Days and Weeks; the World and the Nation
Who knows seven in the multiplication table?
One of the challenges of Sefirat ha-Omer is calculation, since knowing the day of the Omer is not sufficient; one also needs to know how the number divides into weeks and days.
This Halakha relating to Sefirat ha-Omer is stated in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Haim 489:1):
And one counts the days and the weeks. How so? On the first day one says: Today is day one of the Omer, until he completes seven days, and then he says: Today is day seven of the Omer, which are one week of the Omer. On the eighth day he says: Today is day eight of the Omer, which are one week and one day of the Omer. And so forth until he reaches the fourteenth day, when he says: Today is day fourteen, which are two weeks of the Omer. One should continue to count in this manner until forty-nine days.
The source of this Halakha is the sugya regarding Sefirat ha-Omer in Menahot 66a:
Abaye said: It is a mitzvah to count days, and it is a mitzvah to count weeks. The scholars of the study hall of R. Ashi counted days and counted weeks. Ameimar counted days, but not weeks. Ameimar said: this is a commemoration of the Temple.
According to Abaye, the mitzvah includes counting both days and weeks, as was customary in Rav Ashi’s Beit Midrash.
Conversely, the Amorah Ameimar counted only days. According to his approach, since today there is no Temple, and therefore no Omer sacrifice, Sefirat ha-Omer is only a commemoration of the Temple; therefore, an incomplete counting of days alone is sufficient, instead of both days and weeks.
What is the significance of this discussion? Why is the method of counting important? And what is the distinction between counting days and weeks?
The debate regarding the methods of counting seems to stem from the duality of the verses that describe the mitzvah of Sefirat ha-Omer. In its description of the mitzvah of Sefirat ha-Omer, the Torah details the counting of seven weeks, as well as 50 days (Lev. 23:15-16):
You shall count from the day after Shabbat, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, seven complete weeks they shall be […] You shall count fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to Hashem.
In Devarim, the verses only mention the seven weeks (Deut. 16:9):
You shall count seven weeks, from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain shall you begin to count seven weeks.
The sugya in Menahot indicates that the question of days and weeks was a matter of significant debate between the Rabbis and the Boethusians. The Boethusians believed Sefirat ha-Omer depended on the count of the regular weeks. Counting seven weeks involves beginning the count on a Sunday (‘from the day after Shabbat’) and completing seven full weeks. Conversely, the Rabbis asserted that the count can start any day of the week.
- Yohanan b. Zakkai argued against the Boethusians that the phrase “seven complete weeks they shall be” was only relevant when Pesach falls on Shabbat (!) whereas most years the law follows the guideline “You shall count fifty days.” It therefore seems that the gap between counting fifty days and seven weeks is at the core of the debate.
Why do the Rabbis and R. Yohanan b. Zakkai de-emphasize the counting of ‘seven complete weeks?’ Apparently, they view the focus of Sefirat ha-Omer elsewhere.
Counting the weeks is reminiscent of the days of creation, since the world was created in one week – six days and Shabbat. The Boethusians place Sefirat ha-Omer in this context, as a count which integrates into the general natural order of the world, symbolized by the seven days of creation.
The Rabbis emphasize not the weeks, but the days, which exceed the natural order of creation, and relate only to the exodus from Egypt. Counting from Yetziat Mitzraim is symbolic of a world that includes divine revelation and miraculous intervention, beyond the natural order. This is the context in which the unique relationship between God and the nation of Israel manifests, exceeding the natural order, and including that which is wondrous and miraculous.
It is interesting to note that the Amorites ultimately preserve both methods of counting.
It seems that according to Abaye and the pupils of R. Ashi, it is required to count both days and weeks, in order to emphasize the two cycles of Sefirat ha-Omer: the natural, human cycle, which is represented by complete weeks, and the unique miraculous cycle, represented by days counted from the Pesach Exodus, when we became a nation. Halakha thus preserves both perspectives, and the formulation of the count gives way to both concepts.
We each experience these human and national facets interchangeably; two identities that are constantly present in our lives. A worldwide pandemic may enhance the sense of the individual’s part in a greater system that unifies humanity. At the same time, we should always keep in mind our unique identity as God’s chosen people: “Thus says Hashem: Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22).