Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be-Har-Behukotai 5766/ May 20, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Countdown

 

Attorney Yisrael S.Adler

 

Kefar Sava

 

In this week’s reading the Torah commands us to count the years leading up to the jubilee:   “You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years” (Lev. 25:8). A similar expression of counting appeared in last week’s reading, Parashat Emor, with regard to the omer:   “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” (Lev. 23:15). In an earlier weekly reading,  Parashat Metzora, we read:  “When she [a woman with discharge or menstrual flow] becomes clean of her discharge, she shall count off seven days, and after that she shall be clean” (Lev. 15:28); Let us focus on several questions that arise regarding counting the omer, comparing this ritual with the other commandments.

The three commandments mentioned above use an identical syntax:  the imperative form of the verb with the addition of an indirect object (not rendered in the English):  ve-safra lah, u-sefartem lakhem, ve-safarta lekha, literally “count for herself, yourselves, or yourself.” Notwithstanding this similarity, there are essential differences between the three commandments.   With regard to counting the years leading to the jubilee, ve-safarta lekha “you shall count off” is worded in the singular; Torat Kohanim, the Tannaitic Midrash to Leviticus, comments that Scripture is referring to a count done by the Court, Bet Din, and even though the singular is used, this does not refer to a single individual, rather to the collective court.

The commandment to count the omer, in contrast, uses the plural form-- u-sefartem lakhem; thus it might seem that this counting ought to be done by the court, or at least in some public forum and not individually; however, the Talmud interprets that this commandment devolves specifically on each and every individual:  U-sefartem lahem – You (plural) shall count off – the Rabbis taught:  this counting is to be done by each and every person (Menahot 65b).”   The author of Torah Temimah remarks on this:  “Because every expression in the singular that applies to the entire community is [performed] by the Bet Din.  As the Tosafists noted, [this is deduced] precisely from the fact that the plural is used here, whereas with regard to the sabbatical and jubilee years, the singular is used.”

There are many commandments which follow the rule that hearing someone else recite is equivalent to reciting the benediction oneself, shome’a ke-‘oneh, so that one person can fulfill the obligation through another person’s speech; such is the case, for example, with kiddush.   This does not apply to counting the omer, a commandment which must be performed by each and every person for himself.  Why?   On the basis of what has been said above, Torah Temimah refines more precisely the approach taken by Magen Avraham, that “one is not exempt by hearing another person count, and it is not like the case of kiddush and other such commandments, since Scripture decrees that each and every one must count for himself.”  When it says, “Scripture decrees,” this refers to Scripture’s use of the plural lakhem as opposed to the singular, which is used with regard to counting the years to the jubilee.

It should be noted that both commandments, counting years to the jubilee and counting the omer, were stated in the imperative, in direct speech – “You (singular) shall count,” and “You (plural) shall count” – whereas the counting of a woman is worded in the third person – “she shall count.”  Samuel deduced from this that a woman in menstruation counts to herself (Ketubbot 72a).   In addition, the new insight and emphasis in “she shall count” is that the woman is trusted to do the counting and does not require others to witness it, and even though she is attesting to something that concerns herself—her ritual cleanliness-- she is considered trustworthy.  This is because it is the woman, and the woman alone, who determines the entire process, as Torah Temimah says on the text, “After all, the entire matter rests with her trustworthiness and knowledge alone.” [1]

Counting the omer itself raises several questions:

  1. Why do we not say She-heheyanu on the commandment of counting the omer, when by all the general principles it seems one ought to recite this benediction?
  2. Why do we count the days, and then translate the number of days into weeks and days?
  3. Why, outside of Israel, do we not count two series of counting, due to the issue of doubt as to the proper day, the first series commencing according to the first days of Passover and the second according to the second day of yom tov which is added on the morrow in the Diaspora?   After all, in the Diaspora there are ostensibly two points in time on which one begins to count the omer.
  4. What is the significance of saying, “May the Merciful One restore the Temple service to us, speedily in our day,” which is recited in conjunction with counting the omer?

