The Torah does not permit us to count persons. That is a great lesson: people
are not numbers. They are individual souls created in God’s image. We have
learned all too tragically what happens when people cease to be human and become
nothing but numbers. But the Torah does permit – even mandates – counting days:
“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering, the day
after the Sabbath, you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you
must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days: then you shall
bring an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Leviticus 23:15-16).
now in that period of time, Sefirat Ha’omer – Counting the Sheaf. But the name
is misleading. We are not counting the omer, the sheaf. We are counting the days
from the day we brought it until the 50th day when a offering of new grain is
brought. In other words, we are encompassing the spring harvest season. Why
count 50 days rather than having a specific date for bringing the offering?
Evidently the Torah wanted to emphasize the sacred number seven – seven times
seven – leading up to the 50th day, which is another holy day –
This parallels what happens on Succot, when we have seven days
and then the day after is another holy day, Shmini Atzeret. The Sages
called Shavuot “Atzeret” as well. It is also similar to the Jubilee Year which
is seven times seven periods of seven years. Since at that time the number of
days in the month could change from year to year depending on when the new moon
was sighted, those numbers could not be retained with dates set in advance. Thus
Shavuot is the only festival to which no specific date is assigned in the Torah,
nor does it have any historical association. All of that came later.
are accustomed to the fact that Sefira is a time of mourning, but that, too, is
nowhere mentioned in the Torah. The Talmud explains this as being connected to a
time when there was a great plague which killed the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, a
plague which ceased on Lag Ba’omer (Yebamot 62b). For that reason some
communities cease mourning at Lag Ba’omer. It has been suggested that the
sadness associated with Sefira originated in ancient times from the fear that
the harvest season would not be a good one. Whatever the reason, there is no
hint of any of that in the Torah, and seven weeks seems a long time to mourn
because of that plague when we consider that only three weeks of mourning are
observed for the destruction of the Temple and the Exile from our land. For that
reason the Rabbinical Assembly has preferred to associate the custom of mourning
with the Holocaust – Holocaust Remembrance Day comes during that time – and to
end it on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Since the counting culminates in
Shavuot and since Shavuot has long been associated with the Revelation at Sinai,
it seems appropriate to use the practice of counting the days as a method of
anticipating that unique event. Aside from the Exodus, there has been nothing of
greater importance in our history than Sinai. We refer to it in our liturgy as
“The Time of the Giving of Our Torah.” It was the time when we received the
Decalogue as well as many of the other mitzvot. It was the time when we accepted
upon ourselves the obligation to become God’s holy people, the Sinai Covenant.
At the Exodus we became a free people. At Sinai we became a holy
As Moses said, addressing the Israelites before they were to
cross into the land, “Has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its
like ever been known?” (Deuteronomy 4:32). To spend seven weeks counting
the days, anticipating that great event and considering what it means to us
seems time well spent.
The writer, former president of the International
Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest
book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).