Performing Sefirat Ha-omer
By Rav Moshe Taragin
A series of letters between Rabbi Akiva Eiger and his uncle, Rabbi Binyamin Wolfe, discusses an
interesting question regarding the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer (see
Teshuvot R. Akiva Eiger, volume 1, sections 29-32). Rabbi Wolfe claims that one cannot
count the omer by writing the number of a given day; Rabbi Akiva Eiger
maintains that writing may be a viable method for performing the counting of the
omer. This dispute may
highlight intriguing elements about the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer.
The Torah (Vayikra 23:15) employs the term “U-sefartem lakhem”
— “You must count for yourselves” — to define the mitzva of counting seven weeks
from the second day of Pesach, when the minchat ha-omer of barley flour
was offered, until (but not including) Shavuot, when the shetei ha-lechem,
two leavened wheat loaves, were offered.
It is unclear whether writing constitutes actual counting. Rabbi Wolfe cites the position of the
Shev Ya’akov, who disqualifies written oaths based on a gemara on
Megilla 18b (see Rambam, Hilkhot Megilla 2:6), which rules that
writing Megillat Ester does not constitute a valid form of performing the
mitzva of reading the megilla.
Based upon these two precedents, Rabbi
Wolfe disqualifies counting the omer via writing.
His nephew, Rabbi
Akiva Eiger, disagrees, distinguishing between a halakhic oath, which must be
verbally articulated, and the omer, which may possibly be counted by
writing the number of a given day.
In fact, a gemara on Gittin 71a disqualifies written testimony based upon
a specific verse (Vayikra 5:1) that demands verbal articulation. We may infer from this gemara that
only eidut (testimony) is disqualified if it is written, since this is
the case discussed in Vayikra 5:1.
Indeed, Rabbeinu Tam even allows written testimonies, limiting the
gemara’s disqualification to mutes: people who can speak would be able to
offer testimony in written form. It
seems that, in general, text is a valid carrier for information. Perhaps testimony is held to a higher
standard, and according to Rabbeinu Tam, even that standard applies in limited
contexts. If the written medium may
convey information, presumably, counting by writing on a given day would be
valid for sefirat ha-omer.
This dispute between Rabbis Wolfe and Eiger may epitomize two very
different models of the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer. Is the mitzva basically geared to
keeping a count of days to herald the arrival of Shavuot? If so, there is no formal declarative
element to sefira! It
functions solely on a cognitive level, to process the amount of days that have
passed and to anticipate the precise arrival of Shavuot, the fiftieth day. If so, Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s position
would appear more compelling. The
Torah demands that this process of fifty days be marked in a cognitively
deliberate fashion (rather than just calculating in passing); however, the
manner of maintaining this count does not necessarily have to be verbal. Just as testimony (a different form
of information) may be conveyed in written form (and even if it cannot, the
disqualification is technical, based on a local derasha), so may the
information of the omer be marked in non-verbal form.
If, however, counting the omer constitutes a declaration (perhaps
lending some identity to the actual day and not merely marking time to assure
the proper identification of the fiftieth day), its structure would be more
similar to oaths, which, according to many views, cannot be issued through text. By disqualifying a written sefirat
ha-omer, much like a written oath, is Rabbi Wolfe effectively elevating the
omer count above the level of mere calendrical calculation?
Perhaps this question pertaining to the nature of sefirat ha-omer
is already inherent in different comments of the Rishonim who contrast
the omer with other biblical counts.
Tosafot in Menachot (65b) and Ketubot (72b) question the
existence of a berakha for counting the omer and the absence of
one for a zava’s counting to determine the seventh clean day after she
stops bleeding, especially since the Torah’s language regarding the latter (Vayikra
15:28) is virtually identical to the former.
Tosafot claims that the zava’s counting is always vulnerable to
reversal (a new issue of blood) and therefore no berakha is recited. Sefirat ha-omer, by contrast,
is irreversible; therefore we recite a berakha. Notably, Tosafot do not discriminate
between the zava’s counting, which is performed solely to calculate the
passage of time by reaching seven days of purity, and sefirat ha-omer,
which is performed to establish the identity of each and every day between
Pesach and Shavuot. Presumably,
Tosafot equate the two counting schemes structurally, highlighting the danger of
reversal as the only difference accounting for the discrepancy in berakha.
The Ran (cited by the Taz, Orach Chayim 489) addresses a different
question: why is the omer counted in conscious form (either verbally or
in writing), while the zava does not actively count? (For that matter, we also do not
actively count towards yovel, although the Torah commands us to count for
this purpose in Vayikra 25:8.)
The Ran claims that regarding the omer, we are more confident that
the Torah requires a “minyan mamash,” an actual reckoning. This implies that the counting of the
zava and the counting for yovel are purely cognitive processes,
while sefirat ha-omer is a series of declarations of time. Therefore, we must actively designate
sefirat ha-omer, while the sefirot of zava and yovel
are merely mathematically calculated.
INTERIM SUMMARY: Does the Torah demand that we calculate
time to anticipate the precise moment of Shavuot’s arrival; or is our counting
additionally geared toward creating some identity for the intervening period? The views of R. Akiva Eiger’s uncle
and of the Ran may indicate that the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer has a
deeper significance than simply keeping track of the days until Shavuot.
Now we shall further
examine this issue by studying a second dispute: can a person fulfill the
sefira requirement by listening to another’s counting?
Typically, a person can listen to a text instead of actually reciting it
and thereby fulfill his or her halakhic obligation to recite the text; the
principle of “shomei’a ke-oneh” renders the listener as equivalent to the
speaker. When one listens to
berakhot and oaths with the proper intention, one is considered to have
personally pronounced them. Would
the same allowance apply to sefirat ha-omer?
