Rav Hershel Schachter has reecorded some of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s beautiful Shiurim regarding Sefirat Haomer in his new Sefer entitled Peninei Harav (pp.226-248). In this essay, we shall present some of the profound thoughts contained in these Shiurim, which will enrich our performance of this Mitzvah.
Sefira and Aveilut
The Gemara (Menachot 66a) cites the opinion of Ameimar that when the Beit Hamikdash is not functioning the Mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer constitutes only a rabbinic obligation, “Zecher Lemikdash”, to recall the Beit Hamikdash. Sefirat Haomer is inexorably linked to the Beit Hamikdash since the offering of the Korban Omer is the catalyst for the Mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer (Vayikra 23:15 and Devarim 16:9). Ameimar believes since the Mitzvah today is simply Zecher Lemikdash it is necessary only to count the days of the Omer and not the weeks. For example, on the ninth day of the Omer, one would say only “today is the ninth day of the Omer” and would not add “that is one week and two days to the Omer”, according to Ameimar.
Rav Soloveitchik raises a difficulty with this opinion. He asks, is it so difficult to “count the weeks” that Ameimar felt it necessary to “give us a break” and waive the requirement to do so? The Rav answers by citing a question posed by the Ba’al HaMaor at the conclusion of the latter’s commentary to Masechet Pesachim. He asks why we don’t recite the Bracha of Shehechiyanu when we begin the Mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer. The Ba’al HaMaor explains that Sefirat Haomer is a sad activity as it recalls the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. The Rav explains the opinion of Ameimar in a similar manner. Ameimar believes that today we should omit counting the weeks in order to demonstrate that we are not observing the Mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer in its proper manner (i.e., together with offering the Korban Haomer).
Rav Soloveitchik explains that there are two types of remembering the Beit Hamikdash. One is to remember the glory days of the Beit Hamikdash and the other is to remember the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Our eating the Korech (Pesachim 116) and taking the Lulav the last six days of Sukkot (Rosh Hashanah 30a) recall the grandeur of the Mikdash. The obligation to leave a small portion of our house unpainted (Bava Batra 60) and limiting our enjoyment of music (Gittin 7) are examples of remembrances of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. We classify Sefirat Haomer in the latter category. It is for this reason that after we have counted the Omer, we request of Hashem to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash (see Tosafot Megillah 20b s.v. V’Chol). In addition, says Rav Soloveitchik, this is why it is appropriate for us to mourn during the period of Sefirat Haomer for the loss of Rabi Akiva’s students, since in our times there is an element of sadness involved in Sefirat Haomer.
The Reason for Sefira
The Rambam, in his philosophical work the Moreh Nevuchim, (3:43) offers a reason for the Mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer, noting that Matan Torah was the goal of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim. The Rambam explains that we anxiously await our commemoration of Matan Torah (Shavuot) after we have commemorated Yetzi’at Mitzrayim on Pesach. Just as one who anticipates meeting a loved one counts the weeks and days until he sees him or her, so too we anxiously count the days and weeks until we will reenact Matan Torah on Shavuot.
The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 306), though, poses a question on the Rambam’s explanation. He points out that someone anticipating meeting a loved one will count down the days until the appointed time. He will count five days until the meeting and then four days until the meeting, etc. We, however, do not count forty days until Shavuot, thirty- nine days until Shavuot, etc.; instead, we count upwards. According to the Rambam’s approach, we should have been counting down the time until Shavuot. The Chinuch answers that since the road to Shavuot is long, it would discourage us if we began counting forty-nine days until Shavuot. It is more palatable to commence the countdown by focusing on what we have “accomplished”, one day has passed, two days have passed, etc. Even when we get closer to Shavuot we continue to “count up” because we do not change counting style in the middle of the Sefira.
The Rav notes that the approach of the Chinuch is reminiscent of a parable presented by the famed Dubner Maggid in another context. The Dubner Maggid was asked why in the past few centuries there have been Gedolim who have publicized their calculations when the Mashiach will arrive, if the Gemara (Sanhedrin 97b) specifically condemns those who make such calculations. The Dubner Maggid responded with a parable about a father and son who were taking a trip from Vilna to Warsaw. A few minutes after leaving Vilna the boy asked when should we get to Vilna. The father responded that the question was inappropriate. A few minutes later, the child again asked “are we there yet?”. The father again told him that it is inappropriate to pose this question and he asked the son to refrain from asking this question further.
Hours later, the father asked the wagon driver how far they were from Vilna and the wagon driver responded. The son upon hearing his father’s question was puzzled. The son asked his father why when he asked the question how far they were from their destination he was rebuffed and yet the father posed the same question to the wagon driver. The father responded that when one is so far from his destination, it is not appropriate to inquire how far we are from the end of the trip. However, when one is drawing close to the end of the travel, then it is a relevant question to know when we expect to reach the destination. Similarly, said the Dubner Maggid, at the time of the Gemara it was inappropriate to speculate about the time of the arrival of the Mashiach because there was a long road ahead. In later generations, though, we are close to the arrival of the Mashiach and thus it is appropriate to investigate when we should expect the Mashiach to arrive.
