Tradition Today: But who’s counting?

The Torah does not permit us to count persons. That is a great lesson: people are not numbers.

torah 311 (photo credit: Israel Weiss
torah 311
(photo credit: Israel Weiss
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).
We are 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 – Shavuot.
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.
We 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 nation.
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).