The Ba’al Ha-Ma’or, Rabbi Zerahiah ben Isaac ha-Levi Gerondi, relates to several of these questions, and his ideas are cited by R. Nissim and R. Isaac Alfasi at the end of Tractate Pesahim:

And he (Rabbi Zerahiah ha-Levi), of blessed memory, responded as follows:  Since counting the omer is merely for remembrance, for so we conclude in Tractate Menahot 66a:  “Amemar counted days and not weeks, saying because it was in remembrance of the Temple.”   We who count days and weeks do so because that is the custom which has come down to us.   But as to requiring a blessing of time (i.e., saying She-heheyanu), we have no grounds for so doing.   Moreover, we observe that the blessing of time is not said except for things in which there is pleasure, such as waving the lulav … and counting the omer has no element of pleasure but only misery over the destruction of the Temple, for which we yearn. [2]

The Ba’al Ha-Ma’or holds that counting the omer is currently not a Torah commandment, but only in remembrance of when the omer sacrifice of new barley was actually brought to the Temple, which ceased with the Temple’s destruction, and for this reason Amemar said (cf. Menahot 66a) that one should count only the days.  Perhaps we say, “May the Merciful One restore the Temple service to us, speedily in our day,” in order to keep alive this memory. [3]

Other answers to these questions are found in other sources: The author of Binah le-Itim states definitively that She-heheyanu is recited only when a commandment is performed fully.   For example, when we wave the lulav on the first day of Sukkot the commandment is performed fully, to the last detail, and the person who does so performs a complete commandment.   This is not the case with counting the omer, because if one does not count every single day one has not fulfilled the commandment in its entirety.  Proof that each nigh is not an entire mitzvah lies in the fact that a person who has forgotten to count one evening no longer counts with a benediction.   In contrast, a person who has forgotten or for some reason been unable to wave the lulav on one of the days of Sukkot may wave the lulav with the benediction on the following days of the festival.

Ba’al Ha-Ma’or already said that counting days and weeks is the custom which has come down to us. The gemara in Tractate Menahot (loc. sit.) relates that Amemar only counted days, whereas Abaye said:  “It is a commandment to count the days and to count the weeks.”   Based on his remark, the gemara says:  “The Rabbis, following Rav Ashi, counted days and weeks” (while according to Amemar, as we said, only days are counted).  We now inquire into the origins of Rav Ashi’s approach.

The verse dealing with counting the omer in Parashat Emor states:  “And from… the day after the Sabbath, you shall count off … until the day after the seventh week – fifty days” (Lev. 23:15-16), whereas in Parashat Re’eh (Deut. 16:9) there is a verse which states, “You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain.”  Apparently Abaye’s approach was designed to fulfill the requirements of both the verses in Leviticus as well as those in Deuteronomy.

As for the third question, why one does not count two series of counting every night outside of Israel,  Ba’al Ha-Ma’or says that a direct result of such counting would be that the counting of the last day would occur after the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) had already been consecrated, “and would lead to disrespect for the first day of the festival according to the Torah.”

The author of Binah le-Itim gives another explanation:  the main point of counting the omer, like any other act of counting, is to know exactly where one is in the count-down.  Whoever does not know precisely, cannot count.   One cannot say, “Today is the third day” and out of doubt also say “Today is the fourth day.”   Therefore, one counts only a single count, “for we are expert in determining the new month, and we have no doubts as to the days of counting.”  Observing the second day of the festivals in the Diaspora does not stem from true doubt as to the day the counting should begin; rather, it is but a continuation of the practice of our ancestors, “who were in doubt, and therefore celebrated two days.”



[1] It is an interesting question, why a woman does not recite a benediction over counting  the clean days in her menstrual cycle.  The generally accepted reason is that her count might be interrupted [by a further show of blood] and then she would have counted in vain.   This is a far-stretched explanation since we do not generally find that one refrains from making a blessing for fear that some future event will prevent the commandment from being fulfilled in its entirety.  In   this regard we cite the explanation given by the Torah Temimah, that one recites a benediction over performance of a commandment and not over the preparation for the commandment.  So, one does not recite a blessing upon building a sukkah or baking matzah.The woman’s counting too is the preparation for her ritual cleanliness and immersion, but is not a commandment in and of itself.

[2] It is noteworthy that Ha-Ma’or in particular and the literature of the early rabbinic authorities in general make no mention of the customs of mourning that are observed during the period of counting the omer, nor is there any mention of mourning in the wake of the plague that hit Rabbi Akiva’s disciples.  Apparently the association between counting the omer and mourning customs emerged far later.

[3] In this regard we must mention Maimonides’ divergent opinion, expressed in Yad ha-Hazakah (ch. 7, halakhah 22-24 of Hilkhot Temidin u-Musafin), that counting the omer is considered a commandment directly from the Torah even in this day, and it is an affirmative commandment from the Torah for each and every person to count every day (save for women, of course, who are exempt from time-related commandments, which includes counting the omer).   Cf. also Kesef Mishneh, loc. sit.