Excerpted from Unlocking the Torah Text –Vayikra by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishing
In the midst of the Torah’s discussion concerning the festival cycle, immediately after the commandment concerning the Omer offering (a barley offering in the Temple which marks the beginning of the harvest and allows the use of that season’s grain), the following mandate is found:
And you shall count for yourselves – from the day after the Sabbath, from the day you bring the waved offering of the Omer – seven weeks; complete shall they be. Until the day after the seventh Sabbath, shall you count fifty days; and you will offer a new meal offering to the Lord.
This commandment is reiterated in the book of Devarim: “Seven weeks shall you count for yourselves; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing crop, you shall begin to count seven weeks.”
As codified by the rabbis, this mitzva, known as the mitzva of Sfirat Ha’omer, the Counting of the Omer, obligates each Jew to verbally count the days and weeks from the second day of the holiday of Pesach until the first day of the holiday of Shavuot.
What possible purpose can there be in verbally counting the days and weeks between Pesach and Shavuot?
The Torah offers no explanation for this mitzva.
Responding to the Torah’s silence concerning the purpose of Sfirat Ha’omer, classical and contemporary scholars suggest a wide variety of approaches.
Most obviously, the Counting of the Omer is perceived by many scholars as an act of linkage between the two holidays that border the mitzva, Pesach and Shavuot. Through the act of counting we testify that the Revelation at Sinai (commemorated on Shavuot) was the goal and purpose of the Exodus from Egypt (commemorated on Pesach). This relationship is established at the outset when God informs Moshe at the burning bush: “And this is your sign that I have sent you: when you take the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
On a deeper level, our counting consequently affirms that the physical freedom of the Exodus is incomplete without the spiritual freedom granted by God’s law; a truth mirrored in the famous rabbinic dictum: “No one is truly free other than he who is involved in the study of Torah.”
By counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot, many scholars continue, we also are meant to re-experience the sense of excitement and anticipation that marked this period for the Israelites, newly redeemed from Egypt. Just as we would “count the remaining days” towards an extraordinary event in our personal lives, so too we should feel a real sense of anticipation each year as we again approach the holiday that marks the Revelation at Sinai.
Other authorities choose to view these days primarily as a period of “purification from” rather than “anticipation towards.”
By the time of the Exodus, the Israelites have been defiled from centuries of immersion in Egyptian society and culture. Numerous sources, in fact, maintain that they have descended to the forty-ninth of fifty possible stages of defilement and are on the verge of becoming irredeemable. With haste, at the last moment, God pulls the nation back from the brink. The newly freed slaves, however, must now undergo a process of purification before they can encounter God and receive the Torah at Sinai. Forty-nine days – to counter each level of defilement experienced – must elapse before Revelation can take place.
By counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot each year, we remember and mark this refining journey. Just as a married woman monthly counts the days leading to her immersion in a mikva we must count and spiritually prepare ourselves for our reunion with God at Sinai.
Based on this approach, the Ohr Hachaim explains why Sfirat Ha’omer begins each year on the second day of Pesach, rather than on the first. The Exodus, he observes, occurs on the first day of the festival. For a portion of that day, therefore, the Israelites yet remain in Egypt and the journey of purification cannot yet begin.
In stark contrast to the opinions cited above, a number of scholars emphasize the agricultural, rather than the historical, dimension of the Omer period. Opening the yearly harvest season, these days stretch from the beginning of the barley harvest (marked on the holiday of Pesach) to the beginning of the wheat harvest (marked on the holiday of Shavuot).
As the weather conditions over this period are critical determinants of the success or failure of the entire harvest, the Sforno perceives the associated rituals to be expressions of thanksgiving and prayer. The Omer offering itself, he says, was brought in thanks for the barley harvest. An accompanying korban served as a prayer for future success. The Counting of the Omer represents the daily prayers during this period, while the holiday of Shavuot is celebrated, in part, as an expression of thanks for the grain harvest.
Choosing an eminently practical path, the Abudarham maintains that the Counting of the Omer was meant to counteract a farmer’s inevitable preoccupation with his harvest. Counting the days towards Shavuot would ensure that he would not forget his obligation to travel to Jerusalem for the celebration of the holiday.
Finally, the Maharal finds reference to the global connection between the physical and spiritual dimensions of our lives within the ritual of the Counting of the Omer. We are enjoined to number the days towards Revelation specifically as the harvest season begins, in order to underscore the well-known rabbinic maxim “Where there is no flour, there is no Torah.” Proper Torah study can only take place against the backdrop of a healthy, well-nourished lifestyle.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik perceives yet another lesson embedded in the act of Sfirat Ha’omer. The Rav suggests that, in Jewish experience, an individual can perform the act of counting within two realms: the realm of Sfira and the realm of minyan (the root of each of these terms means “to count”).
When you count in the realm of minyan, the Rav explains, all that matters is the attainment of the ultimate goal, the endpoint of your counting. Nine upstanding, righteous men can assemble for a prayer service but, without a tenth, there is no minyan.
