By the time these words are printed, there will be only a few more days left before Shavuos. We hope that up until that point, we will still have been counting the days of Sefiras Ha’Omer with a bracha, but we also know that too often, despite our best efforts, we drop out of counting with a bracha some time before the count is complete. The halacha defers to the minority view of the Behag that disallows one from counting with a bracha if he or she has missed any single day of the sefirah, as the Torah’s term “temimos” (complete) in describing the weeks of the omer, would no longer apply.
It is not clear why such a stringent approach, so challenging for fallible, forgetful humans, is necessary. Many have suggested that the Behag’s opinion differs from that of other rishonim in the consideration of the following question: Should the forty-nine days of Sefiras Ha’Omer be seen as one big mitzvah, or as forty-nine separate mitzvos? If the entire sefirah is one mitzvah, it is understandable that any missing part disqualifies the whole. On the other hand, if the sefirah count actual entails 49 separate mitzvos, it would seem that each day is independent, and missing one day should not affect any other day.
Rav Soloveitchik, however, understood the matter differently. In his view, sefirah is made up of 49 individual mitzvos. If so, why is it an issue to miss a day? He explained that the concern is actually not that missing one part of the whole invalidates the whole. Rather, the issue involves the definition of counting. If one were to, for example, declare “five” on the fifth night, but not count the previous numbers, this would not be called counting, but rather “saying a number.” Counting, by definition, requires a deliberate process of marking all of the elements of a set. If earlier items are uncounted, then later items, even if a number is attached to them, are also uncounted.
Rav Soloveitchik’s halachic analysis may also be relevant, in a homiletic sense, toward understanding one of the more difficult aspects of Sefiras Ha’Omer. While this is not described in the Torah, the observance of the sefirah period has taken on a character of mourning. While there are many theories to explain this, the most well-known link the observance to the statement in the Talmud (Yevamos 62b): “Twelve thousand pairs of students of Rabi Akiva died, and all perished in the same (segment of) time. This because they did not conduct respectfully each with one another…. They had died from the time of Pesach until Atzeret (Shavuot); they died a bad death, from (that disease of ) ‘askara.’” A slightly different version of the events appears in the midrash (Bereishis Rabbah, section 61a) that ends with the words, “So, set your minds not to conduct yourselves that way [like the students].”
This passage is always difficult to consider. The notion that Rabi Akiva, who held up “V’ahavta l’reacha kamocha” as the crucial principle of the Torah, should have so many students who treated each other so disrespectfully that they deserved to die, is a deeply painful thought that has caused many to struggle to understand. My father, Rabbi Dr. David M. Feldman, brought to my attention the essay of R. Eliezer Levi in his work Yesodot HaTefillah, who builds upon the statement of Rav Sherira Gaon in his Iggeret, that the students of Rabi Akiva died as a consequence of resisting shmad, efforts to force conversion upon them, during the time of the rebellion of Bar Kokhba.
In this understanding, as Rav Levi displays, the Talmud is, out of political necessity, discussing the situation b’remizah, in hinted, coded language. Thus, the relevant passages can be read as essentially the opposite story: the students did treat each other respectfully, and we are told to be like them, rather than to be unlike them.
However, both versions, as different as they are on the facts, emerge as two different ways of saying the same thing: the mourning period of Sefiras Ha’Omer is a time to focus on treating each other with proper respect.
Perhaps, the halachic perspective on the counting and the thematic perspective on the time period can be viewed as connected. The mitzvah of Sefiras Ha’Omer in Rav Soloveitchik’s assessment, requires us to perform 49 independent, deliberate acts of counting, each separate from each other, but each unable to take place if any of the previous countings have not happened. Maybe the homiletic message is this: the sefirah is the countdown to the receiving of the Torah, the defining moment in the history of the Jewish people. That moment most certainly deserves tremendous focus, perhaps of the single-minded fashion. However, that comes with a risk.
Imagine a student in the shiur of Rabi Akiva, privileged to learn at the feet of one of the greatest sages of all time, one of the most accomplished scholars the Jewish people has ever seen. One who is on his way to this lecture might well run with such single-minded focus that anyone in his way, even a fellow student, becomes unimportant; and if that other student must be rudely pushed aside, isn’t getting to the shiur a greater priority? It is possible to be so intently focused on the important “main event” that other important concerns are given short shrift. (It is reminiscent of the 1973 experiment conducted in Princeton Theological Seminary, in which seminarians in a hurry neglected to stop to help people – actually, actors – who seemed to be in need, due to their rush to deliver a sermon about the topic of stopping to help people in need.)
The message of Sefiras Ha’Omer is that focusing on that which is most important can never allow us to miss all the other important steps along the way. We eagerly count down to the Kabalas HaTorah, but we do so by carefully marking every step along the way. We are trained to recognize that we cannot properly accept the Torah if these steps are neglected. Rav Yisrael Salanter, the revered founder of the mussar movement, was asked why he diverted talented students from the study of Talmud to spend time studying character development, and would respond that even more important than gadlus – Torah greatness – is shleimus – completeness of middos and personality.
The mishna (Avot 3:17) teaches that “if there is no derech eretz, there is no Torah.” Rabbenu Yonah suggests that derech eretz, usually rendered as the possession of refined character traits, is necessary if the Torah’s values are to take root; without derech eretz, any Torah the individual studies “lacks a home.”
At this point, the counting of sefirah is almost over – but the main event, the kabalas haTorah still awaits – and there is still time to infuse that acceptance with the message of all of the days that lead up to it; the memory of Rabi Akiva’s students demand nothing less.Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman is rosh yeshiva at Yeshvia University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
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