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Why Do We Count the Omer? (Parshas Behar)

 

 

Imagine a teenager lying on a grassy field, gazing into the night sky. As he stares up at the stars, he thinks to himself, "Look at how enormous the universe is. The sky just expands endlessly... It must go on forever." After sitting with that thought for a few moments, he becomes uncomfortable. "How can anything go on forever? Everything must stop eventually." But after a few moments of relaxation, his thoughts intrude again. "But how can the universe stop? What exists on the other side, when the universe ends? It must go on forever..." And this inner dialogue continues, as he struggles to contemplate the infinite within his finite mind. This struggle is not a childish one; it is a challenge that confronts any finite being who tries to connect to the infinite.

Younger children, however, do not face this struggle. They are dreamers, living in a world of fantasy, where anything is possible. Just ask a group of children what they want to be when they grow up and you'll get some of the most fantastic, unrealistic responses imaginable. "I'm going to be an astronaut fireman, so that I can save people on the moon," or “I’m going to become a great tzaddik and learn how to speak every language so that I can teach Torah to everyone”. Children live within the infinite, the realm of endless possibility.  However, as we grow up, we begin to experience the struggle of reality, where our notions of the infinite start being challenged. We then face the question: How do we, as physical and limited beings, transcend our finite dimensions? How do we relate to the abstract, to the infinite, to the spiritual? Let us approach this question through the lens of Sefiras Ha'Omer, the counting of the Omer. 

 

Sefiras Ha'Omer: Our Yearly Counting

 

We are commanded to count the days between Pesach and Shavuos, a period known as Sefiras Ha'Omer.[1] At first glance, this can be understood on a very simple level: As we approach Shavuos, we excitedly count down to Matan Torah, as we anticipate our acceptance of the Torah. This can be compared to a countdown towards a wedding, a vacation, or some other exciting event. However, there is a feature of the Sefiras Ha'Omer count that is markedly different: Rather than counting down towards the destination, Shavuos, we count up from the starting point, Pesach. We don't mark how many days remain until Shavuos, we count how many days have elapsed since Pesach. What is the meaning behind this strange method of counting? And more generally, what is the purpose of counting in the first place? By no other holidays do we count the days between them; we don’t count the days between Succos and Chanukah. Why then do we specifically count the days between Pesach and Shavuos?

 

Building, Not Counting

 

In truth, we are not counting down to Matan Torah, we are building towards 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. If Shavuos - and its accompanying Matan Torah - are a skyscraper, each day of the Omer is a brick. Each day we place the next brick in our building, each day we build ourselves one step higher. The extensive halachic emphasis on counting each and every day of the Omer[2] highlights the fact that every single brick is essential, every single day is fundamental. If while building a staircase you miss one step, you simply cannot build the next step up. Each step requires a foundation to rest on. The same is true of counting the Omer. Each day builds upon the previous ones, ascending towards our ultimate destination. Matan Torah does not come after 49 days, it comes because of them, built by our effort and investment during Sefiras Ha’Omer. This is why we count up. We are not counting down to Matan Torah, we are building up towards it, one day at a time.

 

Time-Bound Mitzvah?

 

This elucidation of Sefiras Ha’Omer sheds light on the Ramban's enigmatic approach to the counting of the Omer. He maintains that women are obligated to count the Omer because it is not a mitzvas aseh she'hazman gramah - a time-bound commandment. How are we to understand this?  Sefiras Ha'Omer, the counting of each specific day between Pesach and Shavuos, seems to be the epitome of a time-bound mitzvah!

However, a deeper understanding of Sefiras Ha'Omer clarifies the Ramban's opinion. In general, a time-bound mitzvah is an opportunity to tap into a certain power of time that exists at that moment. On Pesach, when we eat matzah, we tap into the power of freedom, a pre-existing reality. [3] This same principle applies to all time-bound mitzvos. For Sefiras Ha'Omer, however, we don’t tap into a pre-existing time; we create time. When we count the Omer, we do not tap into the reality of the Omer, we create it. Time does not create the Omer, we do. This is why there is no specific date mentioned for Shavuos in the Torah. Shavuos - and Matan Torah - are not tied to a specific day (the sixth of Sivan); it is the result of the 49 days that we count. The fiftieth day, the day of Shavuos and Matan Torah, emerges from the 49 days of counting. We bring it into existence. This is why the holiday of Shavuos literally means "weeks"[4]- the seven weeks that we count create the holiday of Shavuos.

 

Why Don't We Count the First Day of the Omer?

 

After developing a general understanding of Sefiras Ha’Omer, let us focus on a few specifics of the count itself. The 49 days of Sefiras Ha'Omer parallels the 49-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 49 days long? 

While we likely take it for granted that the Omer is 49 days long, the Torah explicitly commands us: "Tisperu chamishim yom”- you shall count fifty days.[5] Why then do we only count 49 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 49-day process of sefirah based on a principle we have previously developed.[6] 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 towards 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, now you have worked to build it for yourself.

