Horse grazing 370.
(photo credit: Israel Weiss ([email protected]) http://artfram)
‘You shall count for yourselves seven cycles of sabbatical years, seven years,
seven times; there shall be forty-nine years... You shall sanctify the fiftieth
year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all of its inhabitants; it
shall be the Jubilee year for you, you shall return each human being to his
ancestral heritage...; You shall not sow, you shall not reap its aftergrowth and
you shall not gather even what was already set aside – the year shall be holy to
you’ (Leviticus 25: 8-13)
We are now in the period between the Festival of
Matzot (Passover) and the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot). It may be viewed as one
long festival connected by the counting of the Omer. The majority of our
decisors are strict about the counting of the days: One may only recite the
blessing for making the count if they keep a complete and accurate counting for
all 49 days.
Why? Ought not each day stand on its own, independent of
whether or not we remembered the correct count on previous days? Secondly, why
do the Bible and our liturgy refer to the concluding festival of this period as
the Festival of Weeks? Other festivals, like Passover or Succot, are named for a
ritual which defines the festival, and not for the period leading up to the
And thirdly, my teacher and mentor, Rabbi Joseph
Soloveitchik, would always repeat the count of the Omer in two
versions, for example: “Today is the first day within the Omer [ba’omer],”
followed by “Today is the first day toward the Omer [la’omer].” Why the
repetition, and what is the difference between the two versions? To answer these
questions, we must note the striking parallel between the Torah’s description of
the days leading up to Shavuot and the years leading up to the Jubilee
“You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the Rest Day,
from the day that you brought the Omer of the waving – seven Sabbath weeks, they
shall be complete.
On the morrow of the seventh week, you shall count 50
days, and you shall offer [on that 50th day] a new meal offering to the Lord....
From your dwelling places shall you bring bread that shall be waved, two
loaves... leavened; first offerings to the Lord.... And you shall convoke on
this self-same day [the 50th day] a Holy Convocation for yourselves; you shall
do no laborious work... throughout all your habitations.” (Leviticus 23:15-17;
21) When you compare this passage regarding the days leading up to Shavuot with
the passage that describes the years leading up to the Jubilee (in the
introduction to this commentary), you see that in both instances you must count
seven times seven units, leading up to the 50th, which is holy and on which work
The Jubilee is clearly a year of redemption, in which the
fundamental freedom of every human being is honored and all inhabitants return
to their ancestral homes. I would therefore submit that the 50th day – Shavuot,
paralleling the 50th year, the Jubilee – must likewise signal freedom and
Although we were freed from Egyptian slavery on Passover, we
were not yet truly free and certainly not yet redeemed; we had merely been
thrust into an alien and arid desert without a homeland in which we could
develop our own agriculture to sustain ourselves, and without borders to protect
us. This is symbolized by matza – incomplete bread (the staff of life) – and by
the Omer barley offering, the first of the grains to ripen in Israel and a food
considered fit only for animals. We also had not yet received our constitution
of responsible freedom, God’s revelation of the Torah at Sinai.
freedom had to wait seven weeks, for the wheat grain to ripen and for the bread
offering to be brought at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Israel. Only then could
we be considered free, redeemed, holy.
History shows that for freedom to
be properly exercised and administered it must be deserved, and won with hard
work. Man, the complex animal, must turn himself into human, created in the
image of the Divine.
This requires time and intensive preparation. To
move from the barley grain fit for animals to the bread meant for those but
“little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:5) requires the
hard work of repentance, the return to the spark of the Divine within each of
Hence these seven weeks of counting (sefira) must be used for
self-improvement to bring each of us closer to the sefirot-emanations
(characteristics of the Divine). The preparation must be complete, because
without it, freedom could lead to lawlessness and mass destruction (witness the
French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution).
is a minimum amount of grain, a “sheaf,” of barley or wheat. By counting using
the word “la’omer,” toward the Omer, we express our goal of proper and deserved
freedom. By contrast, using the expression “ba’omer,” within the Omer, we
emphasize the process of the period of preparation. One must understand the
importance of the goal (la’omer) and properly utilize every single day of the
period of preparation (ba’omer). Ultimately, making each day count is crucial;
this is the preparation which will define the quality of the goal and which
gives the festival its name, Shavuot.
Shabbat shalom The writer is the
founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs and
chief rabbi of Efrat.