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Two Aspects of the Mitzva of Counting the Omer

In Israel, the Egged Buses help count the Omer.

In Israel, the Egged Buses help count the Omer.
Photo Credit: Batya Medad

The mitzva of sefirat ha-omer (counting the omer) is mentioned in the Torah in two places. In Parashat Emor we read:

And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that you brought the omer of the wave offering; seven complete sabbaths shall there be: to the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall you count fifty days, and you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord. (Vayikra 23:15-16)

In Parashat Re’eh we find:

Seven weeks shall you count; from such time as you begin to put the sickle to the corn shall you commence to count seven weeks. And you shall keep the feast of weeks… (Devarim 16:9-10)

The main talmudic discussion of this mitzva is found in Menachot 65-66. The Gemara there brings a dispute between Abaye and Ameimar whether one must count both the days and the weeks:

Abaye said: The mitzva is to count the days and also to count the weeks. The Rabbis of the school of Rav Ashi used to count the days as well as the weeks.

Ameimar used to count the days but not the weeks, saying: It is only a reminder of the Temple. (Menachot 66a)

In the Rishonim we find three different understandings of the dispute. According to one opinion, the entire discussion relates to Torah law. That is to say, Abbayei and Ameimar disagree as to what the Torah commands, with Ameimar arguing that even Torah law distinguishes between days and weeks.

A second position maintains that the entire discussion relates to the Rabbinic level. That is to say, Abaye and Ameimar disagree about what exactly the Sages instituted as a reminder of the Temple, and what exactly is meant by a reminder of the Temple. “A reminder of the Temple” can be understood to mean a commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, as proposed by the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or. If so, there is room to understand that the Rabbis only instituted part of the mitzvafor future generations, and therefore Ameimar maintains that we count only the weeks. Abaye, on the other hand, can maintain one of the two following positions. He might understand that “a reminder of the Temple” means a reminder of the Temple when it was standing, as is the case with respect to the various enactments of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, and therefore the mitzva for all generations is to count both weeks and days.

A second possibility is that Abaye agrees with Ameimar that a reminder of the Temple means a reminder of the destruction, but he sees no reason to distinguish between the obligation to count the weeks and the obligation to count the days. Accordingly, the Sages enacted that the mitzvabe performed just as it had been performed in the Mikdash.

This shiur, however,will focus on a third position, that of Rabbeinu Yerucham. Rabbeinu Yerucham (5:4) maintains that these two aspects constitute fulfillment of two separate mitzvot. One mitzva relates to the omer offering from which the counting begins, and this is the mitzva to count the weeks. A second mitzva connects Pesach to Shavuot, and this is the mitzva to count the days. Rabbeinu Yerucham argues that it follows from this that two separate blessings should be recited over these two different mitzvot. This was all true during the period that the Temple stood, but today, when there is no Mikdash, and therefore there is no omer offering, what is left is only the mitzva to count the days, and only upon that is a blessing recited.

The Rambam, in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (asei 161), raises this notion as a possibility:

And were the weeks a separate mitzva… we would recite two blessings: “al sefirat ha-omer” (“on counting the omer”) and “al sefirat shevuei ha-omer” (“on counting the weeks of the omer”).

However, the Rambam concludes as follows:

But this is not correct; rather, the mitzva is to count the omer, days and weeks, in accordance with the enactment.

According to the Rambam, we are dealing here with a single mitzva, and not with two mitzvot. But the significance of the two aspects of the mitzva – counting the days and counting the weeks – is not clear.

It may be proposed that this mitzva has two separate fulfillments, but still not reach Rabbeinu Yerucham’s conclusion. In other words, we may be dealing here with two separate fulfillments, but still with only one mitzva. This understanding is connected to the question of the relationship between the two passages from the Torah mentioned at the beginning of the shiur.

When we examine the two passages, we find significant differences between them.

1) Parashat Emor mentions both the obligation to count the weeks and the obligation to count the days, whereas Parashat Re’eh mentions only the obligation to count the weeks.

2) The command in Parashat Emor is stated in the plural, whereas the command in Parashat Re’eh is formulated in the singular.

There is a third difference that seems to undermine Rabbeinu Yerucham’s approach. Parashat Emor relates to the omer offering as a starting point, and the counting connects the omer offering to the shtei ha-lechem offering, whereas Parashat Re’eh mentions only the festival, but not the various offerings.     If we follow the approach that divides the mitzva into two separate fulfillments, the conclusion would seem to be that the mitzva to count the days is connected to the offerings, whereas the mitzva to count the weeks relates to the connection between Pesach and Shavuot, the very opposite of the position of Rabbeinu Yerucham.

In order to understand the significance of the two fulfillments, let us examine the words of the Sifrei (ad loc.):

“Seven weeks shall you count” – in the court. And from where do we derive [that there is an obligation] for each and every individual? Therefore the verse states: “And you shall count for yourselves” – each and every individual.

The Sifrei implies that the mitzva of counting the omer has two focal points: communal counting performed by the court, and individual counting, performed by each and every individual.

