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Q & A: A Sefirah Dilemma (Part I)

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Question: As the shamash in a small community shul with an aging population, I am faced with numerous challenges. The following is only one of them. During sefirah, different people daven for the amud for Ma’ariv. Once, a bar mitzvah was one of them. On another occasion, a very recent ger lead the service. Were these individuals allowed to lead the congregation in counting sefirah? I also wonder, in general, if everyone should be trusted to lead the counting. What if someone forgot to count on one of the previous nights but does not inform anyone of this?

No Name
(Via E-Mail)

Answer: Your question concerns a matter of great importance. We discussed this issue many years ago, and we are adapting somewhat from that discussion in replying to your query. In the interim, I hope that the short note I sent you directly aids you in dealing with your dilemma.

I have shortened your letter for publication purposes. In your original letter, you noted that you don’t wish to embarrass anyone by not letting him lead the congregation in counting sefirah. A solution would be for you (since there is no rabbi) to assign the counting to one specific individual – perhaps yourself. This way, no one will be insulted.

Let us review the mitzvah at hand and what it entails. Vayikra 23:15 states: “U’sefartem lachem mimacharat haShabbat miyom havi’achem et omer hatenufa, sheva Shabbatot temimot tih’yena – You shall count from the morrow after the Sabbath [i.e., the morrow after the first day of Passover], from the day you bring the omer of the wave offering, seven complete weeks shall there be.”

Commenting on this verse, the Talmud (Menachot 66a) discusses the appropriate time to cut the sheaves and start counting the omer. The literal meaning of the verse – “miyom havi’achem – from the day” – indicates that the counting should start during the day. But how can we count a full 49 days, or seven complete weeks, if we start counting during the day? Therefore, in the Beit Hamikdash era, the sheaves were cut at night to enable the beginning of the counting at night; the offering was brought to the Temple the next day.

The mitzvah of sefirat ha’omer consists of counting 49 full days. Therefore, if someone misses even one day, he is has not fulfilled the essence of the mitzvah.

Now let us discuss a bar mitzvah boy who turns 13 during the sefirah period. Since he only became obligated to count sefirah midway through this period, it would seem that he may not recite a blessing when counting the omer since he is not really fulfilling the complete mitzvah.

Yet, we find that the Mechaber (Orach Chayim 489:8) seems to rule otherwise. He states: “If one forgot to recite the blessing, whether on the first day or any of the other days, he counts the subsequent days without a berachah.” The Mishnah Berurah explains that the phrase “if one forgot to recite the blessing” means that he did not count at all. Yet, despite the fact that he missed a day, the Mechaber rules that he should continue counting on the subsequent night (albeit without a berachah). The question is: Why? If the mitzvah is to count 49 full days, and if this individual forgot one day, what’s the point of continuing to count?

Rabbi Simcha Ben Zion Isaac Rabinowitz discusses this question in his Piskei Teshuvot on the Codes (5:25). He states that according to a majority of the poskim among the Acharonim (Ktav Sofer, Maharam Shick, Minchat Eleazar, to name just a few), a minor who reaches maturity during Sefirat HaOmer continues to count with a berachah – provided he has counted the omer with a brachah from the beginning, which he probably did for chinuch purposes (see Mishnah, Yoma 82a, regarding training children to fulfill the commandments). The gaon Rabbi Ben Zion Abba Shaul (Responsa Or LeTziyyon 1:95) writes that a minor who reaches maturity in the middle of sefirah may continue to count the omer with a berachah so that we don’t weaken the rabbinic mitzvah of chinuch. He also writes that just as the mitzvah of chinuch applies to a minor, so should it serve him as an adult now that he has attained maturity.

On the other hand, there are noted poskim (Chidushei HaRim, Avnei Nezer and Birkei Yosef, among others) who disagree with this position. They rule that a minor – even if he counted with a berachah for purposes of chinuch – does not count with a blessing once he attains maturity in the middle of sefirah because his prior counting is considered different from his present counting as an adult, which is biblical mandated.

Still another school of opinion is represented in the responsa of the Chesed LeAvraham (56), Maharash Engel (7:112), and Tzitz Eliezer (14:20), who all rule that even if the young man had not counted the omer while a minor, he may start to count with a blessing upon reaching maturity. They reason that the obligation to count applies from the day the boy reaches the age of bar mitzvah, and therefore the concept of “sheva Shabbatot temimot” also starts for him on that day.

The Piskei Teshuvot nevertheless concludes that we follow the first (lenient) rule mentioned above – that a minor who has attained the age of bar mitzvah during Sefirat HaOmer may continue counting with a berachah if he has not missed a single day of counting while still a minor. He adds that such a young man should not be put in a position to serve as a representative to fulfill another adult’s obligation “by counting the omer before the congregation.” In his view, counting the omer is a biblical obligation for an adult, whereas the obligation of a recent bar mitzvah boy might only be rabbinic according to some poskim.

The discussion presented by Rabbi Rabinowitz is also found in Minchat Chinuch (mitzvah 306). The author discusses the arguments of both sides and concludes that since the bar mitzvah boy had already started counting the omer – albeit as someone not actually required to do so – he may complete the count; his counting as a minor is not discounted.

In his Teshuvot VeHanhagot (Orach Chayim 147), Rav Moshe Shternbuch explains that we follow this opinion since we view the obligation of counting the omer today as rabbinic (see Menachot 66a and Rashi ad loc., that it is only zecher le’mikdash – a remembrance of the time of the Temple).

(To be continued)

Rabbi Yaakov Klass

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.

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