Omer - Day Six
Discounting the Omer
I don’t count the Omer. It is an irrelevant Mitzvah for me. It is not the only mitzvah that I do not keep. There three levels to this mitzvah. We have the Tora text: “And you shall count from the next day after the Shabbat, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Shabbats shall be complete; To the next day after the seventh Shabbat shall you count fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal offering to the Eternal One (Vayikra 23, 15-16). As we know ‘Omer’ was a measurement of the harvest to be brought to the priest. Counting the days of the Omer meant counting the days that you could bring this measurement of harvest to the priest. Since there is no Temple and no priestly service, no ‘Omer’ of harvest has to be brought. Even the few liberal Jewish farmers of today, do not have to bring it. This fifty days period was in ancient times for farmers in the middle-east a time of worries. The harvest was growing at one side, but the weather at the other side became instable (remember the Ḥamsin (Fifty in Arabic) in Israel during this time? Storm, Sandstorm, Temperatures going up and down, rain sometimes even hail, for some weeks (seven?). According to Abudraham during this period of time the world is in Pains for the grains and the trees ( Abudraham Hashalem , Jerusalem, 1959, p. 241; Mishna RH 1, 2). So when this instable weather period was over and the sun was shining again and the harvest had survived, it surely was a good reason to celebrate: “ … and you shall offer a new meal offering to the Eternal One (Vayikra 23, 16).
The Talmudic rabbis connected this fiftieth day with Matan Tora, the giving of the Tora, but weren’t totally sure about the date, is it the 5th, 6th or 7th of Sivan? (Bavli Shabbat 86b; Tosefta Araḥin 1, 4). Therefor we say in the Kidush on Shavuot, not Yom Matan Toratenu but Zman matan Toratenu. Various classical commentators explained why this 50 Day period between the Exodus and Matan Tora was given. They vary from economic reasons and as a reminder of the cycle of shmita and jubilee years (Ḥizkuni), streamlining the emotions before receiving the Tora (Ḥinukh), to cleanse the Israelites from their Egyptian impurity (Recanati) or to make sure that indeed 49 whole days to the minute, went by before receiving the Tora (Alshekh), to mention just four. I have a rule that says, when there are more than two explanations about a subject, nobody really knows. To exactly know when Shavuot is due, we do not need to count every day from Pesaḥ. There are calendars and even Ms. Google knows it.
The element of mourning during the counting of the Omer days is as blurry as the date of Shavuot in the Tora. It was first mentioned during the Gaonic time (Otzar Hageonim to Yevamot p. 141, parag. 327) but the reasons are not certain at all (see: https://schechter.edu/why-is-it-customary-to-mourn-between-pesach-and-shavuot-responsa-in-a-moment-volume-1-issue-no-8-april-2007/). The most popular reason for the custom of mourning is the death of 12,000 pairs of students of rabbi Akiva during the seven weeks between Pessach and Shavuot. One opinion says that they died because of a lack of respect for one another, the other that they died because of a Magefa –epidemic, which could also be a correction for the word Milḥama - war. This would refer to the Bar Kochba revolt. Yom Hashoa is one day that we commemorate the six million murdered Jews. For me it does not make sense to mourn for forty-nine days, even if they were soldiers fighting for Jewish independence. In order to be able to continue with our lives the Talmudic rabbis taught us ‘not to mourn too much’ (Bavli Mo’ed Katan 27b).
In recent times the base for bringing the counting of the Omer back into the liberal/reform/progressive Synagogues is close to the opinion of Sefer Haḥinukh (mitzvah 306). We should be conscious of the day of Shavuot from Pesaḥ on. We should be living during these days in preparation and expectation, for that formidable day. In our minds we make the journey from leaving the house of bondage, in order to set us physically free, towards receiving the Tora and thus receiving spiritual freedom too. Our ancestors in the dessert had three days to prepare themselves (Shemot 19, 15-16) for the awesome revelation. That is fine for me too.
Rabbi Ruven bar Ephraim Congregation Or Chadash Zurich