The first night of Pesach was a gift, an experience of infinite transcendence.[7] This night was characterized by the miracles of makkas bechoros (plague of the firstborn) – performed by Hashem Himself - and Yetzias Mitzrayim, as well as the mitzvos of Korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) and bris milah (circumcision), mitzvos which connected the Jewish people to a higher dimension of existence.[8] However, immediately following this night was a complete fall from this exalted level of transcendence. The Jewish People faced 49 days in the dessert, a place of spiritual emptiness.[9] It was during these 49 days of counting, of building, that the Jewish people were able to rebuild and earn that initial transcendent gift. What resulted from those 49 days of building was Shavuos, Matan Torah, an experience of transcendence, of infinity, 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.[10] The Shavuos sacrifice is shtei ha'lechem, a sacrifice of bread made of wheat, a food characterized by the Sages as human food.[11]Prior to the process of Sefiras Ha’Omer, we are on a low spiritual level, the level of animals. After spending the 49 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 49 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.[12] 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 49 days long? Nothing in Torah is arbitrary; there must be a reason why we count exactly 49 days before receiving the Torah on Shavuos; there must be a significance to this specific number.

In order to understand the number 49, 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,[13] the Maharal[14] explains that seven is the number of the natural. 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 (oil), a word with the same root and concept as shemonah, eight.

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 towards transcendence, towards the infinite, towards the eighth week- Matan Torah. We therefore count seven weeks of seven days, for a total of 49 days, the ultimate expression of seven.[15] This completes the physical building process, resulting in the 50th, the first day of the eighth week, the ultimate transcendence of the eighth level, Shavuos.[16][17]

 

Two Types of Order

 

Another interesting feature of the Omer is the emphasis on counting each day.[18] This suggests that Sefiras Ha'Omer is one long mitzvah, complete only if each of the 49 days are counted. However, l'halacha (according to Jewish law) we make a bracha (blessing) 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[19]: 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 bracha. 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 49 pieces are built correctly can the 50th emanate from the pieces, can Matan Torah occur.

  

Why Don't We Count the 50th?

 

This second type of order is also the secret behind why we do not count the 50th 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, that which emanates from the pieces. The level of “eight” after the seven weeks of counting is the 50th, the eighth week, the day of Matan Torah. We don’t count the 50th because we cannot build the 50th; the 50th is the transcendent level that results and emanates from everything we have built during our 49 days of counting. The 50th 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, the World to Come.[20] 

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 49 days are the days of building, working, and creating it for ourselves. The 50th day is the same as the first day, transcendent, ethereal, and uncountable, but this time, we have earned it, it's real, it's ours. In truth, even the 50th has a dimension of "gift" to it, but it is only given once we have created the vessel to receive it, after 49 days of building. As the Ramchal[21] explains, "techilaso avodah vi'sofo gimul"- the beginning is toil, but the end is a gift (from Hashem). Although we have worked towards the fiftieth day for 49 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 49 days, and this is why the chag is called Shavuos-weeks, the same root as shevah- seven. We are building seven weeks, and the transcendent 50th, 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 which He bestowed upon us on the 50th day.[22]

 

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, towards Shavuos. Even if we are building, why don’t we build towards Shavuos, mentioning our destination of Shavuos and Matan Torah every time we count? At least let us count towards the korban shtei lechem, 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 towards our destination?

The answer is that we are counting towards the infinite, towards 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 towards infinity, towards the 50th. While we do keep this lofty end-goal in mind, the mechanics of actually building towards the 50th require us to first construct a foundation - the first day of the Omer – and then build our way up from there.

 

Shemita and Yovel: Levels of Shabbos

 

In Parshas Behar, we are introduced to another set of six and seven - the six years of working the land, and the seventh year of Shemita. We are also introduced to another pair of 49 and 50; 49 years followed by the 50th year of Yovel. What is the meaning behind these cycles of years?

As we have previously explained,[23] the six days of the week represent the time of building and creating, while Shabbos represents the cessation of creative activity, a time to experience everything we have become, everything we have built. Shabbos is the seventh that connects the six days of the week together and allows us to experience the dimension of the eighth. This is why the Gemara[24] compares Shabbos to a taste of Olam Habah- the World to Come; it is a taste of the eighth, the infinite.

The next level of this principle is Sefiras Ha'Omer; instead of seven days we build seven weeks, we build towards the 50th day, which is the eighth week.

The subsequent level is Yom Kippur, which is referred to as Shabbos Shabboson. Just as the journey to Matan Torah has 50 days, the lunar calendar has about 50 weeks, as 50x7=350 and there are 355 days in a full lunar year. The solar year is longer, however, and has 365 days in its year. The Vilna Gaon explains in his commentary to Safra Ditzniyusa[25] that the Aseres Yemei Teshuva (Ten Days of Repentance) serve to connect the lunar year to the solar year[26], connecting the Jewish and spiritual dimension of time to the universal form of time, thereby uplifting it. Just as Matan Torah on Shavuos is the 50th day of the Omer, Yom Kippur is an extension of the 50th week of the year, Rosh Hashana. It is therefore no surprise that the second time the Jewish People experienced Matan Torah was on Yom Kippur, the 50th week.[27]

The next level is Shemita, where this principle is applied to years. After six years of working the land, we experience a year-long “Shabbos”. The six years of work lead to a seventh year of rest, a year of deep connection, an experience of the “eighth”.

