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Sefirat Ha-Omer (2)

  • Rav David Brofsky

the laws of THE FESTIVALS



In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner





by Rav David Brofsky



Shiur #10 – Sefirat Ha-Omer (2)



Last week, we discussed the source and obligation of the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer. We questioned whether the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer, after the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, remains mi-de’oraita, or whether it is performed as a zekher la-Mikdash, commemorating the destruction of the Temple, and is therefore only mi-derabbanan. We also analyzed whether sefirat ha-omer should be considered a time-bound mitzva, from which women are exempt, and whether there is a special mitzva upon the Beit Din Ha-Gadol to count the omer.


This week, we will study the laws of the counting itself, including the proper time for its recitation, what happens when one forgets to count the omer, and other halakhot related to the counting.


The Earliest Time for Sefirat Ha-Omer


In previous shiurim, we discussed the various halakhically significant times of the day. We noted that the period before tzeit ha-kokhavim, at which time three medium size stars become visible, is known as bein ha-shemashot. The gemara (Shabbat 34b) describes this period, which begins at sheki’ah, as “safek yom, safek layla” - a time period regarding which the rabbis were in doubt whether to consider day or night. Practically, we generally treat this period strictly, at least regarding biblical prohibitions. We therefore begin Shabbat before and end Shabbat after bein ha-shemashot.


            The Rishonim debate the precise definition of sheki’ah, bein ha-shemashot, and tzeit ha-kokhavim. Nowadays, normative practice is in accordance with the opinion of the Vilna Gaon, who defined sheki’ah as sunset and tzeit ha-kokhavim as a time shortly afterwards, depending on one’s location. In America, it is customary to identify tzeit ha-kokhavim as 45–50 minutes after sheki’ah (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:62), and in Israel, between 15-20 minutes (and in some communities, even later) after sheki’ah.


            May one count the omer during bein ha-shemashot? This question is of great relevance in places in which the congregation recites Aravit immediately after sheki’ah, which is quite common outside of Israel.


            The Rishonim address this question from two perspectives. First, as we discussed last week, the Rishonim debate whether sefirat ha-omer is a mitzva mi-de’oraita or mi-derabbanan nowadays. Tosafot (Menachot 66a, s.v. zekher) write that one may count the omer with a berakha during bein ha-shemashot (safek chasheicha). Since sefirat ha-omer is only a rabbinic mitzva, we employ the principle of safek de-rabbanan le-kula and rule leniently, thereby considering the period of bein ha-shemashot to be nighttime. Second, Tosafot suggest that counting during bein ha-shemashot may even be preferable in order to fulfill the requirement of “temimot,” as we will discuss below.


While those Rishonim who maintain that sefirat ha-omer is mi-de’oraita would certainly disagree, even the Ran (Pesachim, 28a, Rif), who agrees that sefirat ha’omer is mi-derabbanan nowadays, objects to deliberately entering into a situation of doubt, as Tosafot suggest. Furthermore, he questions whether one should count during bein ha-shemashot in order to fulfill the aspect of “temimot,” which one would certainly not do during the time of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, when the obligation is clearly mi-de’oraita. 


            The Shulchan Arukh (489:2) rules that those who are particular in their performance of mitzvot (ha-medakdekim) wait until after tzeit ha-kokhavim to count, and, he concludes, “It is the proper to do so.” Although the Magen Avrahahm (6) writes the be-di’avad, one who counted during bein ha-shemashot has fulfilled his obligation, the Mishna Berura (15) cites the Eliya Rabba, who recommends that one repeat the count without a berakha after tzeit ha-kokhavim.


The Arukh Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 489:7) records that it is customary to wait until after tzeit ha-kokhavim, except on Fridays, when the entire congregation accepts Shabbat early. R. Ovadia Yosef (Yechave Da’at 1:23), however, rules that one may recite sefirat ha-omer with the blessing immediately after sheki’ah; he also describes this as the “minhag Yerushalayim,” the custom in Jerusalem. He concludes, however, like the Shulchan Arukh, that those who are meticulous should wait until tzeit ha-kokhavim, approximately 15 minutes after sheki’ah, and then count.  


