Tradition Today: Counting the days

We should anticipate it these weeks with joyous trepidation and prepare ourselves to say on Shavuot what our ancestors said at that time some three thousand years ago.

Members of the Black Hebrews dance as they take part in celebrations for Shavuot in Dimona (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of the Black Hebrews dance as they take part in celebrations for Shavuot in Dimona
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 Today is the 34th day of the counting of the omer. Since we count from Passover until the 49th day in order to get to the 50th, we are already in the final phase of this period of time.
Of course “counting of the omer” is a misnomer, since we never actually count an omer – i.e. a measure of grain. Instead, we count the days beginning with the time when an omer of barley was brought as an offering until seven weeks have passed, after which a holy day is celebrated marking the bringing of the offering of new grain (Leviticus 23:15-16).
There are some strange things about this entire practice. For one thing, no specific date is given in the Torah for that holy day, which is called Shavuot [Weeks], since seven weeks are counted to arrive at it. The counting begins “on the day after the sabbath” (Leviticus 23:11). According to the sages, “the sabbath” here did not mean Shabbat, but referred to the first day of Passover. Other groups of Jews thought it meant the day after the first Shabbat in the Passover week, i.e. the first Sunday. If that were so, the actual date of Shavuot would vary from year to year. The other festivals are all designated by a specific date.
Another peculiarity is that of the so-called three festivals (so-called because since Shmini Atzeret is not part of Succot, there are actually four festivals) is that only Shavuot has no historical connection recorded in the Torah. Passover is obviously the Exodus, Succot is connected to the wandering in the desert and the huts we dwelt in then, but no historical reason is given for Shavuot. It was also known as Atzeret – the final time of gathering – so that just as after Succot there was another gathering on the eighth day, so after Passover there was another gathering on the 50th day.
It was rabbinic Judaism that decided that Shavuot was “the time of the giving of the Torah” and that it had a specific date, the sixth of Sivan, the date of the revelation at Sinai. Because of that, the period of time between the two holidays, sefira (counting), was understood to correspond to the time between the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai. It connects the two events, as if to indicate that one led to the other and that the very purpose of the Exodus was what happened at Sinai. The Torah itself seems to indicate that when God says to Moses at the burning bush, “And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (Exodus 3:12).
Before they go to the land God has promised them, they are commanded to make a stop at Sinai. Something important will happen to them there.
The rabbis called that event “the giving of the Torah,” but it is important that we understand that this does not mean that they were given the complete Torah, all the five books, on that occasion. According to the Torah itself that did not happen at least until the end of the journey. What they did accept there was the concept of obeying Torah – i.e. all the teachings and mitzvot that God would command.
They entered into a new covenant with God, the covenant of Sinai, the agreement to “obey Me faithfully” and become “My treasured possession from among all the peoples” (Exodus 19:5). Viewed in this way the counting is not merely to know when we have reached the 50th day, since we could easily know when that date is, but rather to show our great anticipation of an event of supreme importance: the day when we became “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
If that is the case, it has always seemed strange to me that sefira has been considered a sad time, a time of mourning. The reason that is usually given for this seems even stranger. It is based on the legend told in Yevamot 62b that Rabbi Akiva “had twelve thousand pairs of students” all of whom died at the same time “because they did not treat one another with respect.” To this story the Talmud then added the comment that “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.” The Talmud does not then say that therefore we should adopt mourning customs at that period.
That interpretation came later.
Even if that actually happened, which seems most unlikely, why would all Israel be obliged to mourn for such a long period year after year? Even the destruction of the Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem were given only one actual day, Tisha b’Av, with the extension of some customs for three weeks.
Mourning seven weeks for Akiva’s pupils seems out of all proportion.
It has been suggested that the custom of not shaving and not having weddings came about not because of mourning for some specific event, but because these things are not done on the intermediate days of holidays and this entire period could be seen as intermediate days between Passover and Shavuot.
Be that as it may, to my mind, sefira, coming when it does, should be a period of joyous anticipation.
It should be a time in which we look forward to the great events of Sinai, when we prepare ourselves to enter into that great covenant with God that made us what we are. The joy may indeed be mixed with trepidation, just as the Israelites at Sinai were anxious – but not with sadness. After all, this is not an everyday affair and should involve some concern. Are we worthy of it? Can we live up to it? How must we conduct ourselves if we are to be a holy people? How do we make certain that this position does not result in too much pride and the feeling of superiority over others, which is not the intention at all.
Standing at Sinai was a great privilege. We should anticipate it these weeks with joyous trepidation and prepare ourselves to say on Shavuot what our ancestors said at that time some three thousand years ago, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). 
The writer is a former President of the Rabbinical Assembly. A prolific writer, two of his books were awarded the Jewish Book Prize. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS).