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Sefirat Haomer: Count Me In

Iyar 5780 | May 2020
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So much of what counts in today’s world is what can be measured. Our phones count how many steps we take each day; social media informs us how many “friends” we have and the success in overcoming coronavirus relates to how many tests are administered each day. The Torah also places value on quantifying time by counting days or years in various contexts, including sefirat haomer, the period we are currently in. What is the significance of counting the omer? A look at the halakhic sources may shed some light on this topic.

The biblical source of this mitzvah (Vayikra 23:15-16) uses unique language:

טו וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃ טז עַ֣ד מִֽמָּחֳרַ֤ת הַשַּׁבָּת֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תִּסְפְּר֖וּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים י֑וֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֛ם מִנְחָ֥ה חֲדָשָׁ֖ה לַה’׃

15 And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: 16 you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD

The command to count for oneself only appears in a few contexts in the Torah.1 Besides sefirat haomer it appears by the ritually impure zav and zavah, who must count the days until they may immerse in a mikveh2 and  in the command to count seven times seven years until the Jubilee (yovel) year, when debts were forgiven and slaves freed.3 These countings have different requirements, yet they also share a core idea. For yovel, the beit din counts the years. For zav and zavah, the individuals count but without a bracha. Sefirat haomer is unique, in that each individual counts for themselves with a bracha.

Based on the words “usefartem lachem,” in the plural, the gemara teaches that the mitzvah of sefirat haomer falls on each individual. Similarly, the midrash halacha teaches that it is not enough for the beit din to count sefirat haomer (in contrast to yovel) and derives the requirement for each individual to count from the word “lachem” for yourselves.4 The sources discuss whether this requirement applies to women as well. Women are generally considered exempt from sefirat haomer.5 However, there are poskim who hold that women may take on this mitzvah with the bracha.6 There is also an interesting remnant of a minhag where some women refrained from work each night of the omer till the morning, perhaps as a unique way of taking part in the mitzvah.7 If a woman wishes to take on sefirat haomer she too may be a part of the command “lachem,” to count for yourselves.

What do these countings have in common? All three examples of countings in the Torah, the zav and zavah, sefirat haomer and the yovel all signify a transformation happening within a person or am Yisrael. Today, the remnant of the zavah count is preserved in the 7 clean days counted by a woman in niddah. As the days progress, she moves from her niddah state to a state of taharah, where each month there is renewed opportunity for new life or renewed love in the husband-wife relationship. The yovel year, practiced only in Israel, was a chance for those who fell by hard times and were in debt or enslaved, to achieve freedom and begin again.

So too with sefirat haomer, when we count from the day after Pesach until Shavuot. The Sefer Hachinuch explains8 that the mitzvah to count the omer is a process which am Yisrael experienced starting from yetziat mitzrayim and culminating with Matan Torah on Shavuot. When each individual counts the omer, s/he too is going through a process of preparation to receive and recommit to the Torah and its mitzvot and values.

When the Torah commands us to count it is not just to mark the passage of time, but to emphasize the potential each day and year brings, the imperative to make them count. Sefirat haomer in particular, invites individuals to be counted in each year and to find their connection to Torah. May this year bring health and happiness and social closeness once again. Chag Sameach!

Endnotes:

  1. The Ramban points these out in his commentary on Vayikra 23:15.
  2. Vayikra 15:13 and 28.
  3. Vayikra 25:8.
  4. Sifrei Devarim, 136. Interestingly, in Devarim, the mitzvah is stated in the singular “tispor lach,” yet the midrash halacha learns from the words, “usefartem lachem.”
  5. Mishna Berura, Orach Hayim 489:1:3.
  6. Magen Avraham, Orach Hayim 489:1 and others.
  7. Shulchan Aruch Orach Hayim 493:4.
  8. Sefer Hachinuch, 306:3.

Karen Miller Jackson

is a Jewish educator and writer, who studies and teaches at Matan HaSharon and recently completed Matan HaSharon’s Morot l’Halakha program. She has an MA in Talmud and Midrash from NYU.