April 28, 2003 – Number 10
From Pesach to the holiday of Shavuot, we count the days of the Omer. There are two main reasons given for this count. The first reason has to do with the grain harvest. The grain harvest in ancient Israel began at the time of Pesach and continued for seven weeks. Each day a sheaf of grain, the measure needed was called “an omer,” was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicated there as a sacrifice to G-d. The other reason given was one that we can understand today given the situation in Iraq. On Pesach our people became free of the slavery of Pharaoh. But their freedom was incomplete. Or as one of my colleagues noted, “they were emancipated, but they were not free.” True freedom comes with commitment to the law. The law in Judaism is the Torah and the commemoration of the giving of the Torah is the Festival of Shavuot. Our ancient ancestors counted the days from the time of their emancipation until the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. This is the count that we observe today.There was some rabbinic controversy as to when the count actually began. The Torah is unclear if the count should begin the day after the first Shabbat after Pesach begins, or does it begin with the “day that is like Shabbat” that is the day after the first day of Pesach. The difference would normally be only a few days and it is difficult to understand why the Sages argued so passionately for one or the other. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, the former chancellor of JTSA and scholar of the age, suggested that there was an economic reason for the dispute. The grain from the new year could not be used at all until the first omer was brought to the Temple. Rabbi Finkelstein argued that the reason some sages did not want to delay the start of the Omer was to bring the new grain to market as quickly as possible. The grain from the old year was probably scarce and expensive and there would be an immediate price drop once the new grain hit the market. The issue was therefore an economic one that pitted the wealthy sages against those with less means.
The custom of counting the Omer takes on two methods of counting. Counting days and counting weeks. Each day is numbered for the entire seven weeks from one to forty-nine. In addition we count the weeks by counting “two weeks and one day…. two weeks and two days….two weeks and six days…. three weeks.” There is a blessing that is recited before the count in the evening and the count should be made after the Kaddish Shalem and before the Alenu of the Maariv service. If one forgets to count at night, one can count all through the next day without the blessing and pick up the count again that night. If, for any reason, one skips a day, than one can no longer count with the blessing.
Since the destruction of the Temple, we no longer bring in any offerings. The only ritual left is to count the days. Shavuot is always the 50th day, that is the day after the count is finished. If the count had started with Shabbat, there would be no fixed day for Shavuot. But since the custom is to begin the count at the end of the first day of Pesach, Shavuot will always fall on the sixth day of the month of Sivan.
Next week: Celebrations and the Omer