Photo Credit: David Cohen / Flash90
Visiting the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, in Meron, 2022.

Question: Why do we only count the Omer after the first day of Passover, and why for 49 days only, when the Torah commands “Fifty days shall you count?” Additionally, what is the reason for the special celebrations of Lag Ba’Omer?

Harvey Abramson
Via Email

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Answer: There are many explanations. The Ran at the end of Tractate Pesachim explains it as follows. When Moses told the Israelites that they shall serve the L-rd “at this mountain” (Exodus 3:12), they asked him, “Moshe Rabbeinu, when do we begin to serve?” “At the end of 50 days,” he replied. They then all began to count the days leading up to it. To commemorate that counting, we count the Omer today.

A similar explanation is given in Sefer HaMinhagim. An officer riding along the highway rescued a person from a deep hole. He clothed him and fed him and then promised the man that at a future date he would give him his daughter’s hand in marriage. The man was overwhelmed with joy. Not only was he saved and fed but he was also promised the officer’s beautiful daughter. He began to count the days until this promise would be fulfilled.

The Abudarham offers the explanation that the people of Israel were occupied with the reaping and cutting of wheat and were liable to forget to ascend to Jerusalem on the holiday of Shavuot as commanded by the L-rd (“Three times a year shall you bring your offerings…”). Therefore, they were commanded to count the days leading up to the festival.

The Otzar Dinim points out that the holiday of Shavuot is referred to as “Atzeret,” from the word meaning to detain and attach. Through the counting of the Omer, we attach the holiday of Pesach to Shavuot. Hence, we might say that Shavuot itself is the 50th day, and when we recite the kiddush, we are blessing and concluding the 50-day count.

Minhagei Mahari Tirnah offers the following as an additional reason for our count of 49 days: Eretz Yisrael was four hundred miles long. Jerusalem was located in the very center of the country, with 200 miles to the north and 200 to the south. Starting after Passover, it would take a man at most 20 days to go home (figuring that a man usually walks 10 miles a day). Assuming 20 days to reach his home and then 20 days to return to Jerusalem in time for the holiday of Shavuot, this equals 40 days. To that we have to add seven Shabbasos on which he would rest. This gives us a total of 47 days to go home and return to Jerusalem. He would still have two days in which to remain at home before he started out again. In order to avoid any mistakes, G-d commanded him to keep count so that he would not remain at home any longer than that.

Other Sages compare the counting of the Omer to the cycle of years – the seven years of shemittah and fifty years of yovel (the Jubilee). A day is counted for a year. We are reminded every year of the importance of observing the laws of the land, the shemittah and the yovel.

The Kabbalah has various different explanations, such as that there are 50 gates of intelligence (binah) and each day of the Omer represents another gate, until we reach the highest sphere, the Torah. It is obvious that once we reach that 50th gate, there is no further need to count as we have reached our objective, Shavuot – the receiving of the Torah.

 

What of Lag Ba’Omer and Its Celebrations?

Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, can only fall on a Sunday, a Tuesday, a Thursday, or a Friday, but never on a Monday, a Wednesday, or on Shabbos. Lag Ba’Omer will always occur on the same day of the week as the previous Purim. (The mnemonic is “PALAG” – the letter pey standing for Purim and the letters gimel-lamed standing for Lag Ba’Omer.)

Lag Ba’Omer is a minor holiday. We do not say Tachanun nor do we observe the mourning customs of sefira. If it falls on a Sunday, we are permitted to take a haircut on Friday, erev Shabbos.

The Gemara (Yevamot 62b) explains that 12,000 pairs of pupils of Rabbi Akiva died between Pesach and Shavuot because they did not treat each other with respect and spoke evil gossip (Maharsha, ibid.). On Lag Ba’Omer, however, they stopped dying. Therefore we celebrate it as a minor holiday.

The Bet Yosef (Tur Orach Chayyim 493) offers a different explanation for Lag Ba’Omer. The pupils of R. Akiva died only on the days that Tachanun was said. This excludes the seven days of Passover, seven Shabbasos, as well as the two days of Rosh Chodesh Iyar, for a total of 16 days on which they did not die. Deduct that from the total of 49 days of sefira, and we have 33. Lag Ba’Omer is the symbol of the completion of these days.

The Chasam Sofer (She’elot U’Teshuvot, Yoreh De’ah 233) explains that on Lag Ba’Omer, the 18th day of Iyar, the manna began to fall in the midbar. In commemoration, we celebrate it as a holiday.

Lag Ba’Omer is also the yahrzeit, or anniversary of the death, of Rabban Shimon bar Yochai. We celebrate it as a holiday because Rabbi Shimon looked forward to his death as a happy occasion. On the last day of his life, he revealed all the mysteries and secrets of the world (Zohar 291-296).

In the Idra Zuta, Parashat Ha’azinu, Rabbi Shimon says, “I bear witness upon myself that I cannot wait to see the day of my departure from this world…” He knew he was entering Gan Eden. So great was he that his zechus (merit) was enough to save the world from judgment (Sukka 45b). His departure from this world enabled him to ascend to a greater reward; hence the celebrations.

Otzar Yisrael explains that for many centuries, pilgrims from various countries have visited the grave of Rabban Shimon bar Yochai in Meron on Lag Ba’Omer. They light huge bonfires, dance and sing throughout the night, and read aloud the entire Zohar. In the morning the populace would remove the Sifrei Torah from the Ark and march around his tomb seven times. The ceremony would be concluded with the shearing of the hair of the children who were given their first haircut.

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.