The Ritz Giat (Rabbi Yitzchak Ibn Giat, author of an early medieval work
which cites many positions of the Geonim) asserts that shomei’a ke-oneh
would apply equally to sefira, and, certainly, logic dictates this
position. If the mitzva of reading
Megillat Esther can be performed through listening, certainly the
mitzva of sefirat ha-omer should accommodate a similar practice,
listening in place of actually reciting the number!
However, an intriguing gemara in Menachot may contradict this
position. The Gemara (65b)
interprets the term “U-sefartem lakhem” (Vayikra 23:15) to mandate
“sefira le-khol echad ve-echad,” a counting process for each individual.
Many Rishonim understand this as a mandate for private counting,
rather than a public representative counting on the part of the beit din. After all, counting the years of the
shemitta cycle is also a mitzva, but one which devolves upon the beit
din rather than upon each individual.
As such, the derasha of “sefira le-khol echad ve-echad”
does not legislate the method of counting but rather the level of obligation
(communal or personal). In truth,
the very issue of pubic and private counting may reveal the nature of sefira. Were sefirat ha-omer designed
merely to monitor the passage of time and accurately set the date for Shavuot,
it would have been structurally identical to counting shemitta cycles and
setting yovel accordingly; as such, it would have been in the domain of
the beit din, which acts representatively for the entire people. By stipulating a personal counting, “sefira
le-khol echad ve-echad,” the Torah may be assigning this mitzva a function
beyond time-calculation; it may be casting this process as one which establishes
the inherent identity of the period.
However, this reading of Menachot yields nothing about applying
shomei’a ke-oneh to sefirat ha-omer.
However Rashi’s gloss on Menachot 65b, s.v. Le-khol, “That
every individual is obligated to count,” has led some to maintain that he
demands that each person personally perform sefirat ha-omer,
rather than relying upon the principle of shomei’a ke-oneh. A work known as Chiddushei
Ha-Rashba al Menachot (though not authored by the classic Rashba,
Rabbeinu Shelomo ben Adderet) attributes just such a position to Rashi.
In many ways, the basic nature of sefirat ha-omer impacts on this
question. Logically, listening
should constitute a valid performance of the mitzva. By demanding personal fulfillment of
sefirat ha-omer, what message is the Torah sending about the mitzva? If the mitzva consists of announcing
a certain day’s count (and designating a certain quality to that day thereby),
listening to that formula should be tantamount to reciting it, through the
principle of shomei’a ke-oneh.
However, if the mitzva merely demands the calculation of time (performed
in an active manner by speaking or perhaps writing), perhaps the mechanism of
shomei’a ke-oneh would not be relevant.
For example, many
authorities do not apply shomei’a ke-oneh to shofar sounds, since,
unlike berakhot and oaths, there is no actual text; perhaps shomei’a
ke-oneh is only applicable in instances where a specific text exists. Those who deny shomei’a ke-oneh
for shofar articulate the mitzva of shofar as listening rather
than actively creating a sound; indeed, this is the form of the berakha
we recite before blowing the shofar, declaring that God “commanded us to
hear the sound of the shofar.” By
hearing someone else blow the shofar, one performs the base mitzva of
listening to shofar sounds, but one is not considered to have created the
sound, since shomei’a ke-oneh only applies to texts. A similar logic may disqualify
shomei’a ke-oneh for sefirat ha-omer: since the mitzva does not
require any proclamation or formal designation, but merely active
time-calculation, no distinct formula or text exists for sefira.
In the absence of any text to voice,
shomei’a ke-oneh cannot apply!
Of course, this issue raises an interesting question: is there, in fact,
any distinct required formula for counting the omer?
The Gemara (Menachot 66a)
maintains that we must count both weeks and days (as both are mentioned in the
Torah). Many Acharonim rule
that if one counts days only, omitting weeks, one still performs the mitzva. However, the Shibbolei Ha-leket
indicates that in such a case, the entire counting may be flawed and must be
repeated (see the Peri Chadash, O.C. 479, who amplifies this position). Apparently, some authorities do
formalize a phrasing for sefirat ha-omer, while others insist that any
active counting which effects proper time-calculation is sufficient.
A similar question addresses the need to recite, “Today is day X of the
omer.” Must the person
actually recite the word “Today” or merely recite the appropriate number? The Mishna Berura (489) cites
a position of the Shulchan Arukh Ha-rav (the original Lubavitcher Rebbe)
that one who counts the omer without beginning “Today” has not fulfilled
the obligation. A similar idea might
be inferred from the words of the Taz (ibid.), who discusses a case where a
person casually informs another of the day’s count before the latter has
performed the mitzva. Usually, such
information constitutes counting, and the informer may no longer count with a
berakha (hence the custom to inform an inquirer of the previous day’s
count). The Taz claims that if the
informer conveys the current day’s count, but does not actually enunciate “Today
is day X,” he has not yet fulfilled the mitzva (and may still count with a
berakha). Evidently, he also
believes that the term “Today” is an essential element of counting sefira.
Had sefira been designed merely to
mark the passage of time, it would be odd to demand a proclamation relating to
the current day. Merely maintaining
the arithmetic continuity (by mentioning the next number) would be sufficient!
Presumably, the presence of a specific formula would indicate a concrete
text, to which one could apply shomei’a ke-oneh. The presence of a formulated text may
further reflect a function to sefirat ha-omer beyond merely tracking