Counting up, or down?

Ever since the second day of Pessah we have been in a period of counting known as Sefira or Sefirat Ha'omer - the counting of the omer.

torah scroll 88 (photo credit: )
torah scroll 88
(photo credit: )
Ever since the second day of Pessah we have been in a period of counting known as Sefira or Sefirat Ha'omer - the counting of the omer. "And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering - the day after Shabbat - you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week - 50 days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. On that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations" (Leviticus 23:15-16,21). This period of time has undergone a long history of reinterpretation and change over the centuries. In the Torah it is a time of harvesting the wheat, with the use of the new wheat beginning on Shavuot. There is no fixed date for this, which is why it is necessary to count the days. Nor is there any historical connection. During the Second Temple period the Pharisees determined to connect Shavuot with the convocation at Sinai. Perhaps they felt it was impossible that such an event as Sinai should not be commemorated and therefore assumed that must have been the (unwritten) intent of the Torah. It was for this reason that the Pharisees also insisted that the "Shabbat" referred to in the verse does not mean the Shabbat that occurs during Pessah, whatever day of the festival that might be (as other groups contended), but the day of rest of the festival itself, i.e. the first day of Pessah (see Menahot 65a-b). A historical event must have a fixed date. Thus when Shavuot was understood by the Rabbis as commemorating the events at Mount Sinai, Sefira became a time of counting from the Exodus to the Revelation. Sometime later, during the Talmudic period, Sefira became a period of mourning, connected to the story of the death of the students of Rabbi Akiba. "Rabbi Akiba had 12,000 pairs of disciples, and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pessah and Shavuot" (Yevamot 62b). The origins of observing this as a period of mourning are unclear and do not seem to have started until the Geonic period. Some have connected the story of Akiba's disciples with the events of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. The real reason for the period of mourning is truly shrouded in mystery, but it is well known that other cultures, going back at least to Roman times, have similar rules of mourning at that time of year. They may be connected with ancient superstitions or fears for the welfare of the harvest at that season. Speaking personally, it has always seemed to me that the last thing we needed in the Jewish year was seven more weeks of mourning. We already have the three weeks preceding Tisha B'Av. I am therefore pleased that the Rabbinical Assembly law committee decided to limit the mourning to the days before Holocaust Remembrance Day - an appropriate commemoration for our time - and permit weddings and other celebrations after that date. In general, I prefer to focus on Sefira not as a time of mourning but as a time of anticipation, going from the Exodus to the Sinai covenant. As with other things in Judaism, we do not count down but up, in expectation of something good that is to come. Each additional day only increases our expectation of what we are going to experience. Attaining our freedom is a beginning, but it is leading to something even more important: the meeting between God and Israel at Sinai, which results in our becoming not only a people, but a "holy nation," devoted to God and to Torah - God's instruction. The Exodus was the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham that he would become a "great nation" - goy gadol (Genesis 12:2). But at Sinai they became a "holy nation" - goy kadosh (Exodus 19:6). In a sense, this is the difference between nationalistic-secular Judaism and religious Judaism. It is the struggle between the vision of the Jews as a "normal nation" and the vision of the Jews as God's special treasure. It is my belief that our destiny is to be a holy people, but that will not be achieved by turning Israel into a theocracy, by enacting more laws and increasing religious coercion, but by finding the way to influence Jews to believe in their uniqueness so that voluntarily they will want to participate in this great Sinai covenant. That is what Sefira represents - the time of preparation, not the time of mourning. It is indeed a time of anxiety, but good anxiety, anticipating the great event that is to come. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.