Shiur #16: Individual and Communal Sefirat Ha-omer

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Talmudic Methodology
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Shiur #16: Individual and Communal Sefirat Ha-omer

By Rav Moshe Taragin




               Previous shiurim on the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer explored some of the discrepancies between its description in Parashat Emor and its description in Parashat Re'ei.  Emor reads as follows:


You must count for yourselves (lakhem) from the day after the holiday, from the day of your bringing the sheaf of waving; they will be seven perfect weeks.  Until the day after the seventh week, you must count fifty days; then you must bring a new flour-offering to Hashem.  From your residences, you must bring bread for waving, two….  (Vayikra 23:15-17)


By contrast, the mitzva in Re'eh is descended as follows:


Seven weeks you must count for yourself (lakh); from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain, you must begin to count seven weeks.  Then you will make the festival (chag) of Shavuot to Hashem, your God….               (Devarim 16:9-10)


One signature difference is that Emor mentions counting the weeks and the days, while Re'ei mandates only the counting of the weeks.  An additional notable difference is the emphasis of Emor upon korbanot and the omission of this element from Re'ei.  In fact, as a consequence, Parashat Emor casts sefirat ha-omer as a mechanism to determine the date of the offering of the shetei ha-lechem, whereas Parashat Re'ei utilizes sefira to set the holiday of Shavuot itself.  This shiur will consider yet a third distinction between the two sections: the subject of the mitzva.


               Parashat Emor employs the term "lakhem" — "for yourselves"—to describe the mitzva, implying that each individual is obligated to perform it; this idea is known as "sefira le-khol echad ve-echad" (see Menachot 65b).  As such, the terminology and definition are reminiscent of the mitzva of lulav, which also devolves upon each individual based upon the term "lakhem" (Vayikra 23:40; see Sukka 41b).  However, Re'ei employs a completely different term when it directs the command "lakh," mandating ONE counting – presumably on the part of a representative body, such as the court, the beit din.  This terminology parallels the counting of shemitta and yovel, articulated in Parashat Behar (Ibid. 25:8): "You must count for yourself seven weeks of years."  Clearly, the counting toward yovel, the fiftieth year, is a mitzva which must be performed only at a communal level, by the beit din.


               In his comments to Emor, the Ramban affirms that the mitzva of counting the omer applies to an individual, whereas the mitzva of counting towards yovel obligates the community.  He does wonder about the discrepancy between counting the omer, which must be performed verbally, and counting towards yovel, which presumably can be effected by mentally calculating the sequence of years.  Additionally, sefirat ha-omer requires a berakha, while no berakha upon counting towards yovel is mentioned.  The Ramban remains uncertain whether the parameters of sefirat ha-omer – verbal counting and recitation of a berakha – should be duplicated by the beit din when they count towards yovel. 


               By contrast, the Chizkuni believes – in part based upon the two discrepant portrayals of sefirat ha-omerthat two levels of the mitzva exist.  Based upon a Sifri in Re'ei, he claims that the mitzva to count the omer devolves both upon the individual AND upon the beit din.  As counting towards yovel only applies to the beit din, no berakha is recited; omer applies to individuals as well and therefore requires a berakha.  Conceivably, he would suggest the same distinction between communal counting (yovel) and personal counting (omer) to account for the need to verbalize sefirat ha-omer and the absence of this requirement for counting towards yovel. 


               The Rav zt"l amplifies this position of the Chizkuni by asserting that personal counting and communal counting each serve different functions.  Based upon the aforementioned centrality of counting the weeks in Parashat Re'ei, we may consider the communal counting as a "general" counting necessary merely to calculate the date of Shavuot.  Indeed, while the passage in Re'ei is dominated by the celebration of Shavuot, in Emor the emphasis is clearly on the korbanot.  Hence, the communal counting of Re'ei is a general "calculative" process to mark the occasion of Shavuot. (In fact, when the Jewish calendar was based on eyewitness testimony, the day of Shavuot had no relation to a given date, but rather was determined by the sighting of the new moon of the month of Nisan).  By contrast, Emor's personal counting is designed to animate the days themselves with a special experience on the individual level, assisting the personal transformation which should develop, mirroring the period between the nascent minchat ha-omer of roasted barley flour and the more developed leavened wheat loaves of the shetei ha-lechem. 


               The Chizkuni does not address the issue of verbal versus silent counting, and the Rav zt"l does not elaborate, but based on the abovementioned structural differences between communal counting and personal counting, we may postulate some applications.  As the communal counting is 'object-oriented,' to determine the date of Shavuot, it does not have to be verbalized.  However, the personal counting is geared toward bestowing a certain identity upon the actual time period and therefore must be formally articulated.  This distinction, if true, would raise the possibility of several other interesting differences.  Previous shiurim about sefirat ha-omer questioned the existence of an actual formula and the need to verbalize the counting as opposed to writing it down.  Perhaps communal counting, as it is merely calculative, can be written (or even thought) and does not demand a specific formula.  Personal counting, as it attempts to confer a special nature to this time period, may require a specific formula and may have to be verbally articulated. 


               The Rav zt"l does suggest an explanation to describe the absence of berakha from communal counting.  Inasmuch as this process is designed to determine its endpoint, Shavuot, the mitzva is not complete until that endpoint is reached.  Based upon the guidelines of Menachot 42b that berakhot are only recited at the conclusion of the performance of a mitzva, no berakha can be recited upon public counting.  Presumably, for the same reason, no berakha is recited upon public counting of shemitta cycles since the conclusion of the mitzva – determining the yovel year – is only achieved after the counting has been completed.  By contrast, counting days at a personal level is not geared primarily toward determining when Shavuot will begin; each day's counting constitutes an independent mitzva and therefore requires an independent berakha. 


               This distinction between the function of communal and personal counting may also account for the famous position of the Behag.  Tosafot in Megilla (20b, s.v. Kol) cite his opinion regarding counting the omer during daylight hours: it does not entail a performance of the mitzva, and no berakha is recited; however, it maintains the continuity of the sefira and allows future counting with a berakha.  Logically, this position is questionable.  If no mitzva is performed and no berakha recited, why should it preserve the "seven perfect weeks" and allow future counting?  A previous shiur in this series [] traced this position to the numerical integrity of the series, which is compromised if one misses an entire day.  The Chizkuni's concept, coupled with the Rav's amplification, invites a different reading of the Behag.  Perhaps, by counting during the daytime, the mitzva of counting the days is not accomplished; however, the mitzva of counting the weeks and the overall calculation may still be maintained by a daytime counting.  Thus, one preserves "seven perfect weeks" – if not each day — allowing the continuation of the counting the next day with a berakha.