The final level is Yovel, the 50th year. After seven Shemita years, after 49 years of building and creating, the 50th year is a year of existential transcendence. This is why Yovel is compared to a full year of Yom Kippur. Fittingly, the pesukim state that Yovel begins on Yom Kippur.[28] Yovel results from correctly building 49 years, it is a full year of Matan Torah.

 

Connecting to the Infinite

 

Just like the teenager in the introductory story, we all struggle to connect with the infinite, to see the spiritual within the physical, to find genuine meaning and purpose in an often turbulent and chaotic world. It can feel overwhelming - if not impossible - to build a skyscraper; the task is quite daunting. However, the key is to have the ultimate goal in the back of our minds while we focus on each individual day, trying our best to place each individual brick perfectly while we build towards our ultimate destination. Each day of the Omer is a new brick- a new part of our journey towards Matan Torah, towards the infinite, towards marrying Hashem. May we be inspired to create something magical as we build towards Matan Torah, one day at a time.

 

[1] Vayikra 23:15-16, Devarim 16:9.

[2] See the opinion of the Behag cited in Tosafos, Menachis 66a.

[3] See articlef on Parshas Ha’Azinu for a fuller discussion of this topic and the unique nature of time.

[4] Shavuos also shares the same root as the word shevah- seven, reflecting the seven weeks that creates the chag of Shavuos.

[5] Vayikra 23:16.

[6] See article on Parshas Mishpatim.

[7] Ibid.

[8] For more on the topic of the formation of the Jewish People, see article on Parshas Beshalach. For the unique purpose of the korban Pesach, see section: “Korban Pesach.” For the unique nature of the bris milah, see the next section in this article: “Forty-Nine Days of Building.”

[9] For more on the spiritual nature of the midbar, see article on Parshas Bamidbar, section “Bamidbar.”

[10] Pesachim 3b.

[11] See Aruch Hashulchan 489:3.

[12] One can only count that which is physical and tangible, that which has borders and boundaries, that which can be “pointed to”. The days which transcend the physical, such as the first day of Pesach (and fiftieth day of the Omer), cannot be counted because they reside in the realm of the infinite, a place beyond number, beyond boundaries and limitation. These are days of oneness, days which are not themselves counted, the days which are counted from (and towards).

[13] See article on Parshas Emor, Section- "Kohanim: Creating This Connection".

[14] Tiferes Yisrael- Chapters 1-2, 25.

[15] Forty-nine is the ultimate expression of seven, because every single digit within "seven" is also made up of seven parts. Numbers are physical constructs, with boundaries and limitations, representing the concept of seven. Therefore, the numbers one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven are made up of seven parts each. Since the numbers one to seven each have seven parts within them, when you multiply seven by seven, you get forty-nine. During Sefiras Ha’Omer, we are not only trying to reveal the concept of seven (seven weeks), but also the seven within the seven (49 days). Of course, even the seven within the seven is made up of seven, ad infinitum, but once we have established the principle, we do not need to go further.

[16] This is why the word middah has the numerical value (gematria) of 49. The word middah has three meanings: character trait, measurement, and clothing. All of these represent the physical vessel for the infinite, and the means through which the infinite can be expressed through the physical.

  • A character trait is the way that the soul (infinite) is expressed into the physical world.
  • A measurement is the way that something that is beyond number is expressed in a limited, finite way in the physical world.
  • Clothing is the means through which a neshama (soul) is seen and expressed in the physical world. [For more on the nature and purpose of clothing, see article on Parshas Mikeitz, section: “The Purpose of Clothing”.]

[17] In the normal creative process, the spiritual (potential) comes first and the physical product comes after. Thus, when Hashem created the world, the spiritual came first and the physical emanated from that infinite, spiritual root. However, when counting the Omer, we aren’t expressing the infinite, spiritual root into the physical; on the contrary, we are connecting the expressed physical world back to its infinite root. When building from the physical to the spiritual, the physical (the 49 days of the Omer) have to come first, and only afterwards can the spiritual (the 50th) become expressed. For more on this concept, see article on Parshas Pekudei, section: “Moshe vs. Betzalel.”

[18] See the opinion of the Behag cited in Tosafos, Menachis 66a.

[19] See article on Parshas Vayechi, where we develop Rav Dessler’s idea in full, illustrating all three levels of order.

[20] See Maharal, Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Ha’Torah 1, where the Maharal discusses how the 50th is uncountable.

[21] Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 26.

[22] Strikingly, the Rokeach (Devarim 6:7) notes how the word “Torah” occurs 50 times [in the singular form] in the Torah.

[23] See article on Parshas Vayakhel.

[24] Brachos 57b.

[25] Peirush to Safra Ditzniyusa- Chapter 2.

[26] See article on Parshas Ha’Azinu, section: “Linking the Lunar to the Solar Year”.

[27] Moshe brought down the second set of luchos on Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement revealed that Hashem had forgiven us for the Chet Ha’Egel (Sin of the Golden Calf).

[28] Vayikra 25:9-10.

 

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