The Proper Time for Sefirat Ha-Omer


            The mishna and the gemara (Megilla 20b) teach that the entire night is considered to be the proper time for the cutting and the counting of the omer. The mishna assumes that the counting of the omer should take place at night, and only questions whether this may be performed the entire night. What is the reason that the counting is performed at night?


Some suggest that the counting must be performed at night so that each day’s counting is “complete” - or “temimot.” The gemara (Menachot 66a) cites the following beraita:


Perhaps the omer should be cut and counted during the day? We are taught [by the wording of the Torah in Vayikra 23:15], “They should be seven complete weeks (temimot).”  When can one attain seven complete weeks? When one starts to count at night.


According to this source, one counts at night so that each day’s count is “complete,” including the entire day. Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot, Megilla 20b, s.v. kol) maintained that even if the cutting of the omer may be performed during the day, as we will discuss, the Torah specifically uses the term “temimot” to teach that the counting should be done at night.


               While Rabbeinu Tam clearly understands that the requirement of “temimot” applies to each night, one might suggest that it applies only the first evening, in order to create a complete count from beginning to end. R. Yehudai Gaon (cited in the Behag 71), for example, believes that one who did not count the first night may not count on subsequent nights, as his counting can no longer be “temimot.


               Some understand that “temimot” would also require that one count at the beginning of each night. The Rambam (Commentary to the Mishna, Menachot 10:3), for example, writes that in order to fulfill “temimot,” one must count at the beginning of each night. The Rambam, however, does not mention this in the Mishnah Torah. The Tur (Orach Chaim 489) also writes: "The time for counting is the beginning of the night. If one forgot to count at the beginning of the night, one can count all night." The Shulkhan Arukh (489:1) cites this as well.


               The Shulchan Arukh (489:1) writes that one should count the omer after Tefillat Aravit. The Bi’ur Halakha (489:1) cites R. Yaakov Emdin, in his Mor U-Ketzi’a, who insists that the Shulchan Arukh referred to the practice years ago, when Aravit was recited before dark. However, when Aravit was not recited before dark, then one should certainly count the omer before reciting Aravit! The Bi’ur Halakha disagrees, and it is common practice to count the omer after Aravit, before Aleinu.


               Interestingly, the Acharonim debate why we recite the sefirat ha-omer after Aravit.  R. Moshe Feinstein explains that the principle of “tadir ve-she-einu tadir - tadir kodem” dictates that Aravit should be recited first. R. Shmuel Wosner (Shevet Ha-Levi 6:53), however, disagrees. He believes that the principle of “tadir ve-she-eino tadir” would not apply in this case. However, he agrees that even one who recites Aravit later in the evening should count the omer after Aravit, as one should not become accustomed to separating sefirat ha-omer from Aravit lest he forget to count or count twice. R. Shmuel Wosner suggests that one who prays alone, long after tzeit ha-kokhavim, may count the omer early and then recite Aravit later.  Some add that the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer should preferably be fulfilled publically, “be-rov am” (Shelah, Pesachim 3a, cited by Be’er Heitev 489:20).


               Some even extend this requirement of "temimot" to the conclusion of sefirat ha-omer as well. The Acharonim write that one should not recite kiddush and eat before tzeit ha-kokhavim of the evening of Shavuot (Magen Avraham 494), or even say Tefillat Aravit (Taz 494; the Siddur Ya’avetz insists that one daven early, in order to fulfill the mitzva of tosefet Yom Tov, adding on to Yom Tov).


