Football’s 49ers rarely drop the ball. But how many of us make it through 49 nights from the second night of Pesach all the way to Shavuot without losing count? Sometimes we never even make it to the first yard line. We are so busy preparing for second night Seder that we miss evening prayers in shul and forget to count Day One.
Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the forty-nine days, connects the festival of Pesach, which celebrates the Exodus, to the Festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. While still enslaved in Egypt, the Jews were told that following the Exodus, “Taavdun Elokim al hahar hazeh,” they would receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. The extra Hebrew letter “nun” appended to the word “Taavdun” was a message to the enslaved Jews that fifty days after the Exodus their status would be changed at Sinai from servants of Pharaoh to servants of God. In anticipation of the Revelation, the Jews began to count fifty days toward Shavuot.
Sefirat HaOmer is linked to three concepts: (1) the omer sacrifice, (2) chadash or new grain and (3) the two loaves of bread brought on Shavuot as a first harvest offering to God, bikurim l’Hashem.
The omer sacrifice: On the evening preceding the 16th day of Nissan, the Jews of Temple times would go out into the fields and cut sheaves of barley. The barley would then be ground into flour and brought to the Temple on the 16th day together with a male lamb in its first year.
Chadash: Until the omer sacrifice was brought on the eve of the sixteenth of Nissan of the current year as described, it was prohibited to harvest barley, wheat, oats, rye and spelt crops which had been planted or had taken root after the sixteenth of Nissan of the previous year. Such forbidden crops were called chadash and could be harvested and eaten only after the completion of the omer sacrifice.
Bikurim: On the festival of Shavuot the first harvest wheat offering was brought consisting of two loaves of baked bread together with seven sheep, one bull and two rams.
The Torah (Leviticus 23:9-18) asks us to begin counting seven complete weeks starting on the evening of the omer sacrifice. The Rambam explains that seven weeks were required to raise the Jewish nation out of the depths of despondency to which they had sunk during their slavery. Whereas one week is sufficient to restore an individual to his natural state of divine purity, the entire nation required seven weeks.
The omer sacrifice of loose barley flour was more fitting for animal consumption than human consumption and symbolizes the depths to which the Jewish slaves had sunk. The bikurim sacrifice of wheat baked bread, symbolizes the refined spiritual heights they reached by Shavuot. After the destruction of the Temple, the omer sacrifice became inapplicable.
What about chadash? Is one permitted to harvest or eat chadash prior to the day the omer Sacrifice would have been offered had the Temple not been destroyed? And what about Sefirat HaOmer? If it is linked to the omer sacrifice, why has it survived the destruction of the Temple? Whether or not chadash applies outside Israel depends on the interpretation of the words “bechol moshvoteichem” in the verse (Leviticus 23:14) which prohibits chadash “in all your dwellings.”
According to the rabbis (Kiddushin 47a), the words “in all your dwellings” do not apply outside the land of Israel but rather to the land of Israel after the first fifteen years of its conquest and division by Joshua. According to Rabbi Eliezer, however, the words “bechol moshvoteichem” give chadash a worldwide application even today.
Rabbi Eliezer’s view is adopted by most of the Rishonim. The Shulchan Aruch rules that chadash applies inside and outside Israel and to Jewish and non-Jewish-owned lands. Nevertheless, based on the Rema as clarified by the Shach, one may eat chadash outside of Israel on the strength of the halachic rule of double doubt and the halachic rule of the majority.
The double doubt is as follows: (a) perhaps the grain took root in the previous year, and (b) even if not, it can be assumed that the grain took root at least in time before the 16th of Nissan. The rule of the majority is that most grain has been stored for a long time and comes from previous year’s crops. As for Sefirat HaOmer, the majority opinion (with which the Rambam disagrees) is that it has no biblical application today and was instituted by the rabbis zecher leMikdash, in memory of the Temple.