Sefirat Haomer – The Counting of the Omer

When the Holy Temple stood, a daily sacrifice was brought every morning and evening. Our current morning prayer, שחרית  – Shacharit, corresponds to, and substitutes for, that morning sacrifice, and מנחה  – Mincha, the afternoon service, corresponds to, and substitutes for, the afternoon sacrifice. On Shabbat and each of the Torah’s festivals and holidays, an additional sacrifice, called the מוסף  קרבן  – Mussaf sacrifice, was brought in honor of the festival or holiday; and, the current Mussaf service added to the Shabbat and holiday prayers corresponds to that sacrifice.

On the second day of Pesach, the 16th day of Nissan, a special sacrifice called the קרבן העומר  – the Omer sacrifice – was added. It consisted of a one-year old sheep and an omer – a unit measure of 3.5-5 pounds – of barley flour, sifted 13 times and mixed with oil and a small measure of incense. A Cohen would wave the flour offering in all six directions, touch it to the outside altar’s southwest corner, and then take a small amount of the mixture and burn it in the fire on the altar. The remainder of the mixture was divided among the Cohanim who would eat it.

In connection with this offering, the Torah commands us to count each of the 49 days from the day the Omer offering was brought until the festival of Shavuot, which occurs 50 days later.

We find the mitzvah in the Torah to count the Omer in Leviticus 23:15,16.

ספר ויקרא פרק כג

טו) וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה:

טז) עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַידֹוָד:

15) You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the rest day (the first day of Passover) from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving – seven full weeks. 16) Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to Hashem.

Notice that the Torah mandates both seven complete weeks of counting as well as a counting of 50 days.  This is why when counting the Omer we are careful to mention both the weeks and the days.

To fulfill this mitzvah today, despite the absence of the actual omer offering, each day of the omer, after the stars come out, we make a blessing stating that Hashem has commanded us to count the Omer, and then on the 29th day,  for example, we would say: “Today is the 29th day of the omer, which is three weeks and one day.”

The counting of the omer culminates with the Festival of Shavuot, the day on which the Jewish nation received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The counting of the omer from Pesach to Shavuot creates a connection between these two holidays, Pesach beginning the process for which Shavuot is the end.

What is the relationship between these two Festivals? The Sefer HaChinuch (attributed to Rav Aharon Halevi of Barcelona of the 13th century), a work that counts and explains each of the 613 mitzvot, explains in Mitzvah #306, the Mitzvah to Count the Omer.

משרשי המצוה על צד הפשט, לפי שכל עיקרן של ישראל אינו אלא התורה, ומפני התורה נבראו שמים וארץ וישראל, וכמו שכתוב [ירמיהו ל”ג, כ”ה] אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה וגו’. והיא העיקר והסיבה שנגאלו ויצאו ממצרים כדי שיקבלו התורה בסיני ויקיימוה, וכמו שאמר השם למשה [שמות ג’, י”ב] וזה לך האות כי אנכי שלחתיך בהוציאך את העם ממצרים תעבדון את האלהים על ההר הזה … נצטוינו למנות ממחרת יום טוב של פסח עד יום נתינת התורה, להראות בנפשנו החפץ הגדול אל היום הנכבד הנכסף ללבנו

The simple understanding of this mitzvah is that since the main focus of the Jewish people is the Torah, and it was for the Torah’s sake that Hashem created the heavens, the earth, and the Jewish people,  … and that was the purpose for which they were freed from Egypt, to receive the Torah on Sinai and fulfill it… , we were commanded to count from the day after Pesach until the giving of the Torah, to show in our souls the tremendous desire and yearning for that great day. 

Just as we naturally count the days to an event that we are very excited about and can’t wait for, so, too, the Jewish people counted the days until they would receive the Torah.

The question is, though, that when we can’t wait for something, we usually count down; only 40 days left until my vacation, now it’s only 35 days etc. Why here are we counting up?

When we count down the days to a vacation, for example, what we really want is the prompt arrival of our vacation day. We want to leave tomorrow. The problem is that the date of my departure is 40 days from now, and those 40 days are blocking me from fulfilling my desire. As the days go by, the interruption becomes smaller and my dream comes closer. My count down reflects the size of the interruption and how close the fulfillment of my dream is to me.

In the case of counting the Omer, however, the days preceding the Torah’s giving were needed to prepare the Jewish people for that great event. When they left Egypt, they were not on the proper level to accept the Torah at Sinai. They needed to purge themselves of Egypt’s negative influences, which were still so much part of them.

When they left Egypt, they were spiritually at the very lowest level they could possibly be. Our Sages teach us that there are 49 levels of spiritual contamination in the world and 50 levels of holiness.  Just before leaving Egypt, the Jewish people were at bottom rung, number 49, of the contaminated spiritual levels. Had they slipped just one more, to number 50, it would have been too late, and they would have been unable to leave Egypt. This is why the Jewish people had to leave Egypt in such a haste. Had they remained a moment longer, they would have slipped into the point of no return and would no longer have been worthy of leaving Egypt.