When you count in the realm of Sfira, however, things are different. Although you still count towards a goal, each individual unit in the calculation becomes a goal, as well. While someone counting precious diamonds, for example, is certainly interested in the total number of diamonds he has, he also pauses and holds each gem up to the rays of the sun, admiring its unique facets, color and shape.
The act of Sfirat Ha’omer teaches us to “count our days in the realm of Sfira” – to see each day as a goal unto itself.
Too often, we live exclusively goal-oriented lives; moving from accomplishment to accomplishment, from milestone to milestone, rarely stopping to appreciate the significance of each passing day. And yet, when all is said and done, the quality of the journey, in large measure, defines our lives – and the ordinary moments spent with family and friends are as significant, if not more significant, than the milestones themselves.
The Rav’s observation may also be mirrored in two versions of the verbal formula for Sfirat Ha’omer which have developed over the years. Some communities recite, “Today is the —-day la’Omer (literally “to the Omer”)” while others count “ba’Omer (literally “in the midst of the Omer”).” Taken together, these two versions form the balance that should mark our approach to life. On the one hand, without goals our lives are aimless. We therefore count la’Omer, towards the endpoint of the Omer count. On the other hand, never losing sight of the journey’s value, we also count ba’Omer, in the midst of the Omer.
A historical overlay, emerging from the first-second century CE, dramatically transforms the days of the Omer from a time of anticipation and celebration to a period of sorrow and mourning. The Talmud relates: “Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students…and all of them died in one period because they failed to treat each other with respect.… They all died during the period between Pesach and Shavuot.”
In commemoration of this tragedy, the rabbis ordained that a portion of the Omer period be circumscribed by laws of mourning. Marriages, other festive celebrations and haircuts are prohibited during the restricted period, the exact computation of which varies according to custom, from community to community.
At first glance, the powerful reaction of Jewish law to the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students seems strange. Jewish history is, unfortunately, marked by a myriad of overwhelming tragedies that do not result in similar halachic commemorations. What makes this event different?
The Talmud explains that the death of these sages, tragic as it was in and of itself, actually resulted in a greater calamity. At a critical juncture of Jewish history, during the vulnerable period following the destruction of the Second Temple, the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students left the world “desolate” through loss of Torah study. Their death represented a break in the chain of oral tradition at a time when such a rupture threatened the very survival of the Jewish nation. Only Rabbi Akiva’s success in finding and teaching new students “in the south” mitigated the calamitous effects of this tragedy.
This historical overlay placed upon the days of the Omer is clearly neither arbitrary nor coincidental. Both the potential effects of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students and the fundamental cause of their demise connect directly to the period leading to Sinai.
Revelation marks not only the communication of the Written Law, but the launching of the Oral Law, as well (see Shmot: Yitro 5). The rupture in the transmission of that oral tradition, caused by the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students, threatens the very legacy of Sinai.
Concerning the relationship between the cause of the tragedy and the Omer period, one need look no further than at the teachings of Rabbi Akiva himself. As we have noted, Rabbi Akiva considers “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, Love your fellow as yourself,” to be the most important principle of the Torah (see Kedoshim 5). By negating that very principle through their behavior, the students of this great sage contradict the very Torah to which they have otherwise dedicated their lives.
Points to Ponder
A powerfully perplexing mystery arises from the Omer period.
As noted above, Rabbi Akiva emphatically identifies “Love your fellow as yourself” as the most important principle of the Torah. Yet, his students perish because they “fail to treat each other with respect.”
Can it be that one of our sages fails to impart his core belief to his students? The problem would be less glaring had Rabbi Akiva’s students perished as a result of any other sin. But to transgress the very precept that serves as the core of their mentor’s beliefs and practices… How can it be?
Perhaps the issue is one of chronology. We do not know when Rabbi Akiva determines the centrality of the mitzva of V’ahavta. Perhaps he reaches this realization only in sorrowful retrospect, as a result of the tragic loss of his students. Perhaps it is precisely their death which leads their mentor to recognize the emptiness of Torah observance absent a foundation of interpersonal respect. Or, perhaps, our tradition is referencing an entirely different life lesson through this tragedy – a lesson of overarching significance for us all. The stark inconsistency between Rabbi Akiva’s core belief and the actions of his students may reflect the universal challenge of intergenerational transmission.
I feel that we often make the mistake of assuming that just because something is vital to us, it will automatically be of importance to our children; that the ideas and beliefs that lie at the heart of our worldview are so obvious, they need not be openly stated and taught.
Nothing could be further from the truth…
Our children grow up in worlds different from our own, and within those worlds they form their own personal convictions. The basic foundations that we consider central to our lives are not automatically “givens” within theirs. The deep connection, for example, that we feel towards the State of Israel – in large measure a product of our own life experiences and the experiences of our parents – will not automatically develop in the hearts of our progeny, who are more temporally and emotionally removed than us from the creation of the state.
As we strive to convey critical ideas and principles to future generations, we can make no assumptions of prior knowledge and conviction. We must consciously and actively teach each and every one of the ideas and principles we feel important, through open discussion and deed.
Perhaps Rabbi Akiva fails to teach his students the central value of his worldview precisely because he considers that value to be self-evident. And just perhaps, across the centuries, he teaches us not to make the same mistake.