               Alternatively, some (Rabbeinu Yerucham, Toldot Adam Ve-Chava, netiv 5: part 4; Tosafot Ha-Rosh, Megilla 20b s.v. kol) suggest that we count the omer at night because that is when the ketzirat ha-omer, the cutting of the barley for the omer, is done. Similarly, some Rishonim (see the Tosafot Rosh cited above, for example) derive that one should stand for the sefirat ha-omer by comparing the counting to the cutting of the omer, as the verse (Devarim 16:9) which describes the cutting of the omer days says it should be brought from the beginning of the harvest, when the grain is “kama” - standing. The Sefer Ha-Yereim (261) cites this derasha, although he acknowledges that he is unsure of its origin.


               This question may be crucial in understanding whether one who did not count at night may count during the day. As we discussed last week, the Rishonim debate this issue at length. Seemingly, those who conclude that one must count at night based on the principle of “temimot” (see Rabbeinu Tam, Tosafot, Megilla 20b) would insist that one may not count during the day. Those who compare sefirat ha-omer to the ketzirat ha-omer must first determine whether, be-di’avad, one may cut the omer during the day. While the mishna in Menachot (71a) states that “It is preferable to cut the omer at night, but if it was cut during the day it is valid," the mishna in Megilla (20a) implies that it may only be cut at night. The Rishonim debate whether to we rule in accordance with the mishna in Menachot (Behag, cited by Tosafot, Menachot 66a; Rambam, Hilkhot Temidin U-Mussafin 7:7) or the mishna in Megilla (Rabbeinu Tam, cited in Tosafot, Megilla 20b, s.v. kol; Tosafot, Menachot 66a, s.v. zekher).


               Some maintain that one who forgets to count at night should count the next day, but without a berakha. This opinion may either view the fulfillment of “temimot” as preferable, but be-di’avad one still fulfills the mitzva, or it may view the ketzirat ha-omer performed during the day as valid but missing a crucial component. The Mordekhai (Megilla 803) cites R. Yaakov ben Yakar, who explains that although the full mitzva of counting during the proper time has not been fulfilled, the mitzva of counting has still been performed. One who counts during the day fulfills a lower level of the mitzva, upon which a blessing is not recited. 


               The Shulchan Arukh (489:7) rules that one who forgets to count the omer at night should count during the day without a berakha, The Mishna Berura (34) explains that since many Rishonim maintain that one may even count the next morning with a berakha, one should count, but without a blessing, due to the debate cited above.


One Who Forgets to Count the Omer


               We concluded above that although one should preferably count the omer at night, one who forgets may still count during the day without the berakha.


               May one who forgets to count for an entire day continue to count the next day? Seemingly, this should depend upon a fundamental question regarding the nature of the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer. How are we to understand this mitzva, which is performed over a period of seven weeks, or forty-nine days? Do the forty-nine nights of the omer comprise one long mitzva, which one only fulfills after counting each night? Or are there forty-nine separate and independent mitzvot of sefirat ha-omer?


               The Sefer Ha-Chinukh (306) explains that the Behag, who maintains that one who omits an entire day may no longer continue counting, believes that “they all comprise one mitzva, and since he forgot one of the days, they entire count is lost.” On the other hand, the Beit Yosef (489) cites R. Hai Gaon and the Ri, who maintain that one who omits an entire day may continue to count the next day. He explains that “since each and every night is a separate and independent mitzva, certainly even if he didn’t remember one day, he may [count and] recite the blessing the following days.” R. Yeshayah ben R. Mali of Trani (1180-1260), author of the Tosafot Rid, relates to this issue in his Sefer Ha-Makhri’a (29). He asserts that one can prove from the blessing over sefirat ha-omer, which is recited each day, that each day constitutes a separate mitzva.