Each day that the Jews travelled from Egypt, they transferred from a level of spiritual contamination to a level of holiness. Thus, when day 49 came, they were ready to accept the Torah, which is the 50th level of Holiness.

Hence, because the days between Pesach and Shavuot are days of growth and preparation, we count up, charting and assessing our growth as we proceed towards our lofty goal. Each passing day represents a greater distance from the past and the achievement of a new level of closeness to Hashem.

It is easy to imagine the high that the Jewish people were on as they traversed the journey from Egypt to Sinai. They miraculously walked on dry land through the Reed Sea with the water forming walls around them, and watched the Egyptians drown in that very sea, as the water came crashing down on them. The Jewish people had special clouds that protected them from the sun, weather, snakes, and enemies, clouds that led the way during the daytime as well converting to a pillar of fire that guided them during the night. Their food, the mana, came directly from heaven, and the fresh water that they drank, the Midrash tells us, came from a rock that looked like a doughnut that rolled with them, falling on its side to create a well. They were pampered in the cocoon of Hashem’s loving embrace, and their relationship with Him grew stronger with every moment.

The Jewish nation did not bring the Omer sacrifice during the 40 years in the desert; the mitzvah was only to begin once the Jewish people entered the land of Israel.  Nevertheless, they would relive the events each year, as they made their Pesach seders, and re-enacted the counting of the 49 days as they did to reach the great day on which they received the Torah.

But how were the Jewish people in the future, throughout the ages, to experience those same feelings of growth and preparation for the auspicious day of Shavuot? Enter “the counting of the Omer,” the mitzvah designed to help us achieve this great task. Before we can appreciate the omer sacrifice’s message to us, however, we need to know about one more law.

Grain that was newly harvested before Pesach could not be eaten until after bringing the Omer sacrifice on the second day of Pesach. That sacrifice permitted all new grain to be eaten. (Nowadays, new crops are permitted after the second day of Pesach even without the Omer sacrifice.)

Once again, the Sefer Hachinuch enlightens us about the meaning of the mitzvah of the Omer sacrifice in Mitzvah #302, the Mitzvah to bring the Omer Sacrifice.

ספר החינוך – מצוה שב

משרשי המצוה, כדי שנתבונן מתוך המעשה החסד הגדול שעושה השם ברוך הוא עם בריותיו לחדש להם שנה שנה תבואה למחיה, לכן ראוי לנו שנקריב לו ברוך הוא ממנה, למען נזכור חסדו וטובו הגדול טרם נהנה ממנה ומתוך שנהיה ראויין לברכה בהכשר מעשינו לפניו תתברך תבואתינו ויושלם חפץ השם בנו, שחפץ מרוב טובו בברכת בריותיו.

The understanding of this mitzvah is that through this act, prior to partaking of the new wheat crop, we acknowledge and remember Hashem’s great kindness and goodness providing grain and sustenance for His creatures every year. And through doing this worthy deed, we make ourselves worthy of Hashem’s blessing, and He will bless our wheat and thus fulfill His desire to bestow blessing upon His creatures.

This is very much like the concept of reciting a blessing on food or a beverage before partaking of it. The short blessing acknowledges Hashem as the source of our blessing, and, in turn, because we have acted appropriately and connected to Hashem, He bestows more blessings upon us.

The Midrash adds an additional insight into the matter:

מדרש ויקרא רבה – פרשה כח פסקה א

א”ר ינאי: בנוהג שבעולם אדם לוקח ליטרא אחת של בשר מן השוק כמה יגיעות הוא יגע כמה צער הוא מצטער עד שבישלה. והבריות ישנין על מטותיהן והקדוש ברוך הוא משיב רוחות ומעלה עננים ומגדל צמחים ומדשן את הפירות ואין נותנים לו אלא שכר העומר הה”ד והבאתם את עומר ראשית קצירכם אל הכהן

Rabbi Yanai said: When a person buys a pound of meat from the store, how much toil must he put into preparing it before it is ready to eat. Yet while people are sleeping in bed, Hashem makes the winds blow that bring the clouds that irrigate the earth to bring forth delicious fruits and vegetables for us to eat, and all we give in return is one omer of barley.   

The offering of a few pounds of barley flour, the Omer sacrifice, demonstrates that we understand that crops don’t grow by themselves. They cannot grow without Hashem’s love and care to create the proper climate and conditions for their growth. Although it occurs while we sleep, we know that it is Hashem’s great kindness that allows it to happen.

A different Midrash adds yet another dimension to the Omer sacrifice:

מדרש ויקרא רבה – פרשה כח פסקה ג

אמר רבי ברכיה: אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה לך אמור להם לישראל כשהייתי נותן לכם את המן הייתי נותן עומר לכל אחד ואחד מכם הה”ד (שמות טו) עומר לגלגולת ועכשיו שאתם נותנים לי את העומר אין לי אלא עומר אחד מכלכם

Rabbi Brachia said: Hashem told Moshe, Tell the Jewish people that when I gave them the mana, I would give a full omer of mana for each one of you; but now, when you give me an omer, I ask only one omer from all of you.

