fixed in the consciousness of the people as falling on a certain date (6th of Sivan), and the only problem was that there was no way of notifying the people, engaged in their agricultural labor in the fields, that the new month (Sivan) had been sanctified.  The counting was therefore meant to serve as a means of leading the people in the fields towards this fixed and known date.  But, as discussed above, in the period when the month was sanctified by word of the eye-witnesses, the counting was not directed towards a specific date.

The simple reason for the lack of a date for Shavuot in the Torah, and for its establishment on the basis of a count of fifty days from the beginning of the harvest, is to be found in the Kuzari of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi.  In explaining the literal meaning of the words, "from the day after the festival (literally, 'the Shabbat')," he writes:

"Even if we accept the interpretation of the Karaites for the expression, 'the day after the Shabbat' (i.e., that the Torah means Sunday), we must add: one of the judges or the kohanim or the kings… explained correctly… that this number means only to create a fifty-day period between the first fruits of the barley harvest and the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and to maintain the 'seven weeks,' which are 'seven complete weeks.'

But the fact that the Torah mentions the first day of the week is meant only as a metaphor, as if to say: if the beginning, 'from when you begin to put the sickle to the standing corn,' is on the first day of the week, then you will reach the end of your count on the first day of the week as well. Thus, we may conclude that if the beginning is on the second day of the week, then we shall count until the second day of the week (seven weeks later).  BUT THE TIME OF 'BEGINNING TO PUT THE SICKLE TO THE STANDING CORN' IS UP TO US: WHENEVER WE SEE FIT TO DO SO, WE MAY BEGIN, AND WE MAY START TO COUNT FROM THAT TIME.

Indeed, this time is established as the second day of Pesach, which in no way contradicts what the Torah is saying.  And we are obligated to accept this setting of the date as a mitzva, for it comes from 'the place that God will choose….'"

In the view of R. Yehuda Ha-Levi, the situation according to the directions of the Torah, before the early Sages determined the fixed time of the harvest to be on the 16th of Nissan, was as follows. This entire body of mitzvot, including the waving of the Omer, the counting of seven weeks and the celebration of Shavuot, was not related to Pesach or to any other date in the calendar.  The starting point of the whole system was the "beginning of the harvest," and this time was not any specific date, but rather was determined by the actual, natural reality of the fields.  Therefore, there is no date given in the Torah for Shavuot, for in truth it does not occur on any specific date; its date may change from year to year depending on the day we choose to begin the harvest.

Thus, Sefirat ha-Omer is the sole means of clarifying the date of Shavuot.  The parallel between Sefirat ha-Omer and counting towards the Jubilee is now complete: the only way of determining the fiftieth year is by counting fifty years from the previous Jubilee.  A Jubilee cannot be determined on the basis of the year (5763, for instance), for no such count existed in the Torah.  Thus, the only way the Torah could instruct us to sanctify the fiftieth year is to command that fifty years be counted from the time of our entering the land, and thereafter from one Jubilee to the next.

An ongoing count of years such as the one we employ - 5763 since "the creation of the world," or "the count of the documents (shetarot)" employed by the medievals - did not exist in the Torah, but some type calendar certainly did.  The festivals are noted in the Torah according to their dates.  Concerning the fifty days of the harvest, beginning with the offering of the Omer and concluding with the offering of the two loaves, no dates apply.  They are not anchored in the calendar, but rather in the annually-renewed decision as to when they will begin.  Therefore, when the Torah comes to determine the date of Shavuot, it can only make it dependent on the counting of fifty days from the beginning of the harvest, just as the counting of the Jubilee.

I devoted a previous shiur on parashat Emor (5760) to an examination of R. Yehuda Ha-Levi's approach, and I shall not elaborate further here.  The mitzva of Sefirat ha-Omer in the Torah, in its literal understanding, is the most powerful proof for the truth of R. Yehuda Ha-Levi's view.  On each evening of the Sefira period, when the congregation gathers in the synagogue for the Ma'ariv prayer and for the counting ceremony, they are demonstrating that even now - when Halakha has determined the beginning of the harvest as falling on a fixed date, and the calendar determines that Shavuot falls on a fixed date - the literal understanding of the Torah nevertheless teaches that Shavuot depends entirely on our count, regardless of what the calendar might say.


(Translated by Kaeren Fish.