The Agricultural and Historical Significance of Sefirat HaOmer

  • Harav Yaakov Medan


          The Agricultural and Historical Significance
                    of Sefirat Ha-Omer

                    By Rav Yaakov Medan
                Translated by Zev Jacobson

	Each of the chagim (holidays) has a dual significance
which is rooted and expressed in the duality of our calendar.
The Jewish calendar is based on the movement of both the sun
and the moon, in contradistinction to the solar calendar of
ancient Egypt (and the Western world) and the lunar calendar
of ancient Babylon (and the Islamic world).  We calculate the
months according to the waxing and waning of the moon (29 or
30 days to each month), but adjust the years based on the
cycle of the sun and the seasons.  (The lunar year is only 354
days long, as opposed to the 365 days of the solar year.  In
order that Pesach should fall out in the spring, we add an
extra month every few years.)

	Correspondingly, each holiday has both a historical and
an agricultural significance.  Pesach commemorates Yetzi'at
Mitzrayim (the Exodus) and marks the beginning of the barley
harvest.  Shavuot commemorates Matan Torah (the Giving of the
Torah) and marks the beginning of the wheat harvest.  Sukkot
commemorates the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness and
marks the season when the produce is gathered in from the
fields.  The agricultural significance of the chagim is
connected with the solar cycle that determines the seasons and
represents the stable, natural, unchanging flow of time.
However, the historical element of each holiday is linked to a
specific day of a specific month and is, thus, connected with
the lunar cycle - one that involves constant flux as expressed
in the appearance and disappearance of the moon.  This
phenomenon is representative of the waning and waxing of the
nations of the world who rise to power and then fade away.

	The combination of these two cycles into one unit is an
assertion of faith: Hashem, who is responsible for the
creation of the world and who causes plants to grow, is the
one who controls history.  The God of Nature is He who
redeemed us from Egypt.  However, there is also a unique link
between each festival and the time of year that it is
celebrated - as will presently be explained.

	The Torah (Devarim 16:1) assigns great importance to the
period of the year when Pesach must be celebrated - Chodesh
Ha-Aviv (Spring).  The Festival of Freedom, which commemorates
the unique historical event of the Exodus, must coincide with
the start of the annual agricultural season - the harvest.
What is the connection between the two?

	For the six months from Sukkot until Pesach, the farmer
is a slave to his land.  He must clear the fields of stones,
plough, sow and water without seeing the fruits of his labor.
However, when the middle of Nissan comes, a dramatic change
takes place.  The farmer is transformed from one who "sows in
tears" to one who "reaps in joy."  He is now master of his
land and earns his daily bread from it.  This new-found
freedom commences on Pesach when the barley harvest begins, as
beforehand one is not permitted to benefit from the current
year's grain.  Thus, the two freedoms - agricultural and
historical - go hand-in-hand.  A barley offering (korban omer)
is brought in the Temple on the second day of Pesach,
expressing our recognition that it is God who causes the rains
to fall and the grain to grow, just as it is He who redeemed
us from bondage.

	We are commanded to count fifty days from Pesach until
Shavuot (Vayikra 23:15-18).  This is called Sefirat Ha-Omer
(counting of the Omer) and is so termed because it commences
on the day that the Omer is offered.  From the verses in the
Torah, it seems that the significance of this counting relates
purely to the agricultural cycle: we mark off the days between
the barley offering of Pesach and the wheat offering (shtei
ha-lechem - the two loaves) which is brought on Shavuot.
Since barley ripens before wheat, these fifty days represent
the interlude when only barley is being harvested.   The
farmer eagerly anticipates the new crop that he will soon
harvest.  In the words of our Sages, he waits as "a bride
awaits her wedding day."

	Barley is used primarily as animal fodder; it is the
superior wheat that will serve as food for him and his family.
Furthermore, the barley offering permits the current year's
grain to be eaten only outside of the Temple; whereas the
wheat offering permits it to be used in the Temple itself as
part of the sacrificial service.  Just as a bride is not
satisfied with her engagement to her groom, but awaits their
marriage, so too the farmer awaits the time when his grain
will enter the House of God - symbolic of the close
relationship between man his Maker.  With every day that
passes, the farmer gives thanks to Hashem for having sustained
and blessed him in the inheritance that was promised to his
forefathers.

	However, our Sages identify Shavuot as the date of the
giving of the Torah, and it is the historical significance of
the day that lends the central meaning to the analogy of a
"bride anticipating her wedding day."  The Exodus is compared
to an engagement between God and Israel.  By redeeming us from
bondage, He chose us to be His people, His beloved (see Shir
Ha-Shirim, Yirmiyahu 2:2, and Hoshea ch. 2).  However, the
union was only sealed at the foot of Mount Sinai where we
voluntarily accepted the Torah, thus forging a special bond
with God.  Upon leaving Egypt, the Jews counted each day that
brought them closer to Shavuot, to the intimate connection
that they yearned to have.

