Shiur #13: Writing the Omer

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Talmudic Methodology
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #13: Writing the Omer


By 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 teshuvat Rebbi Akiva Eiger volume 1 sections 29-32).  Rabbi Wolfe claims that one cannot count the omer by writing the actual number of a given day; Rabbi Akiva Eiger himself 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-sfartem 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 actual number of a given day.  In fact, a gemara on Gittin 71a disqualifies written testimony based upon a specific verse (Vayikra 5:1) which demands verbal articulation.  We may infer from this gemara that only eidut (testimony) is disqualified if it is written, since this is the case of 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 mark or 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 which 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 which 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 by 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, the same applies to counting towards yovel, although the Torah commands us to count for this purpose in Vayikra 25:8.)  The Ran claims that by the omer, we are more confident that the Torah requires a "minyan mammash," 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. 


            The views of Rebbi 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.  We will continue to examine this theme in the coming shiurim.