The Midrash connects the Omer offering that the Jewish people brought after entering Israel, to the omer (measure) of mana that Hashem gave per person during the 40 years that the Jewish people travelled through the desert. The measure of grain that we are offering to Hashem as a sacrifice is our way of expressing to Hashem that we understand that our daily bread is exactly like the ration of mana that He gave the Jewish people in the desert, an omer per person. And although it is not an open miracle like the mana was, we know that it is Hashem, who manipulates nature such that we receive our daily bread.

This lesson was only necessary once the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, where the miraculous existence that they enjoyed for 40 years would no longer be the norm. Hashem used this open-miracle policy only when He was in the mode of establishing the foundations of the Jewish nation. Once and for all, through the ten plagues and through the constant miracles that accompanied the Jewish people throughout their 40-year journey in the desert, Hashem established the Torah’s fundamental tenets: That He created the world, that He controls the world, and that He is involved with each individual in the Jewish nation. These foundations were ingrained in our grandparents for the 40 years that they spent in Hashem’s loving, miraculous cocoon.

Upon their entry into the land of Israel, however, these miracles stopped, and the people had to return to the conventional ways of procuring their food. They would plant, they would water, they would weed, they would harvest. That, though, leads to a problem: it sure looks like it’s me who is doing everything around here! The danger of forgetting Hashem and thinking “It’s all me!”  would be very great. The lesson of the Omer is what sets us straight, preventing us from losing sight of the reality, viz, that Hashem is behind the scenes making everything work out perfectly so that we have our daily food, just like when we had the mana. The same is true for all our other blessings as well.

The Sefer Hachinuch addresses one more question: Why don’t we start counting from the first day of Pesach rather than from the second day? The purpose of the Exodus was to receive the Torah, which started on the very first day of Pesach!

ואם תשאל, אם כן למה אנו מתחילין אותו ממחרת השבת ולא מיום ראשון, התשובה כי היום הראשון נתייחד כולו להזכרת הנס הגדול והוא יציאת מצרים, שהוא אות ומופת בחידוש העולם ובהשגחת השם על בני האדם, ואין לנו לערב בשמחתו ולהזכיר עמו שום ענין אחר, ועל כן נתקן החשבון מיום שני מיד

The answers is that the first day of Pesach is set aside to celebrate the great miracle of our release from Egypt, which provides testimony and proof that Hashem created the world, that He is involved in people’s lives, and we cannot dilute this message by mixing in other ideas.

This last piece completes the picture and gives us the understanding of the process that unfolds from Pesach to Shavuot.

We begin our journey on the Seder night and the first day (in the diaspora the first two days) of Pesach when we intensely focus on the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt and throughout the 40 years in the wilderness. These miracles show us with perfect clarity the reality of Hashem the Creator and His love and involvement with His people. Once we securely integrate this lesson, we can apply it to nowadays, when Hashem is in His hidden mode. We need to take the next step and realize that Hashem continues to do the same for us, even though we do not see open miracles. He provides the mana and the water in a miraculous way; we just do not see His involvement behind the scenes. This is the lesson of the omer of barley, which also grows in a miraculous way.

Imagine the scene in a typical Jewish home after the Jewish people have entered the land of Israel. The child wakes up in the morning and excitedly tells his mother,

“Ma, I’ll go out and get the mana this morning!”

“Son, we are now in the land of Israel; there is no more mana.”

“What? No mana? What will we eat?”

“Here’s what we are going to do. We are going to take a kernel of wheat, place it into the ground where it will disintegrate. After a few weeks of watering, a sprout will begin growing out of it, and soon that sprout will turn into a strong stalk with many kernels of wheat on top of it. We will take those kernels and shell them, grind them into flour, mix that flour with water and make a dough, let the dough rise and shape it into loaves; then we will put them into the oven and bake them.  After all of that, we will have delicious bread to eat!”

“WOW! Ma, that’s a miracle!”

This is the omer’s lesson that we need to review and assimilate as we count the omer for 49 consecutive nights between Pesach and Shavuot. This is a daunting concept to absorb, and we need consistent thought and learning before we internalize it.

This concept offers the proper preparation for receiving the Torah, because when we deeply understand that everything comes from Hashem, there can be no jealousy or strife between people. If someone has more than I do, I cannot be jealous of him; that’s the way Hashem wants it. If someone hurt me, since that is what Hashem decreed, I obviously deserved it. That person was only the messenger.

When the Jewish people received the Torah on Sinai, the Torah tells us they were like “One person with one heart,” completely unified in their mission as a people and completely at peace with one another. During the days between Pesach and Shavuot, the Jewish people were working on this concept, that everything is from Hashem, as well, achieving their goal as they stood unified as “one person with one heart” at Sinai. The holy energy of that period in the Jewish calendar returns every year and is made accessible to us during these times. Let’s harness this holy energy when we count the omer this year and try to integrate this concept so that we may once again stand united as “one person with one heart” when Shavuot arrives and we receive the Torah.

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