The Torah in Parashat Emor (23:15) introduces the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer, which requires counting the forty-nine days from the 16th of Nissan (the second day of Pesach) until Shavuot. As noted already by the Ramban, our oral tradition teaches that when the Torah here requires counting forty-nine days, it refers to verbally counting each day. This is in contrast to the commands found earlier in Sefer Vayikra (15:13,28) requiring people who have experienced certain bodily emissions to count seven days before completing their purification process. Those commands are understood as requiring not verbal counting, but rather keeping track of the days so as to ensure that the purification sacrifices are brought at the proper time. With regard to the counting from the 16th of Nissan, however, our oral tradition teaches us that we must verbally count, and not merely keep track of the passage of forty-nine days.
One of the questions that arise concerning the obligation of sefirat ha-omer is whether it is defined as counting, or as an utterance. Meaning, does the Torah require the mental process of counting which must be verbally expressed, or is the mitzva to recite each day’s number. According to the second approach, sefirat ha-omer requires reciting a text, similar to obligations such as kiddush, havdala and the like. According to the first perspective, by contrast, sefirat ha-omer is viewed as more of a cognitive experience, notwithstanding the requirement to verbally enunciate the counting.
Several debates among the halakhic authorities likely hinge on this question. Most obviously, perhaps, is the discussion concerning one who recites the Hebrew text of the counting, but does not understand what he says. As a general rule, when Halakha requires the recitation of a text, one fulfills the obligation by reciting the Hebrew text regardless of whether he understands what he recites (Mishna, Sota 32a; Tosfot, s.v. keri’at shema). On this basis, Rav Yaakov Emden writes in his Mor U-ktzi’a (vol. 2, 489) that it stands to reason that one fulfills the sefirat ha-omer obligation by reciting the count in Hebrew even if he does not understand what he recites. Rav Yaakov Emden questions the ruling of the Magen Avraham (489:2) who writes that one does not fulfill his obligation in such a case. The Magen Avraham, apparently, understood that sefirat ha-omer requires not the recitation of a text, but rather the cognitive experience of counting, and thus by definition, one does not fulfill the mitzva if he recites a text of the counting which he does not understand.
Another possible application of this question is the issue addressed by many writers concerning the possibility of fulfilling the sefirat ha-omer obligation by hearing somebody else count. The Magen Avraham (489:2) infers from a responsum of the Rashba that although one may hear the berakha before sefirat ha-omer recited by somebody else instead of reciting it himself, the counting itself must be done personally, and the mitzva cannot be fulfilled by hearing somebody else count. Normally, when it comes to obligations to recite a text, the principle of shomei’a ke-oneh allows one to hear somebody else recite the text and thereby be considered as though he himself recited it. According to the Magen Avraham, this rule does not apply to sefirat ha-omer. Consistent with his aforementioned position vis-à-vis one who does not understand the text of the counting, the Magen Avraham understood that the sefirat ha-omer obligation is not defined as the recitation of a text. It requires the cognitive experience of counting, and thus the rule of shomei’a ke-oneh, which halakhically equates hearing a text with reciting it, is inapplicable, as the cognitive act of counting must be done personally. The Chafetz Chayim, in Bei’ur Halakha, shows that some Rishonim in fact allow fulfilling the sefirat ha-omer obligation by hearing the counting. These authorities apparently understood that sefirat ha-omer is defined as the recitation of a text, such that the general principle of “shomei’a ke-oneh” is applicable.
Finally, this conceptual question may affect the status of an uncertain counting. If a person is, for example, unsure whether the current day is the 20th or 21st day of the omer, should he count both numbers in order to ensure to fulfill his obligation? Two Acharonim – Rav Shimon Shkop (Sha’arei Yosher, 1:5) and Rav Avraham Dov Kahana-Shapiro (Devar Avraham, 1:34) – maintained that “counting,” by definition, requires certainty. If one is unsure about the day’s number, then he cannot, by definition, perform an act of “counting,” and thus counting both possibilities is of no avail and does not satisfy the obligation. This argument, seemingly, works off the premise that sefirat ha-omer requires cognitive counting, and not the mere recitation of a text. It stands to reason that if we would define the obligation as the recitation of a text, then one who is unsure which day it is should, indeed, recite both possible texts, and he thereby fulfills his obligation.
(Based on Ha-mitzvot Ba-parasha, Parashat Emor, 5776)