The 49ers never drop the ball. But how many of us make it through 49 nights from the second night of Pesach all the way to Shavuot without losing count? Sometimes we may never even make it onto the field. We are so busy preparing for second night Seder that we might miss evening prayers in the synagogue and forget to count day one.
Sefirat Haomer, the counting of the 49 days, connects the festival of Pesach, which celebrates the Exodus, to the festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. While still enslaved in Egypt, the Jews were told that following the Exodus, “Ta’avdun et haElokim al hahar hazeh,” they would receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. The extra Hebrew letter “nun” appended to the word “taavdun” was a message to the enslaved Jews that 50 days after the Exodus, their status would be changed at Sinai from servants of Pharaoh to servants of God. In anticipation of the revelation, the Jews began to count 50 days toward Shavuot.
Sefirat Haomer is linked to three concepts: (i) the Omer sacrifice, (ii) chadash, or new grain and (iii) the two loaves of bread brought on Shavuot as a first harvest offering to God, bikurim L’Hashem.
The Omer Sacrifice: On the evening preceding the 16th day of Nisan, the Jews of Temple times would go out into the fields and cut sheaves of barley. The barley would then be brought into the Temple and ground into flour on the 16th day. One-tenth of the quantity of the ground barley was taken and mixed with oil and incense and waved in all directions before the Altar and then burnt on the Altar, together with a male lamb in its first year.
Chadash: Until the Omer sacrifice was brought on the eve of the 16th of Nisan of the current year as described, it was prohibited to eat anything made of barley, wheat, oats, rye or spelt crops, which had been planted or had taken root after the 16th of Nissan of the previous year. Such forbidden crops were called Chadash and could be harvested and eaten only after the completion of the Omer sacrifice.
Bikurim: On the festival of Shavuot, the first harvest wheat offering was brought consisting of two loaves of baked bread, together with seven sheep, one bull and two rams.
The Torah asks us to begin counting seven complete weeks, starting on the evening preceding the 16th day of Nisan, which is the night of the second Seder. The Rambam explains that seven weeks were required to raise the Jewish nation out of the depths of despondency to which they had sunk during their slavery. Whereas one week is sufficient to restore an individual to his natural state of divine purity, the entire nation required seven weeks. The Omer sacrifice of loose barley flour was more fitting for animal consumption than human consumption and symbolizes the depths to which the Jewish slaves had sunk. The bikurim sacrifice of wheat baked bread symbolizes the refined spiritual heights they reached by Shavuot. After the destruction of the Temple, the Omer sacrifice became inapplicable.
What about chadash? Is one permitted to harvest or eat chadash prior to the day the Omer sacrifice would have been offered had the Temple not been destroyed? And what about Sefirat Ha’Omer? If it is linked to the Omer sacrifice, why has it survived the destruction of the Temple? Whether or not chadash applies outside Israel depends on the interpretation of the words “b’chol moshvoteichem” in the verse (Leviticus 23:14) that prohibits chadash “in all your dwellings.” According to the rabbis, the words “in all your dwellings” do not apply outside the Land of Israel but rather to the Land of Israel after the first 15 years of its conquest and division by Joshua. According to Rabbi Eliezer, however, the words “b’chol moshvoteichem” give chadash a worldwide application even today. Rabbi Eliezer’s view is adopted by most of the Rishonim. The Shulchan Aruch rules that chadash applies inside and outside Israel and to Jewish and non-Jewish owned lands. Nevertheless, based on the Rema as clarified by the Shach, one may eat chadash outside of Israel on the strength of the halachic rule of double doubt and the halachic rule of the majority. The double doubt is as follows: (a) perhaps the grain took root in the previous year, and (b) even if not, it can be assumed that the grain took root at least in time before the 16th of Nissan. The rule of the majority is that most grain has been stored for a long time and comes from previous year’s crops. As for Sefirat Ha’omer, the majority opinion (with which the Rambam disagrees) is that it has no Biblical application today and was instituted by the rabbis zecher l’Mikdash, in memory of the Temple.
The Torah requires one to count both the days and the weeks of the Omer. On the first day one counts “Yom Echad La’omer” and not “Yom Rishon Laomer,” so as to make it perfectly clear that the first day of the Omer is the day following the first day of Pesach and not the day following Shabbat. In so doing we reject the opinion of the Saducees who interpreted the words “mimachorat haShabbat” (Leviticus 23:16) to mean Sunday. Because the Torah requires one to count “seven complete weeks,” one should count at the beginning of the day, which, in Jewish law begins on the preceding night. The optimum time to recite Sefirat HaOmer is after Maariv immediately following the appearance of three stars. If, however, it is difficult to find a minyan at that late hour, one should recite Sefirat HaOmer with an earlier Maariv minyan, without a blessing, rather than wait and count alone. On Friday night and Yom Tov night, Sefirat HaOmer is recited in the synagogue after Kiddush and at home before Kiddush. On Motzei Shabbat, Sefirat HaOmer is recited after Kaddish Titkabal and before Havdalah. Based on the verse referring to “standing grain,” one should count standing. One must count oneself—Usefartem lachem—and one cannot rely on someone else to count on one’s behalf. Women are not obliged to count but may volunteer to count the Omer with a blessing. The verse that requires one to count “seven complete weeks” means that if one missed a whole day and did not remember to count until the following night, one can no longer recite the blessing before counting on the following days. If, however, one remembered one’s omission during the same day, including at twilight, before nightfall, one may count that day, without the blessing, and on the following days one may count with a blessing. If one is not sure whether or not one counted the previous day, one may continue to count the following days with a blessing. If one is asked at twilight what day of the Omer it will be tonight, one should reply with yesterday’s count, but if asked before twilight one may reply with tonight’s count. According to some opinions, a rabbi or a chazan who leads the counting of the Omer may recite the blessing even if he knows that he omitted a previous day’s count. A person who crosses the dateline and gains or loses a day may, according to certain halachic opinions, disregard the local count and continue counting as he would back home. Although originally a time of anticipated joy, certain tragedies that occurred during the Sefirah time have lent it a more ominous mood.
Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received semichah in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Rav Dovid Feinstein, zt’’l. This article is an extract from Raphael’s book “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerayim” available for purchase at www.amazon.com/dp/057816731X and “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed” available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Eyal-Guide-Shabbat-Festivals-Seder/dp/0615118992. Questions for the author can be sent to [email protected]