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The Omer

Author: Esther Ehrman, Sivan 5778/May 2018

A shiur I gave recently at one of the Etta Study groups, based on articles by Rav Riskin, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Etshalom.

The mitzva of counting the Omer (sefira) is stated twice in the Torah, once in Vayikra ( Emor) and one in Devarim (Re'eh). There are significant differences in the two texts and one might say that answers to the questions raised by these differences teach us both about the mitzva of counting the Omer and about the development of Judaism.

The differences primarily relate to the ways of counting and affect our understanding of the mitzva.

  1. Should we count weeks AND days, ONLY weeks or ONLY days?
  2. Does the counting of both constittute one mitzva or two?
  3. Does either weeks or days refer to separate aspects of the mitzva? -agriculture? Korbanot? Matan Torah? Kedushat Chag haShavuot?
  4. Is the counting seen as time -bound and thus apply only to men?

We all know about two aspects of the 'sefira', even before we enter into the different interpretations - the agricultural and the spiritual and Rav Shlomo Riskin writes about this difference. He shows that this is a difference of stress given by the Sadducees (largely Cohanim) and the Pharisees (the general population). The Sadducees see the sefira as agricultural, from the barley to the wheat harvest, comparable to the time between the harvest in Nissan and the harvest in Tishri and to the the agricultural mitzva of Shemitta, 7x7 =49, followed by the important event of Yovel. It makes sense that the stress of Cohanim is on the Temple offerings related to the harvests, omer, shtei ha lechem, bikurim.

Rav Lichtenstein enters into the textual differences in the two passages in the Torah and refers to the discussion in the Gemara on the subject (Menachot 65b-66a). Commentators here raise the question whether the mitzva of counting the Omer is wholly Biblical or also Rabbinical, because Ameimar counts the days only; it is the counting (weeks?/days?) from one Korban to the next, commentators explain,that is only 'zecher le Beit haMikdash' - 'zecher' is mostly taken to refer to a Rabbinical enactment - since we do not have a Beit haMikdash. R.Yerucham of Provence will support this view, saying that originally there must have been two mitzvot - and two berachot; now that bringing sacrifices is not applicable, only the blessing over the days is appropriate because counting days leads up to the sanctification of the festival of Shavuot.

The discussion reflects the development from pre to post Temple times. The question arises, which of the two Biblical text is counting from one Korban to the next. The Rambam picks up on this, saying that if there had been two mitzvot, we would have said 'al sefirat haOmer' and 'al sefirat shevuei haOmer; he rejects that possibility, 'the mitzva is to count the Omer, days and weeks in accordance with the (Torah) enactment, and it is ONE mitzva.

Next difference: Emor(Vayikra) is in the plural and Re'eh (Devarim) is in the singular.

The plural (lachem) indicates that the count is both national and individual. The national count is the weeks counted by the Bet Din - without a blessing, just as it counts the years to Yovel; the individual counts the days for himself with a blessing - his counting is to reach the festival. Counting up to the festival is particularly important for Shavuot -the 49 days of counting determine its date - not the declaration of the new month like other festivals, or like Shabbat, which is fixed, says Rav Soloveichik. The individual's counting has two aspects: the mitzva of counting and the sanctification of Shavuot.

In Emor, the counting is from one korban to the next. In Re'eh, there is no mention of korbanot; we count from the time of standing corn - we count standing; we are to be happy, as is every member of our household.

The mitzva can be seen as time bound and, as such, would exempt women (RambaM). However, if the sanctification of the festival is a separate aspect of the mitzva, then it is incumbent upon everybody (RambaN, who holds that women are obligated).

The essay by Rav Yitzchak Etshalom focuses on the Rambam's view and shares many of the points made by Rav Lichtenstein. First, he agrees with the interpretation of the Rambam, that the mitzva of counting the Omer is 'mi deoraita', Biblical - in spite of Ameimar? He notes that only Vayikra (Emor) speaks of 'mi mochrat haShabbat' and specifies that he weeks are 'temimot', whole, complete - this affects the time when we begin the Synagogue service on Shavuot - you cannot have an early minyan on Shavuot since the seven weeks must be completed.

The Rambam also considers the possibility of two separate mitzvot and rejects this since we would have had two blessings, 'al sefirat haOmer' and 'al sefirat shevuei haOmer', which we don't. Moreover he uses the term 'days' and 'weeks' interchangeably when he writes about the Sefira in Sefer haMitzvot and in the source quoted above, Hilchot temidim ve Musafim. On the question of 'mi de oraita', Biblical or not, the Rambam suggests that the words 'zecher la Mikdash' may not be part of Ameimar's statement, but rather the Gamara's comment on the previous words (and might apply to the counting, to weeks or to days.) Rav Etshalom then looks at the support apparently given to Ameimar's statement by Rabbi Yerucham of Provence - there were, he suggests, originally two separate mitzvot because the counting up to Shavuot may be one mitzva and counting from one korban to the next another, with two blessings, But, this is rejected, because the counting begins on the second night of Pesach and the Omer was brought on the next day (be yom ha viachem). That is why, suggests Rav Etshalom, the Rambam saw the Sefira as ONE and as 'mi de oraita'. Lastly, the question of standing when counting.

In the Bet haMikdash, any 'avoda' performed while seated is invalid. The source is Devarim,19,7. The Levi shall come to the Mikdash ve sharet be shem H'elokav ki chol achiv ha leviim ha omedim sham lifnei H'. The Rambam said that the mitzva is to stand, but if one sits, it is valid. Why? Because it says 'sham', there, and when we count we are not 'there', in the Mikdash. The question arises, is the Sefira an 'avodat haMikdash? Rav Etshalom suggests that it is. Having counted, we say ha rachaman you yachzir lanu et avodat Bet haMikdash bi mekomah.

Interestingly, we say, after the Tefila, the Amida: yehi ratzon ... she yibanei Bet haMikdash which reminds us that Tefila, prayer, has, for the time being, replaced the service of the Bet haMikdash - it should be rebuilt bi meheira, be yameinu.