Methods of Performing Sefirat Ha-omer

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

 

            A series of letters between Rabbi Akiva Eiger and his uncle, Rabbi Binyamin Wolfe, discusses an interesting question regarding the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer (see Teshuvot R. Akiva Eiger, volume 1, sections 29-32).  Rabbi Wolfe claims that one cannot count the omer by writing the number of a given day; Rabbi Akiva Eiger maintains that writing may be a viable method for performing the counting of the omer.  This dispute may highlight intriguing elements about the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer. 

 

            The Torah (Vayikra 23:15) employs the term “U-sefartem lakhem” — “You must count for yourselves” — to define the mitzva of counting seven weeks from the second day of Pesach, when the minchat ha-omer of barley flour was offered, until (but not including) Shavuot, when the shetei ha-lechem, two leavened wheat loaves, were offered.  It is unclear whether writing constitutes actual counting.  Rabbi Wolfe cites the position of the Shev Ya’akov, who disqualifies written oaths based on a gemara on Megilla 18b (see Rambam, Hilkhot Megilla 2:6), which rules that writing Megillat Ester does not constitute a valid form of performing the mitzva of reading the megilla.  Based upon these two precedents, Rabbi Wolfe disqualifies counting the omer via writing. 

 

            His nephew, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, disagrees, distinguishing between a halakhic oath, which must be verbally articulated, and the omer, which may possibly be counted by writing the number of a given day.  In fact, a gemara on Gittin 71a disqualifies written testimony based upon a specific verse (Vayikra 5:1) that demands verbal articulation.  We may infer from this gemara that only eidut (testimony) is disqualified if it is written, since this is the case discussed in Vayikra 5:1.  Indeed, Rabbeinu Tam even allows written testimonies, limiting the gemara’s disqualification to mutes: people who can speak would be able to offer testimony in written form.  It seems that, in general, text is a valid carrier for information.  Perhaps testimony is held to a higher standard, and according to Rabbeinu Tam, even that standard applies in limited contexts.  If the written medium may convey information, presumably, counting by writing on a given day would be valid for sefirat ha-omer.

 

            This dispute between Rabbis Wolfe and Eiger may epitomize two very different models of the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer.  Is the mitzva basically geared to keeping a count of days to herald the arrival of Shavuot?  If so, there is no formal declarative element to sefira!  It functions solely on a cognitive level, to process the amount of days that have passed and to anticipate the precise arrival of Shavuot, the fiftieth day.  If so, Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s position would appear more compelling.  The Torah demands that this process of fifty days be marked in a cognitively deliberate fashion (rather than just calculating in passing); however, the manner of maintaining this count does not necessarily have to be verbal.  Just as testimony (a different form of information) may be conveyed in written form (and even if it cannot, the disqualification is technical, based on a local derasha), so may the information of the omer be marked in non-verbal form. 

 

            If, however, counting the omer constitutes a declaration (perhaps lending some identity to the actual day and not merely marking time to assure the proper identification of the fiftieth day), its structure would be more similar to oaths, which, according to many views, cannot be issued through text.  By disqualifying a written sefirat ha-omer, much like a written oath, is Rabbi Wolfe effectively elevating the omer count above the level of mere calendrical calculation?

 

            Perhaps this question pertaining to the nature of sefirat ha-omer is already inherent in different comments of the Rishonim who contrast the omer with other biblical counts.  Tosafot in Menachot (65b) and Ketubot (72b) question the existence of a berakha for counting the omer and the absence of one for a zava’s counting to determine the seventh clean day after she stops bleeding, especially since the Torah’s language regarding the latter (Vayikra 15:28) is virtually identical to the former.  Tosafot claims that the zava’s counting is always vulnerable to reversal (a new issue of blood) and therefore no berakha is recited.  Sefirat ha-omer, by contrast, is irreversible; therefore we recite a berakha.  Notably, Tosafot do not discriminate between the zava’s counting, which is performed solely to calculate the passage of time by reaching seven days of purity, and sefirat ha-omer, which is performed to establish the identity of each and every day between Pesach and Shavuot.  Presumably, Tosafot equate the two counting schemes structurally, highlighting the danger of reversal as the only difference accounting for the discrepancy in berakha. 

 

            The Ran (cited by the Taz, Orach Chayim 489) addresses a different question: why is the omer counted in conscious form (either verbally or in writing), while the zava does not actively count?  (For that matter, we also do not actively count towards yovel, although the Torah commands us to count for this purpose in Vayikra 25:8.)  The Ran claims that regarding the omer, we are more confident that the Torah requires a “minyan mamash,” an actual reckoning.  This implies that the counting of the zava and the counting for yovel are purely cognitive processes, while sefirat ha-omer is a series of declarations of time.  Therefore, we must actively designate sefirat ha-omer, while the sefirot of zava and yovel are merely mathematically calculated. 

 

INTERIM SUMMARY: Does the Torah demand that we calculate time to anticipate the precise moment of Shavuot’s arrival; or is our counting additionally geared toward creating some identity for the intervening period?  The views of R. Akiva Eiger’s uncle and of the Ran may indicate that the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer has a deeper significance than simply keeping track of the days until Shavuot. 

 

Now we shall further examine this issue by studying a second dispute: can a person fulfill the sefira requirement by listening to another’s counting? 

 

            Typically, a person can listen to a text instead of actually reciting it and thereby fulfill his or her halakhic obligation to recite the text; the principle of “shomei’a ke-oneh” renders the listener as equivalent to the speaker.  When one listens to berakhot and oaths with the proper intention, one is considered to have personally pronounced them.  Would the same allowance apply to sefirat ha-omer?

