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Wednesday, May 12, 2021
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When is the earliest time to count the Omer at a Sephardic beit knesset? Before addressing this issue, we must outline a critical halachic issue, the period of bein hashmashot.

Bein Hashmashot

The Gemara refers to the period between sunset (shkiya) and the appearance of three medium-size stars (tzeit hakochavim) as bein hashmashot. The Gemara (Shabbat 34b) writes that there is a safek (doubt) about this time, whether it is defined as day or night. Thus, the Gemara concludes, Halacha imposes the stringencies of both days upon us. For example, this is why we begin, for example, Shabbat and Yom Tov at shkiya and end these days only at tzeit hakochavim.

While there is great debate about the precise contours of bein hashmashot, Yalkut Yosef defines this time (for Sephardic Jews) as lasting between 13½ and 20 minutes according to baseline halacha.

Sefirat Haomer: A Torah- or Rabbinic-Level Obligation?

The question of whether we may count the Omer during bein hashmashot depends, primarily, on the debate among the Rishonim whether Sefirat Haomer constitutes a Torah-level obligation in the absence of the Beit Hamikdash. The Ran (in the conclusion of his commentary to the Rif to Masechet Pesachim) notes that most Rishonim agree with Tosafot (Menachot 66a s.v. Zecher) that Sefirat Haomer today is only a rabbinic obligation. However, Rambam (Hilchot Temidim Umusafim 7:22) believes that Sefirat Haomer remains a Torah-level obligation even in the Beit Hamikdash’s tragic absence. A significant number of Rishonim concur with the Rambam, including the Sefer HaChinuch, Raavya and Ohr Zarua.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that all agree that the Korban Omer offering generates the mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer as is explicit in the Torah (Vayikra 23:15 and Devarim 16:9). Tosafot thus believe that in the absence of the Korban Omer, there is no Torah-level obligation to count the Omer. The Rambam, however, believes that the 16th of Nissan also generates the mitzvah to count the Omer. Thus, even in the absence of the Korban Omer, the Torah-level obligation to count the Omer remains in effect.

Sefirat Haomer During Bein Hashmashot

Tosafot (ad. loc.) note that since Sefirat Haomer today is only a rabbinic-level obligation, we may count Sefira even during bein hashmashot. Bein Hashmashot is safek night, and regarding a rabbinic law, one may resolve a safek leniently (safek derabanan likula). Tosafot add that it is preferable to count the Omer during bein hashmashot because of temimot, that Sefirat Haomer should be whole and complete. The Gemara (Menachot 66a) requires counting the Omer at night because the pasuk (Vayikra 23:15) describes the Omer counting as temimot. Tosafot understand this Gemara as teaching that the earlier in the evening we count the Omer, the better. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that not only is it a mitzvah to count the days, it is also a mitzvah for the days to be counted. Thus, the earlier we count the Omer, the more of the day is counted.

The Rambam rejects Tosafot’s assertion that one may count the Omer during bein hashmashot because he believes that Sefirat Haomer today is a Torah-level obligation. One must act stringently in case of doubt regarding a Torah law (safek d’oraita lichumra). Moreover, even Tosafot express reservations about the preference to count the Omer during bein hashmashot. The Ran (ad. loc.) explains that it is counterintuitive to say that when Sefirat Haomer’s status as a mitzvah was downgraded to a rabbinic-level obligation, stringency was introduced to count the Omer earlier. Furthermore, the Ran notes that one should not deliberately introduce doubt when performing mitzvot. The Ran concludes that bedi’eved, one who counted the Omer during bein hashmashot need not repeat it. However, lechatchila (initially) one should not count the Omer during bein hashmashot.

Ashkenazic and Sephardic Practice

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 489:2) rules that “it is proper” to count only after tzeit hakochavim. However, Shulchan Aruch believes that baseline halacha permits counting the Omer beginning from shkiya. Rav Karo’s ruling is consistent with his conclusion (Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 489 s.v. Katav Od Avi HaEzri) that Sefirat HaOmer today is a rabbinic obligation.

The Biur Halacha (ad. loc.) and Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 489:7) note that it is common practice to follow the stricter approach and wait until tzeit hakochavim to count the Omer. Interestingly, the Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 489 s.v. UMah SheKatav UZeman HaSefira) also notes that the common custom is to wait until tzeit hakochavim to count the Omer.

Rav Aharon Adler reports that Rav Soloveitchik told him that one may rely on Tosafot and count the Omer during bein hashmashot, especially in light of the opinion in Tosafot that this is the preferable way to count the Omer. Counting the Omer after a minyan that prays Arvit during bein hashmashot eliminates the concern of forgetting to count the Omer after tzeit hakochavim.

Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechave Daat 1:23) similarly records the custom in Jerusalem to count the Sefira during bein hashmashot. He rules that if the tzibbur is unwilling to remain in shul until tzeit hakochavim, they may count the Sefira during bein hashmashot since people might forget to count after tzeit.

Rav Ovadia does prefer that the tzibur wait until tzeit to count the Omer. Teaneck’s Jack Varon reports that the longtime leader of the Seattle Sephardic Jewish community, Rav Solomon Maimon, counted Sefira only after tzet hakochavim. Jack notes that Rav Maimon was steadfast even in his elder years (he died in 2019 at the age of 100) to count the Omer only after tzeit hakochavim, which in Seattle can be quite late.

Rav Ovadia Yosef writes that for Sefirat HaOmer, tzet hakochavim is 15 minutes after shkiya.

Absent the minhag Yerushalayim to count after shkiya, Rav Ovadia would not have permitted reciting a bracha on Sefirat HaOmer before tzet hakochavim. Although counting after shkiya is allowed according to Maran Hashulchan Aruch, Sephardim refrain from a questionable bracha, even if the Shulchan Aruch permits its recital.

Sephardic poskim often invoke safek brachot l’hakel (sabal) to omit a bracha even if there is only slight concern for a bracha l’vatala. In our case, however, the Jerusalem practice ameliorates worry for an unnecessary bracha. Sephardic poskim do not say sabal when there is a minhag to recite the bracha.

Conclusion

It is undoubtedly preferable for both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews to count Sefirat HaOmer only after tzeit hakochavim. This preference is especially relevant for Sephardim, who need to wait only 15 minutes after shkiya for tzeit hakochavim in this context. However, suppose a rav and community leaders assess a community’s need to count immediately after shkiya. In that case, they have a right to do so following both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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