Shiur #15: Assorted Details of Omer Counting

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Talmudic Methodology
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #15: Assorted Details of Omer Counting

By Rav Moshe Taragin


            The past two shiurim described two different models for sefirat ha-omer.  This mitzva may be designed solely to calculate and mark a timeframe as a precedent for the advent of Shavuot; by tracking the passage of fifty days, the proper moment of Shavuot's start can be established.  Alternatively, the active designation of the days of the omer may be designed to convey some special halakhic status to the days themselves.  This question may affect the need to articulate the counting verbally and possibly would determine whether an actual formula is required.  The demand for a specific formula may, in turn, determine whether the principle of shomei'a ke-oneh is applicable. 


            This structural question regarding the mitzva of counting the omer may affect several other details of its performance.  An interesting debate emerges as to whether to conclude "la-omer" ("to the omer") or "ba-omer" ("in the omer") when counting.  The Mechaber does not stipulate a specific version, but the Rama insists that "ba-omer" is the more appropriate phrasing.  Most minhagim deviate from the Rama's position, adopt the Ari Ha-kadosh, who prefers "la-omer."  Though the two versions are almost identical, perhaps the term "la-omer" better reflects counting time which has elapsed since an important event.  In fact, the Sha'arei Teshuva (O.C. 489:8) cites Bamidbar 1:1 to demonstrate that counting from a particular event is described as "le-": "in the second year to (le-) their exodus."  However, if counting the omer is not merely a calculation of intervening time but creating a unique period of time – "omer time" – perhaps the term "ba-omer" would be more appropriate.  A period defined as "omer" exists, with its own identity and characteristics, and each day is designated as part of that continuum. 


            Another interesting issue stems from a famous question posed by the Rosh.  If the Torah (Vayikra 23:16) demands "You must count fifty days," why do we count only forty-nine days? In fact, some minhagim actually mention the fiftieth day on the final night of omer counting.  For example, see the comment of the Chok Ya'akov (489:11), who mentions a minhag in the name of the Maharil to conclude "…which is seven weeks, and tomorrow is Erev Shavuot."  However, most minhagim do not insert this comment, and the question of counting the fiftieth day remains. 


            One reasonable answer would be to suggest that often the Torah states a round figure, recognizing that it may be reduced by one; the Torah (Devarim 25:3) mandates forty lashes for violations of prohibitions, but the Mishna (Makkot 3:10) limits the number to thirty-nine.  Stylistic elegance may prefer rounded numbers, even if they are technically inaccurate.  According to another solution, we would view the phrase "Seven weeks you must count for yourself" (Devarim 16:9) as an adjustment of the "fifty days" mentioned in Vayikra to the actual number 49. 


            Beyond the textual difficulty, we may still ponder the REASON that the Torah does not mandate an actual counting of the fiftieth day.  Indeed, if sefirat ha-omer is designed to mark the passage of time between the two special menachot offerings, the minchat ha-omer of barley flour offered on the second day of Pesach, and the shetei ha-lechem, the two leavened wheat loaves offered seven weeks later — and to set Shavuot by this counting — the omission of the actual day of Shavuot from the omer counting is puzzling. 


            However, if the omer designates a time period of unique quality, in between the bookends of Pesach and Shavuot, we may better understand the counting process as naturally terminating BEFORE Shavuot; therefore, the process can exclude the fiftieth day. 


            Finally, the question of the design of this mitzva may impact upon a famous question about the level of integration within the process.  Should we consider all forty-nine times we count as one mitzva (with forty-nine installments) or as multiple mitzvot?  Tosafot in Megilla (20b, s.v. Kol) cite the position of the Behag, that if one forgets to count one day, the entire process is flawed (and no berakha may be recited on subsequent nights).  The Sefer Ha-chinukh (Mitzva 306) elaborates that the Behag believes that the complete endeavor is an integrated mitzva; thus, the omission of one piece of the puzzle severely compromises the integrity of the entire process.  Many other Rishonim disagree with this view, citing the recitation of forty-nine berakhot as proof that each counting constitutes a separate mitzva. 


            Perhaps the question of the function of sefirat ha-omer is related to the degree of its integration.  Viewing the counting of the omer as a means to calculate the intervening period between Pesach and Shavuot may allow us to integrate the process into one progression: the purpose of each counting is to reach the 'magic number' forty-nine and accurately arrive at Shavuot.  Day thirty-five, for example, is only important because it maintains the count on the way to number forty-nine and ultimately the day after number forty-nine, which is Shavuot.  However, if the mitzva demands that we instill this period with a unique character, each day retains its independent identity, and each counting is necessarily distinct.


            These halakhic applications afford us a window into the intriguing mitzva of sefirat ha-omer, allowing us to approach Shavuot, the Time of the Giving of Our Torah, with the proper anticipation and preparation.