 

            The Ritz Giat (Rabbi Yitzchak Ibn Giat, author of an early medieval work which cites many positions of the Geonim) asserts that shomei’a ke-oneh would apply equally to sefira, and, certainly, logic dictates this position.  If the mitzva of reading Megillat Esther can be performed through listening, certainly the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer should accommodate a similar practice, listening in place of actually reciting the number!

 

            However, an intriguing gemara in Menachot may contradict this position.  The Gemara (65b) interprets the term “U-sefartem lakhem” (Vayikra 23:15) to mandate “sefira le-khol echad ve-echad,” a counting process for each individual. 

 

            Many Rishonim understand this as a mandate for private counting, rather than a public representative counting on the part of the beit din.  After all, counting the years of the shemitta cycle is also a mitzva, but one which devolves upon the beit din rather than upon each individual.  As such, the derasha of “sefira le-khol echad ve-echad” does not legislate the method of counting but rather the level of obligation (communal or personal).  In truth, the very issue of pubic and private counting may reveal the nature of sefira.  Were sefirat ha-omer designed merely to monitor the passage of time and accurately set the date for Shavuot, it would have been structurally identical to counting shemitta cycles and setting yovel accordingly; as such, it would have been in the domain of the beit din, which acts representatively for the entire people.  By stipulating a personal counting, “sefira le-khol echad ve-echad,” the Torah may be assigning this mitzva a function beyond time-calculation; it may be casting this process as one which establishes the inherent identity of the period.  However, this reading of Menachot yields nothing about applying shomei’a ke-oneh to sefirat ha-omer.

 

            However Rashi’s gloss on Menachot 65b, s.v. Le-khol, “That every individual is obligated to count,” has led some to maintain that he demands that each person personally perform sefirat ha-omer, rather than relying upon the principle of shomei’a ke-oneh.  A work known as Chiddushei Ha-Rashba al Menachot (though not authored by the classic Rashba, Rabbeinu Shelomo ben Adderet) attributes just such a position to Rashi. 

 

            In many ways, the basic nature of sefirat ha-omer impacts on this question.  Logically, listening should constitute a valid performance of the mitzva.  By demanding personal fulfillment of sefirat ha-omer, what message is the Torah sending about the mitzva?  If the mitzva consists of announcing a certain day’s count (and designating a certain quality to that day thereby), listening to that formula should be tantamount to reciting it, through the principle of shomei’a ke-oneh.  However, if the mitzva merely demands the calculation of time (performed in an active manner by speaking or perhaps writing), perhaps the mechanism of shomei’a ke-oneh would not be relevant. 

 

For example, many authorities do not apply shomei’a ke-oneh to shofar sounds, since, unlike berakhot and oaths, there is no actual text; perhaps shomei’a ke-oneh is only applicable in instances where a specific text exists.  Those who deny shomei’a ke-oneh for shofar articulate the mitzva of shofar as listening rather than actively creating a sound; indeed, this is the form of the berakha we recite before blowing the shofar, declaring that God “commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.”  By hearing someone else blow the shofar, one performs the base mitzva of listening to shofar sounds, but one is not considered to have created the sound, since shomei’a ke-oneh only applies to texts.  A similar logic may disqualify shomei’a ke-oneh for sefirat ha-omer: since the mitzva does not require any proclamation or formal designation, but merely active time-calculation, no distinct formula or text exists for sefira.  In the absence of any text to voice, shomei’a ke-oneh cannot apply!

 

            Of course, this issue raises an interesting question: is there, in fact, any distinct required formula for counting the omer?  The Gemara (Menachot 66a) maintains that we must count both weeks and days (as both are mentioned in the Torah).  Many Acharonim rule that if one counts days only, omitting weeks, one still performs the mitzva.  However, the Shibbolei Ha-leket (Ch. 234) indicates that in such a case, the entire counting may be flawed and must be repeated (see the Peri Chadash, O.C. 479, who amplifies this position).  Apparently, some authorities do formalize a phrasing for sefirat ha-omer, while others insist that any active counting which effects proper time-calculation is sufficient.

 

            A similar question addresses the need to recite, “Today is day X of the omer.”  Must the person actually recite the word “Today” or merely recite the appropriate number?  The Mishna Berura (489) cites a position of the Shulchan Arukh Ha-rav (the original Lubavitcher Rebbe) that one who counts the omer without beginning “Today” has not fulfilled the obligation.  A similar idea might be inferred from the words of the Taz (ibid.), who discusses a case where a person casually informs another of the day’s count before the latter has performed the mitzva.  Usually, such information constitutes counting, and the informer may no longer count with a berakha (hence the custom to inform an inquirer of the previous day’s count).  The Taz claims that if the informer conveys the current day’s count, but does not actually enunciate “Today is day X,” he has not yet fulfilled the mitzva (and may still count with a berakha).  Evidently, he also believes that the term “Today” is an essential element of counting sefira.  Had sefira been designed merely to mark the passage of time, it would be odd to demand a proclamation relating to the current day.  Merely maintaining the arithmetic continuity (by mentioning the next number) would be sufficient!

 

            Presumably, the presence of a specific formula would indicate a concrete text, to which one could apply shomei’a ke-oneh.  The presence of a formulated text may further reflect a function to sefirat ha-omer beyond merely tracking time.