	Every year, we relive this feeling of longing and
anticipation.  We eagerly await the festival of Shavuot when
our covenant with Hashem is re-affirmed and renewed.  We hope
and pray that the bread of affliction - the poor man's bread
of Pesach - is transformed into the full, rich loaves of the
Shavuot service.  Thus, Sefirat Ha-Omer as a period of
transformation and longing is relevant in both the
agricultural and the historical senses.  The satisfaction and
fulfillment of Shavuot is also to be experienced in both these
realms, although the Sages place more emphasis on the
historical overtones of the day.  Note, however, that the
focus of the historical experience is not merely recollection
of the past, but reliving it in the present.

	It is somewhat puzzling that while the Torah speaks
directly of both aspects of Pesach - agricultural and
historical - it focuses solely on the agricultural
significance of Sefirat Ha-Omer and Shavuot.  In fact, it is
the Sages who calculate that Matan Torah took place on the
selfsame day that we are commanded to offer the shtei ha-
lechem.  Why does the Torah not mention the historical
significance of the day at all?

	While it is true that there is no direct mention of
Shavuot as the commemoration of the revelation at Sinai, the
connection is very strongly hinted at in the verses by the use
of Sefirat Ha-Omer as the link between Pesach and Shavuot, as
will be explained.

	 Sefirat Ha-Omer is very similar to the mitzva of Sefirat
Ha-Yovel, whereby we are enjoined to count 49 years and
consecrate the 50th year as the Yovel (Jubilee).  This
similarity is expressed both in the verses themselves (compare
Vayikra 23:15-16 to 25:8-10) and in the laws relevant to the
actual counting.  (For example, with regard to Sefirat Ha-
Omer, we are commanded to count seven sets of seven days -
each set comprising a week; with regard to Sefirat Ha-Yovel,
we are commanded to count seven sets of seven years - each set
comprising one shemitta cycle where the ground is worked for
six years and left untouched in the seventh year.  In both
cases it is a mitzva to count each day or year AND each
individual set.)  It is clear that the similarity between the
two is not accidental and by taking a closer look at Sefirat
Ha-Yovel, we can better understand Sefirat Ha-Omer.

	On Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year, a shofar is blown
throughout the land to proclaim the Yovel year.  Another term
for shofar is "yovel," and hence the name of the year.  The
basis of this practice has its roots in Matan Torah, where
Hashem announced His presence with "the powerful sound of the
shofar" (Shemot 19:19) and signified that His presence had
departed from the mountain by a long shofar blast ("bimshokh
ha-YOVEL," Shemot 19:13).  The sound of the shofar on Yovel
parallels the shofar at Sinai and, thus, the counting of the
Yovel is strongly reminiscent of the build-up to Matan Torah.

	Furthermore, on the Sukkot following the shemitta year,
there is a mitzva of Hak'hel (Gathering) where every able-
bodied man, woman and child is enjoined to make a pilgrimage
to Jerusalem and gather together to hear words of Torah from
the mouth of the king (Devarim 31:10-12).  The purpose of
Hak'hel, in the words of the scriptures, is: "In order that
you may hear and in order that you may learn to fear the Lord
your God."  This, too, is cited as the purpose of Matan Torah
(see, e.g., Shemot 20:18), where the entire nation congregated
to hear the words of Hashem.

	In the Yovel year, this assumed greater significance, as
all slaves were freed on Yom Kippur and were, thus, able to
participate in the communal acceptance of the Torah that took
place on Hak'hel.  Thus, the Sefirat Ha-Yovel was in fact a
countdown to the freedom from slavery and embracing of the
Torah.  By way of comparison, it follows that Sefirat Ha-Omer
expresses the same idea.

	The special nature of the Sefira - preparation for the
bond between God and His people - is strongly hinted at by the
Korban Ha-Omer itself.  There are only two instances when an
offering of barley is brought: the Omer offering and the Sota
offering (brought by a woman whose fidelity to her husband is
under suspicion).  The period between the Exodus and the
Revelation at Sinai is one of trial.  The betrothed (Israel)
is tested to verify the extent of her loyalty to the groom
(God).  Only once her unquestioning faithfulness has been
proven can the union be finalized.

	In a similar vein, we find only two places where the name
of God is cast into water: At the sota ceremony and at Mara.
(After crossing the Red Sea, the Jews wandered for three days
without water.  When they came to Mara and found a well whose
water was too bitter to drink, they complained to Moshe and he
was instructed by Hashem to cast a piece of wood into the
water to sweeten it - Shemot 15:22-25.  According to the
midrash, the wood contained the name of God.)  In both cases,
the betrothed must prove herself and her faithfulness.

	The allusion to the Sota ceremony makes it clear that
Israel were not redeemed to be free from responsibility.
Rather, we were taken out of bondage in order to assume the
difficult task of being "a light unto the Nations."
Nevertheless, as our Sages state in Pirkei Avot: "There is
none as free as he who is totally involved with the Torah."

	This is the message of the Omer - in order to be worthy
of the gifts of Hashem, both on a material (agricultural)
plane and on a spiritual plane (Matan Torah) - we must prepare
ourselves correctly.


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