               The Shulchan Arukh (489:8) rules that one who forgets to count for an entire day should continue to count subsequent days, but without a blessing. If he is in doubt whether he omitted a day, however, he may continue to count with a blessing (see Terumat Ha-Deshen 37). The Mishna Berura (38) explains that in this case, there is a “sefeik sefeika”- a double doubt. We are unsure whether he really forgot to count the night before, and even if he did, the halakha may still be in accordance with those Rishonim who believe that one may continue counting with a blessing even after omitting an entire day. In addition, the Mishna Berura writes that if one counted the wrong day but the correct number of weeks or vice versa, in which case one should count again properly without a berakha, if one did not count again, one may still resume the count the next day with a berakha.


               The Minchat Chinukh (306), in the context of this discussion, raises the following question. May a katan (child) who counted sefirat ha-omer and becomes a bar mitzva during the omer continue to count with a blessing? Should we equate this scenario to one in which a person forgot, or never began, to count? Seemingly, this fascinating question may depend upon a number of issues. Does sefirat ha-omer consist of forty-nine separate mitzvot or one large mitzva? What is the status of a mitzva fulfilled during one’s childhood, and can the sefira performed during the katan’s childhood contribute to a continuity, or “temimut," of counting?


               This issue occupied the Acharonim for the past two centuries. Although the Avnei Nezer (Orach Chaim 2:539) concludes that the boy should continue counting without a berakha, the majority of Acharonim, including the Sha’arei Teshuva (489:20), Ketav Sofer (Orach Chaim 99), Minchat Elazar (3:60), Arukh Ha-Shulchan (489:15), and Tzitz Eliezer (14:55) rule that he should continue counting with a berakha. The Acharonim also question whether a slave or a non-Jew who counted sefirat ha-omer and was subsequently freed or converted may continue to count with a blessing. There may be other considerations in these cases.


               What if one forgets to count at night, and counts during the day without a blessing? May he continue to count on the following evening with a blessing? The Shulchan Arukh (489:8) implies that one may resume counting with a berakha the next evening. The Mishna Berura explains in the Sha’ar Ha-Tziun (45) that here, too, there is a sefeik sefeika - we are unsure whether the halakha is in accordance with those who believe that one may count during the day, and even if it is not, the halakha may still be like those who believe that even one who omitted an entire day may continue to count.


               Interestingly, Tosafot (Megilla 20b, s.v. kol ha-layla) records that they   also ruled that if one forgot to count at night, but remembered during the day, he should count during the day without a blessing. He may then continue to count the rest of the nights with a blessing. However, if one forgot to count both at night and on the subsequent day, he does not continue to count with a blessing.


               The Behag’s position is quite curious. It seems difficult to attribute the rationale cited above to the Behag. It is unlikely that the Behag, one of the Geonim from the 8th–9th century, ruled that one who counts without a berakha may continue to count the next day with a blessing due to a sefeik sefeika. This would be both methodologically and historically inconsistent.


               R. Soloveitchik offered another interpretation. He explains that the Behag also views sefirat ha-omer as forty-nine separate mitzvot, unlike the Sefer Ha-Chinukh’s understanding, but he insists that counting, by definition, must be “temimot” - in ascending order. One who omits a day simply looses the count, and therefore cannot continue to count. By counting during the day, although one does not fulfill the mitzva, one ensures that he will be able to resume his count the next day.


               This intriguing interpretation, and the principle which emerges from it, may also enable us to understand other difficult opinions. For example, the Tur (489) cites R. Saadia Gaon, who asserts that one who forgets to count the first night may not continue counting on successive nights. However, one who omitted a different night may continue counting. Apparently, R. Soloveitchik suggested, R. Saadia Gaon maintains that by omitting the first number, the count never really begins. One who omits a different number, however, may continue to count, even though he made a mistake in the count. Similarly, the Bi’ur Halakha (489:8) cites R. Hai Gaon, who writes that if one forgot to count for an entire day, he should say on the next night, “Yesterday was the ___ day, and today is…” By mentioning the previous day, one restores the continuity lost by omitting the previous day.


