By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
I have learned that the period of time after Pesach is called the “counting of the omer.” We are said to be counting the days from Passover until the holiday of Shavuot. What is the point of this counting, now that we have calendars and can simply look up the date of Shavuot? Is it one of those things we do just because they used to do it, or is there some other reason for doing this count?
— Marc W.
The counting you are referring to, which begins on the second night of Passover, is called sefirat ha’omer. It is one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah: “You shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day (Pesach), from the day when you bring the Omer (offering) … seven weeks … ” (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:15). This means that we are meant to actually stand up and count, day by day, the 49 days from the second day of Pesach until the Shavuot holiday.
There are several levels of understanding of this mitzvah. When one has an event coming up that person is truly excited about and looking forward to, the person counts the days until that time arrives.
For the Jewish people, the most exciting time in our history was receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. This is the time we achieved the greatest intimacy of all time with the Almighty. At that time, we became an eternal nation and received our “marching orders” for the upcoming thousands of years; how to be a light among the nations and elevate ourselves to unique spiritual greatness.
Although this transpired more than 3,300 years ago, our tradition teaches that our holidays are not mere celebrations of historical occurrences. We have often explained in this column that our holidays recur yearly; the same spiritual light revealed by the almighty at this time of our history returns when we arrive at the same time of the year it occurred so long ago.
In a sense, the Torah is given to us yearly at Shavuot. Hence, year after year, we again count the days from our freedom (Pesach) until the purpose of that freedom (Shavuot). This shows our anticipation and excitement to again experience the spiritual heights we attained on Shavuot. It also connects Pesach and redemption to its ultimate purpose.
Going one step deeper, the period of sefirat ha’omer is one of growth. In order to receive the Torah, we need to transform ourselves to be worthy receptacles fit for that great merit. The Mishna (Pirkei Avot, Chapter 6) enumerates 48 study habits and positive character traits through which one merits acquisition of Torah. The 49 days of counting are a period of acquiring these 48 ways and, on the last day, fusing them into oneself, ready to receive the Torah on Day 50: Shavuot.
(To study these 48 ways, visit aish.com, press “spirituality” and choose “48 ways.” It promises to be very enlightening.)
The Kabbalistic sources provide yet another vehicle for growth through the sefirat ha’omer, based upon the concept of sefirot, or 10 levels of existence. During these 49 days of sefirat ha’omer, it is a time to perfect ourselves in relation to the seven lower sefirot — those that reflect God’s interaction with the physical world. These seven sefirot interact with each other, like DNA, where every cell of the body has within it the DNA of every other part of the body. Each sefirah contains all the aspects of each other sefirah within itself, hence the seven multiples of seven, or 49 days of counting.
In order to tap into this spiritual energy we must actually count, connecting to the day and marking it as a time of growth and introspection, taking us forward from Pesach toward Shavuot.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.