Rav Soloveitchik, though, presents another explanation for why we count the Omer upwards and not downwards. He cites the Ran (at the conclusion of his commentary to Masechet Pesachim) who states that in the absence of the Beit Hamikdash and the Korban Omer we count the Omer today to reenact the counting of days after we left Mitzra’im until we received the Torah. Rav Soloveitchik suggests that Hashem did not tell the Jews when they left Mitzra’im the precise date when they will receive the Torah. The basis for this suggestion is that we find that Hashem did not tell Avraham his destination when He commanded him to move to Israel and later to bind Yitzchak at one of the mountains that I will show you. Similarly, Hashem does not reveal the place where the Beit Hamikdash will be built in Sefer Devarim. Rather, the Torah refers repeatedly to Jerusalem as the place that Hashem will choose. We, in turn, do not know the time when Hashem will send the Mashiach, but we wait patiently with great faith for his arrival. According to the Rav’s suggestion, the Jews had to count upwards to Matan Torah because they did not know exactly when they would receive the Torah. Today that we reenact our ancestors countdown to Matan Torah, we also count upwards as our forefathers did after they left Mitzrayim. Thereby we experience an element of uncertainty, which is an integral component of religious experience.
The Chassidic Practice to Count Sefira towards the Conclusion of the Seder
Chassidim (as well as some Sephardic Jews) count the Sefira towards the conclusion of the Seder. This practice appears puzzling (as noted by the Aruch Hashulchan Orach Chaim 489:11) in light our general practice to try to perform Mitzvot at the earliest opportunity, Zerizim Makdimim Lemitzvot. For example, we recite Hallel during Shacharit and do not delay until Musaf because of this principle (Rosh Hashana 32b). Moreover, the Mitzva of Sefirat Haomer is performed more times a year than the Mitzvot of the Seder, so the rule of Tadir Usheeino Tadir, Tadir Kodem (the Mitzva that is performed more often is performed first, Pesachim 114a) should direct us to count the Sefira before we begin the Seder. Moreover, we are not permitted to eat until we have performed a Mitzvah whose time will soon past lest we forget to perform the Mitzvah. Examples of this principle are the prohibition to eat before we perform Bedikat Chametz (Pesachim 4a) and the prohibition to eat before we take the Lulav (Sukka 38a). Hence, it would appear to be forbidden to partake of the food at the Seder until we have counted the Sefira.
Rav Soloveitchik explains the Chassidic practice based on an insight of the Sefer HaChinuch. The Chinuch (ibid) asks why we don’t begin to count the Omer from the first night of Pesach. Since Sefirat Haomer constitutes a bridge between Pesach and Shavuot why do we delay the commencement of the count until the second night? The Chinuch responds that Hashem designated the first night to focus exclusively on our celebration of the exodus from Mitzrayim, without our having to note by counting the Omer that our celebration is incomplete because we have yet to reach our final destination. Similarly, explains the Rav, Chassidim feel that if we count the Sefira before the second Seder, then it would be the equivalent of stating that the following celebration is incomplete because we have not reached our final destination (see the Aruch Hashulchan ad. loc. for a similar explanation). We note that the Rav’s explanation of this Chassidic practice is reminiscent of the Rav’s explanation of many Chassidim to eat outside the Sukkah on Shmini Atzeret. He explains that the eating in the Sukkah would interfere with the celebration of Shmini Atzeret, which is particularly intense for Chassidim (see Rav Reichman’s presentation of Rav Soloveitchik’s Shiurim to Masechet Sukkah p.98).
The Pharisee – Sadducee Dispute about the Commencement of Sefirat Haomer
A persistent dispute during the days of the Second Beit Hamikdash was the date of the commencement of Sefirat Haomer. The heretical and deviationist Saducees claimed that a literal explanation of Vayikra 23:15 teaches that Sefirat Haomer begins “Mimocharat Hashabbat”, the day after the first Shabbat after the first day of Pesach. We (the Pharisees) reject this interpretation as it runs counter to our tradition that the word Shabbat in this verse refers to the first day of Pesach (see Ramban ad. loc. for further discussion of this issue). The Rav asks why did Hashem choose to use the word Shabbat to describe the first day of Pesach. He answers that Shabbat and Pesach teach a very similar message. Just as the message of Shabbat is that Hashem created the world, so too the message of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim is to confirm that Hashem created and directs the world (as explained at length in the Ramban’s commentary to the Torah, at the end of Parashat Bo).
The Mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer is a particularly rich Mitzvah that is deceptively simple. With the insights of our great Sages, we are able to see beyond the simple act to the profound ideas inherent within this Mitzvah and many other Mitzvot.