               Of course, this interpretation may also enable us to answer the Minchat Chinukh’s question regarding one who became a Bar Mitzva during the omer. According to R. Soloveitchik, the Chinukh also believes that the sefirat ha-omer is comprised of forty-nine separate mitzvot. However, the Bar Mitzva may only count with a blessing if he counting until now, creating the continuity necessary in order to continue counting.


The Manner of Reciting Sefirat Ha-Omer and One Who Counts Incorrectly


               The Posekim discuss the proper manner of reciting sefirat ha-omer and whether counting incorrectly invalidates the sefira.


               As we mentioned above, the mitzva to count includes both the days and the weeks of the omer. The Mishna Berura (7) records that the Acharonim debate whether one who counted only the days has fulfilled his obligation. He concludes that one should count again, but without a berakha. However, one who did not count again may continue counting the next evening with a berakha.


               The Chayei Adam (131:1) writes that similarly, one who counts the weeks, but omits the days, should also count again without the berakha. The Mishna Berura (7) disagrees, and rules that one must count again with a blessing. One who realizes the next day that he counted only the weeks may continue to count with a blessing.


               One who counts incorrectly should correct himself immediately, within the time known as “tokh kedei dibbur” - the time it takes to say “shalom alekha Rebbe.


               One must say “ha-yom” - “today is” - when counting the omer. The Taz (7) rules that one who omits “ha-yom” has not fulfilled his obligation, and the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav (7) rules that one must count again with a berakha. The Mishna Berura (20) concurs.


               The posekim disagree as to whether one should say “ba-omer” or “la-omer.” Seemingly, “la-omer” relates the counting to the bringing of the korban ha-omer, while “ba-omer” refers to the time period leading up to Shavuot. As we developed above, both ideas are firmly rooted in halakhic sources.


               Although the Rama (489:1) writes that one should say “ba-omer," the Mishna Berura (8) writes that most Acharonim rule that one should preferably say “la-omer.” The Brisker Rav reportedly said both texts, first saying “ha-yomla-omer," and then whispering “ba-omer.” His nephew, R. Soloveitchik, would count twice, first saying “ha-yomba-omer,” and then repeating, in a whisper, “ha-yom… la-omer.” The Mishna Berura writes that one fulfills his obligation with either version.


               One may count the omer in any language, as long as he understands that language. Even one who counts in Hebrew but does not understand what he is saying may not have fulfilled his obligation, as “counting” implies that one understands what he is saying (Magen Avraham 449:2; Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav 489:10; Mishna Berura 5). The Mishna Berura (Sha’ar Ha-Tzyiun 6) cites R. Yaakov Emdin, who disagrees. One should preferably count again in a language which one understands.


               Can one fulfill sefirat ha-omer through the shaliach tzibbur’s recitation? Regarding many mitzvot which are performed through speech, such as kiddush and mikra Megilla, we invoke the principle of “shomei’a ke-oneh” - one who hears is akin to one who says. One fulfills the mitzva through hearing the words of another person.


               The Mishna Berura (449:5) records that the Acharonim debate whether one can discharge one’s obligation of sefirat ha-omer through hearing another person count. The Levush writes that the verse says, “U-sefartem lachem” - “and you should count for yourselves” - implying that each and every person must count for themselves. Those Acahronim who disagree may maintain that this verse comes to teach that the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer is incumbent upon each individual as opposed to the beit din, but not to exclude the possibility of employing the principle of shomei’a ke-oneh. Alternatively, they may believe that one who hears someone else recite a text with the intention of discharging his obligation is literally akin to one who pronounces the words himself. This issue, which we discussed previously (, is most likely a debate between Rashi (Sukka 38b) and Tosafot (Berakhot 21b, s.v. ad).


               It is customary for each individual to recite his or her own sefirat ha-omer, although one who can no longer recite the berakha should listen to the blessing of the shaliach tzibbur and answer “amen.”


