THE TWO DIMENSIONS OF SEFIRAT HA-OMER AND THEIR HALACHIC RAMIFICATIONS

 

The issue of sefirat ha-omer (the counting of the Omer) takes up only one chapter in the Shulchan Aruch, and receives minimal attention in the gemara. In Menachot 66a we are told that Abaye holds that there is a commandment to count the days as well as a commandment to count the weeks, a view that was followed by the students of Rav Ashi. By contrast, Ameimar holds that while the is a commandment to count days, there is no comparable injunction to count the weeks, since our counting is merely a remembrance of what was done in the Temple. Nevertheless, there are numerous debates that arose subsequent to the gemara about sefirat ha-omer, and while they seem to have no real connection to each other, we will see how they are all linked through a common theme.

Before elucidating the dual nature of sefirat ha-omer, we should survey three of the major debates found among the Rishonim and Acharonim:

  1. Whether the counting of the Omer nowadays is Torah-ordained (d'oraita) or Rabbinic in nature (d'rabbanan). Rambam (Hil. Temidin U'Musafin 7) and the Sefer HaChinuch (#306), contend that even after the destruction of the Temple, our counting of these forty-nine days continues to be d'oraita. They understand the gemara in Menachot as being an argument of the Rabbis against Ameimar, and the Rabbis claim that our counting is not merely a memorial to what once was. Most other Rishonim pick up the reasoning of Ameimar and say that the counting itself is only a memorial, and the debate in the gemara is really about how to count days and weeks, or weeks alone.
  2. Do we have a concept of "shomei'a k'oneh" by the counting of the Omer as we do by other commandments whose execution is verbal in nature? In other words, does each person have to count for himself, or can an individual discharge his obligation by hearing another person count?
  3. Is the forty-nine day period one unit, or is it composed of forty-nine individual units? Tosafot in Menachot loc. cit. Cite the Behag who claims that when the Torah describes the need for our counting to be "temimot" (perfect, complete), that means that it is all one unit and thus a person who misses a day has lost their entire mitzva. Tosafot themselves claim that the word "temimot" indicates to us merely that the counting has to be done at night, but in reality each day is its own unit, and thus one who misses a day can continue counting (the Shulchan Aruch and Mishne Berura rule like this, and exempt one who has missed a day from saying the blessing based on the principle that we are lenient with regard to doubts concerning blessings).

Given these debates, we will now attempt to understand the dual nature of sefirat ha-omer. There seem to be two main approaches that we can take to understanding this commandment as a whole (or perhaps the days in general):

  1. The days of sefirat ha-omer have no intrinsic value. Rather, they serve as a period of time in which we work our way towards Shavuot and thus towards our commemoration of the giving of the Torah. As each day and each week passes, we draw ever closer to that most important of days in Jewish history, and thus each day is one more level towards reaching that goal. Thus, the focus is on the particulars each day is another level closer to the ultimate goal, and thus each day counts.
  2. Alternatively, we can see the days of sefirat ha-omer as having some value in and of themselves. While this seven-week period in Jewish history served as the build-up to the giving of the Torah, it also served as the time when the Jewish people coalesced into a nation and raised themselves up from the depths of impurity to which they had plunged. While this is also connected to the giving of the Torah, it has independent significance as well, from both a national and a religious point of view. Through the counting of the Omer, we highlight the path from the offering of the Omer, which was made of barley (animal food), to the offer of the two loaves (shtei ha-lechem), which represents food fit for man. We thus celebrate the rise of spiritual man above the animal kingdom, and above the animal nature that is part of man as well. Within this perspective, the focus of sefirat ha-omer is on the Jewish people themselves, and no one day in more important than any other day.

With this perspective in mind, we can now re-evaluate the debates raised above. With regard to the status of the commandment of sefirat ha-omer today, it would seem that most Rishonim view this time period in terms of its focus on the Jewish people. As we noted, this idea has roots in the passage from the korban ha-omer to the shtei ha-lechem, a practice that was kept only so long as the Temple existed. As it no longer exists, our counting of the Omer has lost its main motivating factor and it reduced to be a Rabbinic ordinance. By contrast, Rambam and the Sefer HaChinuch sever the ties between the offerings in the Temple and the counting of the Omer, and thus they are able to maintain that our counting today is still Torah-ordained.

With regard to the debate concerning the applicability of "shomei'a k'oneh" to sefirat ha-omer, we can see our ideas brought out best in the views of Rashi and Ritz Giat. Rashi contends that the focus is on each individual and on every detail, and thus no person can have somebody else count on his behalf. On the other hand, Ritz Giat (and the Pri Chadash and the Birchei Yoseif) contends that sefirat ha-omer has intrinsic value, and the focus is thus on the nation as a whole. This being the case, one person can count for another, since everyone is part of the same nation.

Finally, we have the debate concerning whether we are dealing with one integrated unit or forty-nine distinct units. The Behag seems to feel that there is a value to the days of sefirat ha-omer on their own and there is a connection between them and the Jewish people. Thus, they function as one whole unit, and if a person misses even one day he can no longer continue to count. By contrast, Tosafot feel that sefirat ha-omer serves as a preparation for the giving of the Torah, and thus each day is its own unit, its own step on the way up to the high point in Jewish history. Thus, even if one were to miss a day, he can continue his march towards Sinai on the next day.


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