In our previous article, we began exploring the depth of sefiras ha’omer. Based on the Maharal and Ramban, we explained that we are not counting down to Matan Torah, but rather are building toward it, ascending one day at a time. We do not wait for Shavuos to arrive; we actively bring it ourselves through the time and effort we invest as we count the omer. After developing a general understanding of sefiras ha’omer, let us focus on a few specifics of the count itself. The forty-nine days of sefiras ha’omer parallel the forty-nine-day process that the Jewish People went through upon leaving Egypt, before receiving the Torah. What is the meaning behind this process, and why is it specifically forty-nine days long?
While we likely take it for granted that the omer is forty-nine days long, the Torah explicitly commands us: “Tisperu chamishim yom – You shall count fifty days” (Vayikra 23:16). Why then do we only count forty-nine days, omitting the fiftieth day completely? This seems to be in direct contradiction to the Torah’s command! Additionally, we seem to skip the first day of the counting, only beginning the count on the second day of Pesach. What is the meaning behind this?
Rebuilding the First Night of Pesach
The Arizal, Ramchal, Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers explain the deep meaning behind the forty-nine-day process of sefirah based on a principle we have previously developed. Every process contains three stages. The first stage is the high, a spark of inspiration, an experience of perfection and clarity. However, this first stage is fleeting, and is immediately followed by a dramatic fall – a complete loss of everything experienced in the first stage. The second stage is a process of rebuilding what was originally experienced, working and building toward perfection. There is then a third stage – a return to the original perfection of the first stage. However, this third stage is fundamentally different from the first. It is the same perfection, the same clarity, but this time it’s a perfection and clarity that you have earned. The first time it was given to you, but now you have worked to build it for yourself.
The first night of Pesach was a gift, an experience of infinite transcendence. This night was characterized by the miracles of makkas bechoros – performed by Hashem Himself – and yetzias Mitzrayim, as well as the mitzvos of Korban Pesach and bris milah, mitzvos that connected the Jewish People to a higher dimension of existence. However, immediately following this night was a complete fall from this exalted level of transcendence. The Jewish People faced forty-nine days in the dessert, a place of spiritual emptiness. It was during these forty-nine days of counting and of building that the Jewish People were able to rebuild and earn that initial transcendent gift. What resulted from those forty-nine days of building was Shavuos, Matan Torah, an experience of transcendence, of infinity, and of the World to Come.
This is why the Korban Omer is a sacrifice of barley, a food described by the sages as animal fodder (Pesachim 3b). The Shavuos sacrifice is Shtei HaLechem, a sacrifice of bread made of wheat, a food characterized by the sages as human food (Aruch HaShulchan 489:3). Prior to the process of sefiras ha’omer, we are on a low spiritual level, the level of animals. After spending the forty-nine days of the omer counting and building ourselves, we rise to a transcendent spiritual level, tapping into our true nature as tzelem Elokim, now worthy and ready to experience Matan Torah. Perhaps this is why there were two loaves of bread – one representing the original gift on the first night of Pesach, and the second representing what we earned after forty-nine days of building.
We don’t count the first night of Pesach, because this night is a gift of inspiration, intangible and unearned. We cannot pin a number down to it, as it is fleeting and elusive. Sefiras ha’omer is a process of building, and the building process only begins on the second day of Pesach once the gift has been taken away; it is at this point that we must start the work of truly earning it.
Forty-Nine Days of Building
Let us now turn to our next question: Why is the counting of the omer specifically forty-nine days long? Nothing in Torah is arbitrary. There must be a reason why we count exactly forty-nine days before receiving the Torah on Shavuos, there must be a significance to this specific number.
In order to understand the number forty-nine, we must recall a principle we have developed previously, based on the ideas of the Maharal. We live in a three-dimensional world, which includes the six directions of space: right-left, up-down, and forward-backward. These are the six sides of a three-dimensional cube. However, the six sides don’t automatically result in a three-dimensional cube; the six sides can be lying face down on the floor, amounting to nothing. The concept of “seven” refers to that which connects all the pieces together into a single unit. This is the unifying center, the unifying force that creates a physical form and vessel from the six disparate parts.
As we have discussed previously, the Maharal explains that seven is the number of the natural (Tiferes Yisrael, chaps. 1-2, 25). This is why all physical and natural components of this world are comprised of sevens: There are seven days in the week, seven notes in the musical scale, seven colors in the spectrum of light, and many other examples. “Six” represents the physical pieces, such as the days of the week. “Seven” represents that which connects the physical pieces together, connecting the physical to the spiritual, like the day of Shabbos. The “eighth” refers to that which transcends the sum of the pieces; it is the transcendent element that emanates from the level of seven, transcending the physical. This is why bris milah is performed on the eighth day; we transform the most physical and potentially animalistic organ into a vehicle of holiness and transcendence. This same theme is why the miracle of Chanukah lasted eight days, and why the miracle occurred through shemen, a word with the same root and concept as shemonah.
