By Rabbi Yerachniel 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.
This counting, called sefiras ha’omer, is actually 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).
There are many levels of understanding this mitzvah. When one has an event coming up that he is truly excited about and looking forward to, he 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 reoccur 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.
In a sense, the Torah is re-given to us yearly at Shavuot. Hence, year after year, we re-count the days from our freedom (Pesach) until the purpose of that freedom (Shavuot). We did not receive our freedom simply to be free to do whatever we desire. We were shown the miracles of Passover and were gifted with our redemption in order to have the freedom to serve God.
The counting also exhibits our anticipation and excitement to again experience the spiritual heights of Shavuot. This cycle connects Pesach and redemption to its ultimate purpose.
Going one step deeper, the period of sefiras 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 Talmud says that the “omer” offering brought on the second day of Pesach is from barley, which was considered then to primarily be animal fodder. When first leaving Egypt the Jews were, like the Egyptians, in many ways like animals in their spiritual behavior. After the growth of sefiras ha’omer we shed our animalistic tendencies and become spiritual; hence on Shavuot the offering is of wheat, food for human consumption, as we have become “mensches,” humans with the soul in charge and fit to receive the Torah.
The Mishna (Pirkei Avos, Chapter 6) enumerates 48 study habits and positive character traits through which one merits the 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, the day of Shavuot. (To study these “48 ways”, visit aish.com, click “spirituality” and choose “48 ways.” It promises to be very enlightening.)
The Kabbalistic sources provide yet another vehicle for growth through the sefiras ha’omer, based upon the concept of sefiros, or 10 levels of existence.
During these 49 days of sefiras ha’omer, it is a time to perfect ourselves in relation to the seven lower sefiros, those sefiros that reflect God’s interaction with the physical world. These seven sefiros 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 towards the magnificent holiday of Shavuot.
Rabbi Yerachniel 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.