Thursday, May 3, 2007

Do You Count?

It doesn’t happen very often, but there’s a mitzvah in this week’s parsha that we are currently engaged in: it’s the mitzvah to count all the days from the second day of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot, the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai (cf. Vayikra 23:15-16). This mitzvah is called Sefirat HaOmer. It sounds simple enough, but let’s take a deeper look.

What is the idea of counting days? The “Chinuch” (Barcelona, 13th cent.) weighs in on this basic question.
The concept, simply stated, is this: The raison d’etre of the Jews is the Torah… This is why the Jews were redeemed from Egypt – in order to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai and fulfill [its mitzvot]…
We were commanded to count from the second day of Passover until the day of the giving of the Torah as an expression of intense longing for this exalted day. We are “like a slave pining for the shade” (cf. Job 7:2), who continuously counts [the days] until the time of his desire arrives and he is freed, for counting demonstrates that a person’s only hope and sole desire is to get to that point in time.
According to the Chinuch, the counting accomplishes two things. First, it links Passover with Shavuot, underscoring the fact that the purpose of the Exodus was to bring us to Sinai. Second, counting the days is an expression of longing for Shavuot when we will receive the Torah. A compelling interpretation, no doubt, but far from the only one.

Others view the counting of the Omer as delineating a period of personal growth. Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim vol. 3 pg. 44) quotes the anonymous (17th century?) Kabbalistic work, Chemdas Yamim:
During these days every single Jew should clear some time from their daily routine and set a time for studying [Torah] wisdom and Mussar (Jewish ethics) and [internalizing the] fear of Heaven.
The idea here is that every year on the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai there is a replay. Every year on Shavuot, G-d once again offers the Torah to the Jewish people and presents us with an opportunity to forge a deeper connection with Judaism. Accordingly, the period of Sefirat HaOmer leading up to Shavuot is a time to prepare ourselves for receiving the Torah. Rabbi Ahron Kotler goes so far as to relate the 49 days of the Omer with the 48 prerequisites for acquiring Torah (cf. Ethics of our Fathers chap. 6). The 49th day is in its own category as a day of sanctity (cf. Mishnas Reb Ahron vol. 3, pg. 13). But there is more.

The mitzvah is to count each day for seven weeks. Seven weeks is 7x7 and this has profound significance in Kabbalistic thought. Each week is said to correspond with one of the seven lower “Sefirot.” Sefirot are ethereal “pipes” through which G-d relates to His universe. Unless you happen to be an overage rock star living in L.A., you might not have heard of the Sefirot. A few, albeit vague, words of explanation are in order.

Sefirot exist to create some “distance” between G-d and His universe – a kabbalistic enigma called Tzimtzum that we will most definitely not get into here. (Suffice it to say that it’s not what it sounds like.) As the infinite light of G-d’s goodness flows down towards our world, the Sefirot break it down into a spectrum of seven basic characteristics: Chesed (kindness), Gevurah (strength), Tiferet (beauty), Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malchut (nobility). (I freely admit my inability to translate some of these Kabbalistic terms in meaningful ways.) Each Sefirah is further broken down into seven mini-Sefirot of its own, so that’s 7x7. The Kabbalists teach that each of the 49 days of Sefirat HaOmer corresponds to a particular divine attribute. Esoteric as all this sounds, it can be found in any Siddur. (C.f. pg. 286 in the Artscroll, untranslated. Apparently, I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what these words mean!)

The masters of Mussar, especially those who were immersed in Kabbalah, saw the days of Sefirat HaOmer as a time for refining our own moral and spiritual character. Human beings were designed in G-d’s image and that means we have the potential to emulate divine attributes. The Jew who lives a life of imitatio Deo is able to receive, understand and observe Torah with far greater ease than a self-indulgent good-for-nothing. The counting of Sefirat HaOmer thus serves as a daily reminder to refine our character in preparation for the great opportunity that is Shavuot. The more beautiful, kind, strong, noble, etc. we are, the more successful we will be when the day of Sinai arrives.

While the Chinuch saw Sefirat HaOmer as a way to forge a link and build anticipation from Passover to Shavuot, the masters of Mussar and Kabbalah viewed each day of the count as a call to personal growth. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly different perspectives.

Like most other mitzvot, a blessing is recited immediately prior to fulfilling the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer. Every day before you count, you first say this blessing:
Blessed is the Lord, our G-d, king of the world, who sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us concerning Sefirat HaOmer.
However, there is a very old and very basic debate about what happens if a person forgets to count one day. The “Halachot Gedolot” (9th cent.) rules that a person who misses a day can no longer recite the blessing on this mitzvah. R. Hai Gaon (969-1038) and Rabbenu Yonah (d. 1264) disagree. They believe that missing a day has no effect and the forgetful Jew continues to count the remaining days with a blessing (Tur O.C. 489:8).

The rational of the Halachot Gedolot is not hard to figure out. He considers the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer to be one giant mitzvah with 49 component parts. The mitzvah is to count all the days from Passover to Shavuot, so if you miss a day, it’s game over. (To continue reciting the blessing would be tantamount to taking G-d’s name in vain.) Those who disagree with the Halachot Gedolot are of the opinion that there are really 49 little mitzvot here. Each day is its own mitzvah, so missing one day has no effect on the next. The counting therefore continues with the requisite introductory blessing.

This debate has never been resolved (cf. Mishnah Berurah 489:38; however, the Beit Yosef O.C. 489:8 brands the Halachot Gedolot as “baffling and improbable”). It follows that a person who missed a day is obligated to continue counting the following days, but without a beracha in deference to the opinion of the Halachot Gedolot (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 489:8).

It would seem that this Halachic debate is rooted in the more fundamental question of why we are counting. The Halachot Gedolot believes that Sefirat HaOmer is one big mitzvah because he agrees with the Chinuch that the purpose Sefirat HaOmer is to link Pesach to Shavuot and build momentum to Sinai. Miss a day and the chain is broken; it is simply no longer possible to fulfill the mitzvah. However, those who view each day’s count as an independent mitzvah have a different perspective. According to them, Sefirat HaOmer is about preparing for Shavuot and every day is a new opportunity for growth. Missing today does not detract from tomorrow.

This is why the Halachic debate was never resolved – both perspectives are equally true!

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