This is why sefiras ha’omer is a seven-week process of seven days each. Sefiras ha’omer is a process of building from the physical to the spiritual, from the finite to the infinite. This is the journey from six to seven to eight. We build level-by-level toward transcendence, toward the infinite, and toward the eighth week – Matan Torah. We therefore count seven weeks of seven days for a total of forty-nine days, the ultimate expression of seven. This completes the physical building process, resulting in the fiftieth, the first day of the eighth week, the ultimate transcendence of the eighth level, Shavuos.
Two Types of Order
Another interesting feature of the omer is the emphasis on counting each day. This suggests that sefiras ha’omer is one long mitzvah, complete only if each of the forty-nine days are counted. However, l’halachah, we make a berachah on each individual day of the omer, suggesting that each one is a mitzvah in its own right. How can we reconcile this apparent inconsistency?
Rav Dessler describes two different types of order. The first is a practical one, an order that facilitates access and usability. For example, a library is organized according to a system that allows one to access each piece of information efficiently. Without an ordered system, it would be hard to benefit from a huge collection of books. The order therefore provides access and usability.
There is a second type of order of a fundamentally different quality from the first. In this second type of order, the pieces of a structure come together in such a way that it results in a whole that transcends the sum of its parts. For example, a radio is composed of a bunch of pieces, none of which is especially valuable on its own. However, when these pieces are assembled in just the right way, something incredible emanates from the pieces – a radio signal.
This level of order is fundamentally different from the first form of order. Regardless of their organization, each book in a library maintains its individual worth; nothing greater results from their order. However, in a system of the second type of order, it is only when the pieces come together that something truly valuable results.
This second level of order explains the dichotomy between each day of the omer containing its own significance and the fact that it is one long mitzvah, whereby if you miss a single day you can no longer count with a berachah. Each piece is omni-significant, but only inasmuch as each day is built correctly, building off the previous structure and preparing for what is yet to come. Only when each and every one of the forty-nine pieces are built correctly can the fiftieth emanate from the pieces and can Matan Torah occur.
Why Don’t We Count the Fiftieth?
This second type of order is also the secret behind why we do not count the fiftieth day of the omer. While six represents the pieces, and seven represents that which connects the pieces together, the eighth represents that which transcends the pieces and which emanates from the pieces. The level of “eight” after the seven weeks of counting is the fiftieth – the eighth week, the day of Matan Torah. We don’t count the fiftieth because we cannot build the fiftieth; the fiftieth is the transcendent level that results and emanates from everything we have built during our forty-nine days of counting. The fiftieth day, Shavuos, is the result of all the pieces coming together – of all of Klal Yisrael bonding into a oneness. The result is Matan Torah, a transcendent experience of connection with Hashem, the infinite, and the World to Come (Maharal, Nesivos Olam, Nesiv HaTorah 1).
As we alluded to earlier, this is also why we do not count the first day of Pesach. The first day is the gift – fleeting and unearned, and therefore unreal. The next forty-nine days are the days of building, working, and creating it for ourselves. The fiftieth day is the same as the first day – transcendent, ethereal, and uncountable – but this time, we have earned it; it’s real, and it’s ours. In truth, even the fiftieth has a dimension of “gift” to it, but it is only given once we have created the vessel to receive it after forty-nine days of building. As the Ramchal explains, “Techilaso avodah v’sofo gemul – The beginning is toil, but the end is a gift [from Hashem]” (Mesilas Yesharim, chap. 26). Although we have worked toward the fiftieth day for forty-nine days, the transcendence we experience on that day is infinitely more than anything we could have expected or imagined.
This is why we only count forty-nine days, and this is why the chag is called “Shavuos” (weeks), the same root as sheva (seven). We are building seven weeks, and the transcendent fiftieth, Matan Torah, is what manifests from that which we create. This is also why the Maharal refers to Torah as the “eighth,” as it is Hashem’s transcendent wisdom and will that He bestowed upon us on the fiftieth day.
Why We Count from the Omer
This unique approach to sefiras ha’omer brings us back to our first point, deepening our understanding of why we count up from the omer instead of down toward Shavuos. Even if we are building, why don’t we build toward Shavuos, mentioning our destination of Shavuos and Matan Torah every time we count? At least let us count toward the Korban Shtei HaLechem, the sacrifice we bring on Shavuos, instead of the omer, the barley sacrifice we brought back on Pesach. Why do we count from our point of departure, rather than toward our destination?
The answer is that we are counting toward the infinite, toward the transcendent. When building upwards, you begin by building a foundation and then ascend from there. The same is true for sefiras ha’omer. We are counting toward infinity, toward the fiftieth. While we do keep this lofty end-goal in mind, the mechanics of actually building toward the fiftieth require us to first construct a foundation – the first day of the omer – and then build our way up from there. May we be inspired to create something extraordinary as we build toward Matan Torah, one day at a time.