Latest update: April 5th, 2013
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.
The Torah (Leviticus 23:15-16) requires one to count both the days and the weeks of the omer. On the first day one counts “Yom echad la’omer” not “Yom rishon la’omer” so as to make it perfectly clear that the first day of the omer is the day following the first day of Pesach and not the day following Shabbat.
In so doing we reject the opinion of the Sadducees who interpreted the words “mimochorat hashabbat” (Leviticus 23:16) to mean Sunday. Because the Torah requires one to count “seven complete weeks” one should count at the beginning of the day, which in Jewish law begins on the preceding night. The optimum time to recite Sefirat HaOmer is after Maariv immediately following the appearance of three stars. If however it is difficult to find a minyan at that late hour, one should recite Sefirat HaOmer with an earlier Maariv minyan, even at plug haMinchah time, without a blessing, rather than wait and count alone.
On Friday night and Yom Tov night, Sefirat HaOmer is recited in the synagogue after Kiddush and at home before Kiddush. On Motzaei Shabbat, Sefirat HaOmer is recited after Kaddish Titkabal and before Havdalah. Based on the verse referring to “standing grain” (Deuteronomy 16:9), one should count standing. As with the lulav, so too with the omer, one must count oneself (ulekachtem lachem, usefartem lachem) and one cannot rely on someone else to count on one’s behalf. Women are not obliged to count but may volunteer to count the omer with a blessing.
The verse that requires one to count “seven complete weeks” means that if one missed a whole day and did not remember to count until the following night, one can no longer recite the blessing before counting on the following days. If, however, one remembered one’s omission during the day, including at twilight, before nightfall, one may count that day without the blessing, and on the following days one may count with a blessing. Based on the majority opinion that Sefirat HaOmer today is of rabbinical origin, if one is not sure whether one counted the previous day, one may continue to count the following days with a blessing. If one is asked at twilight what day of the omer it will be tonight, one should reply with yesterday’s count, but if asked before twilight one may reply with tonight’s count.
According to some opinions, a rabbi or a chazzan who leads the counting of the omer may recite the blessing, even if he knows he omitted a previous day’s count. A person who crosses the dateline and gains or loses a day may, according to certain halachic opinions, disregard the local count and continue counting, as he would back home.
About the Author: Raphael Grunfeld’s book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Jewish bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.
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