Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai
Volume 2: Number 25
May 22, 2006
Mitzvah 26: Counting the Omer
Mitzvah 25 – It is a positive commandment to count seven whole weeks from the day that the Omer was brought to the Sanctuary
Hafetz Hayim: Scripture states, “and you shall count for yourselves…seven complete weeks” (Lev. 23:15) It is a religious duty to count the days along with the weeks, as Scripture says, “you shall number fifty days (ibid. 16) We begin the counting from the start of the night of the 16th of Nisan. This counting requires a blessing. If one forgets to say the blessing when he or she counts, one has still fulfilled the blessing. We count when standing but one has fulfilled the obligation to count if he or she said it sitting down. It is in force everywhere, and at every time for men but not for women.
On the surface, this Mitzvah seems easy enough. Each night, before one goes to sleep, or at the end of the Maariv, we count how many days have elapsed since the 16th of Nisan (the second day of Pesach). We count the days as well as the weeks. It goes something like, “this is the thirty-eighth day of the Omer (counting by days) making up five weeks and three days of the Omer (counting by weeks). The counting is preceded by a blessing when it is done at night. If one forgets to count at night, we can count during the day without a blessing. If one forgets a day, one can no longer say the blessing when counting because the “mitzvah” is to count all 49 days and one has been missed.
The big question is “what is an Omer and why is it important to count it?” The Omer was a measure of grain that was brought to the Temple of Jerusalem when it was standing. The Omer was a measure of the “new” grain from the new harvest. The produce of the new harvest could not be used until the Omer had been brought to the Temple. The 49 days marked the transition from Passover to Shavuot, the date that is associated with the giving of the Law at Sinai. At first, the date of Shavuot was not set on the calendar, it was the 50th day after the start of Passover. The Omer bridged that transition.
The Sages noted that the freedom that we celebrate on Passover was incomplete without the giving of the Law at Sinai. Therefore we count with anticipation the passage of the days until we celebrate the giving of the Law at Sinai. Notice, we don’t “count down” until Shavuot, we “count up” the days as a sign of our anticipation.
The counting of the days of the Omer has traditionally been a period of sadness for the Jewish people. The reason is not clear. Some say that it is a sadness born of the fact that the Temple was destroyed. Some point to a plague that killed many students of Rabbi Akiva during this time. Some say that the sadness is a result of the many tragedies that have taken place during these weeks on the Jewish calendar. In fact, there is no clear reason at all why this time has become a time of sadness and so the Law and Standards Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly has determined that there is no reason today to mark these days as a semi-mourning period and that weddings and happy occasions can be scheduled during this time except for the days between Passover and Yom HaShoah (The day we commemorate the Holocaust in Europe, the 27th of Nisan).
While some still mark these days as sad days by not performing weddings or having happy events, they also do not cut their hair during these days. There are some days that are exceptions when weddings and haircuts can be performed. These days are: Rosh Hodesh (for Iyyar and Sivan), Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day), Lag B’Omer (the 33rd day of the Omer, When the plague that killed the students of Rabbi Akiva was halted), Yom Yerushalayim (the day when, in 1967, the city of Jerusalem was reunified during the Six Day War) and the first six days of the month of Sivan (the time the People of Israel were getting ready for the revelation at Sinai).
One final note on Lag B’Omer, some say that this day marks the end of the period of sadness and that weddings and haircuts can be performed after this date. Others see this day as an exception and one continues the prohibition until the first of Sivan. There are also some who do not like to have sadness in the month of Nisan, so they begin the prohibitions after Rosh Hodesh Iyyar. It is this confused state of affairs that prompted the Law and Standards Committee to set the end of the time of semi-mourning as the day after Yom HaShoah.
Next week: Mitzvah 27-29: Resting from Work on Yom Tov.