The Latest Time for Sefirat Ha-Omer


               We saw above that since, according to most Rishonim, sefirat ha-omer is only mi-derabbaban nowadays, one may count the omer, at least be-dia’avad, during bein ha-shemashot. What if one forgot to count the omer at night and during the day, one remembers during bein ha-shemashot?


               The Sha’arei Teshuva (20) cites the Teshuvot Beit David (Orach Chaim 102), who rules that one who counts the previous day during bein ha-shemashot should count without a berakha on subsequent nights. He cites the Birkei Yosef, who questions this ruling. Other Acharonim, including the Beit Shlomo (1:102) and the Minchat Yitzchak (9:57), disagree. The Minchat Yitzchak, however, qualifies this; one should only rely upon this leniency during a time that everyone defines as bein ha-shemashot, and one should not rely upon Rabbeinu Tam’s time schedule for this issue. R. Moshe Feinstein, for example relies upon this leniency as long as one counts within nine minutes after sheki’ah (see Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:62).


               What if one already recited the next day’s Aravit before sheki’ah and then remembered that he had not yet counted the previous day? Or what if one makes “early Shabbat,” as many families do during the spring and summer, and remembered that he forgot to count the previous day’s omer only after he accepted Shabbat? Theoretically, one might distinguish between a weekday and Shabbat, depending upon the dispute between the Taz and Maharshal (see Taz, Orach Chaim 668) regarding whether accepting Shabbat transforms the time before sundown into the next day for matters not related to Shabbat, such as aveilut, sukka, nidda, etc. The Sha’arei Teshuva (ibid.), however, as well as R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:99:3), allow one to count, and continue to count with a blessing, that evening after tzeit ha-kokhavim.


The Required Intention for the Mitzva of Sefirat Ha-Omer


               The Shulchan Arukh (489:4), based upon the Abudraham (Hilkhot Sefirat Ha-Omer), rules that if one who has not yet counted is asked by a friend during bein ha-shemashot regarding the day of the omer, he should respond, “Yesterday was…" Were he to respond properly, he would not be able to subsequently count with a berakha. 


               The Acharonim question this ruling. The Shulchan Arukh himself (60:4) rules that, in general, “mitzvot tzerikhot kavanna,” the performance of a mitzva requires certain intention. In this case, the person who responded certainly did not have the intention to fulfill his obligation. Furthermore, one could most likely assume that his intention was not to fulfill the mitzva, in which case we certainly should suspect that he did not fulfill his obligation.


               The Taz (7) explains that if this person does not say “ha-yom," there is certainly no reason for concern. Furthermore, he explains that the Shulchan Arukh merely intended to prevent a person from answering in this questionable manner; however, even if one responded, he may still count afterwards with the berakha. The Mishna Berura (22) explains that according to the Magen Avraham (8), this may be a special stringency regarding berakhot, in accordance with the principle, “safek berakhot le-hakel ”- in case of doubt we are lenient regarding berakhot and do not recite them.


               The Mishna Berura (Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun 6) also cites the Eliya Rabba, who distinguishes between mitzvot de’oraita, which require special intention, and mitzvot derabban, such as sefirat ha-omer, which do not require special intent. Therefore, by responding, he may have fulfilled his obligation to count. The Mishna Berura then cites the Peri Chadash and the Gra, who deny any distinction between mitzvot de’oraita and mitzvot derabbanan and therefore explain that this passage must be according to the opinions who believe that “mitzvot ein tzerikhot kavanna,” that mitzvot do not need any special intention.


               Practically, if one responded but did not say “ha-yom/today is” (Taz/Magen Avraham), or if one responded during bein ha-shemashot and he ordinarily does not count the omer until after tzeit ha-kokhavim (Bi’ur Halakha), or if one did not mention the weeks (Mishna Berura 22; Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun 28), or if one had explicit intention not to fulfill the obligation of sefirat ha-omer (Mishna Berura, ibid.), one may count later that evening with a blessing.


               Next week, we will discuss the laws of mourning that are customarily observed during the omer.