Many Rishonim discuss whether there is a mitzva to count the years of shemitta and yovel, just as there is a mitzva to count the omer. The Ramban was inclined to say that there is no such mitzva exists, whereas the Ra’avad and the Tosafot argued that such a mitzva exists, and that it even requires a blessing. The Chizkuni proposed an intermediate position: there is indeed a mitzva to count, but no blessing is recited. What is the meaning of the connection between sefirat ha-omer and this counting?

According to the Chizkuni, sefirat ha-omer also involves counting on the part of the court; however, it also involves the individual counting of each and every individual. It stands to reason that since the Chizkuni maintains that the court does not recite a blessing when counting the years of shemita and yovel, the same may be said about sefirat ha-omer, and therefore a blessing is not recited over the counting on the part of the court, but only over the counting of the individual.

If we apply the Chizkuni’s approach to the Sifrei, it might be suggested – and indeed Rav Yerucham Fischel Perlow explains this way – that if the section in Emor relates to the counting of days, and the section in Re’eh relates to the counting of weeks, it follows that a blessing is recited over the counting of days, but not over the counting of weeks.

What exactly is the significance of the fulfillment of the mitzva of counting by the court?

Rav Soloveitchik suggested that indeed there are two fulfillments, and it is possible that a blessing is recited over only one of them, and it is possible that this is connected to the matter of days and weeks. But both fulfillments are connected to a principle put forward by Rav Chaim regarding shemitta and yovel.

The Gemara in Arakhin speaks of the situation in which the court counted shemitta years in order to know when the yovel year falls out. Rav Chaim explains that if we examine the verses at the beginning of Parashat Behar, the question arises: What turns the yovel into the fiftieth year? It would seem from the verses that the answer to this question is the fact that this year was preceded by a count of forty-nine years. According to this, we can explain the position of the Chizkuni, that the count of the court is not a separate mitzvain its own right, but rather it is a preparation for a mitzva, in order to know when to observe the mitzva of yovel, and therefore a blessing is not recited over it.

Rav Soloveitchik suggested something similar with respect to the festival of Shavuot. There is something strange about Shavuot. We know that there is a fundamental difference between the sanctity of Shabbat, which is fixed, and the sanctity of the festivals, which stems from the sanctification of the month by the people of Israel. Shavuot, so it would seem, takes place independently of the sanctification of the month by the people of Israel, as it falls out fifty days after Pesach, independent of the sanctification of the month of Sivan.

Of course, it could be argued that the sanctification of the month of Nisan is what sanctifies the festival of Shavuot, but Rav Soloveitchik proposed a different understanding.

In order to understand this approach, one must analyze the view of Rav Chaim. What is the fulfillment of sefirat ha-omer? There is the act of counting itself and there is also the connection to the omer offering. The festival of Shavuot is sanctified by the count, i.e., by the count made by the court. In addition, there is a mitzva of counting, which must be fulfilled by each and every individual. It turns out, then, that there are two separate fulfillments of the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer, and it is possible that in this way we can distinguish between the obligation to count the days, which is connected to the act of the mitzva itself, and the obligation to count the weeks, which is connected to the sanctification of the festival of Shavuot done by the court. (Thus, we can accept Rabbeinu Yerucham’s principle but not his conclusion.)

Rav Soloveitchik went further than this and asserted that Shavuot is sanctified not only by the court’s counting, but even by the individual’s counting. This follows from several points, two of which I shall mention here.

There is much discussion regarding the relationship between counting at night and counting during the day. Tosafot in Megilla (20b, s.v. kol ha-laila) cite the position of the Halakhot Gedolot:

The Halakhot Gedolot writes that if a person forgot to count at night, he should count the next day without a blessing. And this is the halakha.

Why must one count without a blessing? The accepted ruling nowadays is that one who forgot to count at night counts during the day without a blessing, but this is because we are in doubt whether one may count during the day or not. But the Halakhot Gedolot had no such doubt. Why, then, was he of the opinion that one should count without reciting the blessing?

A second question is raised regarding the obligation of women with respect to this mitzva. The Rambam writes (Hilkhot Temidin u-Musafin 7:24):

This mitzva is incumbent on every Jewish male in every place and at all times. Women and servants are absolved from it.

The Ramban in Kiddushin, in contrast, maintains that women are bound by this mitzva. What is his rationale? After all, it would seem that the Rambam is right, as sefirat ha-omer falls into the category of time-bound positive commandments, from which women are generally exempt!

Rav Soloveitchik suggests a single answer for the two questions. The mitzva that each individual performs has two aspects. One is the act of the mitzva; and the second is the count that is performed in order to build the foundation for the festival of Shavuot. The act of the mitzva is only at night, and therefore one who counts at night recites a blessing. One who forgot to count at night, counts during the day, but he only fulfills that aspect of the mitzva which is connected to Shavuot, and over this fulfillment no blessing is recited.

Based on this, we can explain the Ramban’s position that women are bound by this mitzva. While it is true that they are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot, this is true regarding the act of the mitzva; however, the second aspect, whereby the people of Israel sanctify the festival of Shavuot, is not regarded a time-bound positive mitzva, and so it is incumbent upon women as well.

Based on a Shiur by

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Translated by David Strauss

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