A Review of the Halachos of Sefiras HaOmer
In Parshas Emor, the Torah teaches: “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: ‘When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you will cut its harvesting, then you shall bring an omer-sized portion from the first of its harvest to the Kohen. And he (the Kohen) shall wave the omer before Hashem for your benefit, on the day after the ‘day of rest’ the Kohen shall wave it… And you should count for yourselves from the day after the ‘day of rest, from the day you bring the omer of waving, until there will be seven complete weeks. Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days.’” (Vayikra 23:9-11,15-16). It should be noted that the words in the posuk, mimacharas hashabos, which we have translated as the “the day after the ‘day of rest,’” would usually be translated “the day after Shabbos”. However, the Oral Torah (Torah shebaal peh) teaches us that the words “day of rest” here mean the first day of Pesach (Menachos 65b). Thus, the omer offering is brought on the second day of Pesach, whether or not that date falls on the day after Shabbos. From the day that we bring the omer offering we begin to count the omer, until we complete the counting of seven weeks.
The Gemara recounts a fascinating story that occurred at the time of the Second Temple. There was a group of non-believing Jews, the Baytusim, who disregarded the teachings of Chazal. (Indeed, the Baytusim also disavowed belief in reward and punishment and other basic Jewish tenets, see Avos diRabbi Nassan, Chapter 5:2). Since the Baytusim followed their own interpretation of the posuk, they decided that the korban omer must be offered on a Sunday and not necessarily on the second day of Pesach. They plotted to have Rosh Chodesh Nisan fall out on Shabbos, realizing that the second day of Pesach would then fall out on Sunday. The result would be that the korban omer would be offered on Sunday, even though it was not supposed to happen that particular year.
The Baytusim were so determined to have the korban omer offered on Sunday that they hired false witnesses in an attempt to manipulate the main Besdin to declare Rosh Chodesh Nisan on a Shabbos. Fortunately, one of the witnesses that they hired did not believe in the Baytusi creed and told the Rabbonim about the plot (Gemara Rosh HaShanah 22b). Because of this event, major changes were instituted in the type of witnesses accepted by the Besdin (Rosh HaShanah 22a).
As mentioned above, the mitzvah of counting omer begins from the day that the korban omer is offered. This implies that when there is no korban omer, there is no requirement min hatorah to count the omer (Menachos 66a). Indeed, most poskim contend that since there is unfortunately no Beis Hamikdash today and there are no korbanos, there is no mitzvah min hatorah to count omer (Ran, end of Pesachim; see Shulchan Aruch 489:3 and Mishnah Berurah). However, Chazal instituted that we should count omer even though there is no Beis Hamikdash in order to remember the mitzvah as it was at the time of the Beis HaMikdash. (Menachos 66a).
Details About the Counting
Before counting the Omer, we recite a brocha on the performing of the mitzvah. One should be careful to stand while reciting both the brocha and the counting (Rosh, end of Pesachim; Shulchan Aruch 489:1).
The Torah states: “And you should count for yourselves… seven complete weeks. Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days.” It is noteworthy that the Torah makes two statements, one that we should count seven weeks, and a second that we should count fifty days. Based on this observation, the Gemara derives that there are two mitzvohs, one to count the days and the other to count the weeks (Menachos 66a).
Tosafos raises the following question: Why does the Torah say, “Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days,” if the mitzvah is to count for only forty-nine days? Tosafos explains that the verse should be translated: “Until the day after the seventh week, which is the fiftieth day, shall you count” (Menachos 65b s.v. Kasuv.) According to this translation, there is a mitzvah to count up until the fiftieth day, which is Shavuos, but that there is no mitzvah to count the fiftieth day itself.
As mentioned above, the Gemara rules that there is a mitzvah to count the weeks. Obviously, there is no mitzvah to count the weeks until the end of the first week — at which point there is a mitzvah to state that one week of counting has been completed. From this point on, is there a mitzvah to mention the weekly count every day, or is it sufficient to count the weeks only at the end of each week? According to the latter interpretation, one counts the weeks only seven times, once at the end of each week (Tur, quoting Yesh Omrim). However, the accepted opinion is that every day of sefirah (except for the first six days) one counts the number of days and then one calculates how many weeks and days. Thus, on the eleventh day of sefirah we count, “Today is eleven days, which is one week and four days in the omer” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 489:1). (According to the first opinion cited above [that of Tur, quoting Yesh Omrim], there is no mitzvah to count the weeks on the eleventh day. According to this opinion, the entire counting is: “Today is eleven days.”)
Some Practical Applications
Someone who counts the wrong number has not fulfilled the mitzvah. However, if he remembered immediately and corrected his error, he has fulfilled the mitzvah (Mishnah Berurah 489:32).
One should not recite the blessing without knowing the day’s exact count, even if he knows that he will hear the correct count from someone else immediately. Rather, one should first find out what the correct count is before reciting the blessing (Mishnah Berurah 489:29 and Shaar HaTziyun ad loc.).
Sefirah can be counted in any language, provided one understands what he is saying. Someone who does not understand what he is saying has not fulfilled the mitzvah, even if he counts in Hebrew (Magen Avraham).
A very common question is whether one who missed counting one day of sefirah may still recite a brocha when he counts the remaining days. Some early poskim contend that someone who missed counting one day has no mitzvah to count the remaining days since his counting of forty-nine days is no longer complete (Tur, quoting Bahag). According to this opinion, someone who missed one day may continue to count sefirah, but he is forbidden to recite a brocha since he is no longer fulfilling a mitzvah. However, other poskim contend that missing one day does not affect the upcoming days. In their opinion, each day there is a mitzvah to count the sefirah of that day even if one has not counted the preceding days (Tur, quoting Rav Hai Gaon). Shulchan Aruch (489:8) treats this shaylah as an unresolved issue. Thus he rules that someone who missed counting one day of sefirah should count the remaining days without a brocha. The count should continue because it is possible that he is still fulfilling the mitzvah. Yet he does not recite a brocha, because if he is no longer fulfilling a mitzvah the brocha would be a brocha li-vatala (a brocha recited in vain).
In this case, and all other cases where there is a doubt whether one is still fulfilling the mitzvah, it is preferable to hear the brocha from someone who is definitely required to count (Mishnah Berurah ad loc.). The person reciting the brocha must have in mind to include the other person in his brocha, and the person who is not reciting the brocha must have in mind to be included in the brocha. If there is no one available to make the brocha for him, he should count sefirah without a brocha.
An Interesting Shaylah
There is another interesting shaylah that results from the above-mentioned dispute whether each day’s sefirah counting is dependent on still having a complete count: Does a boy who becomes bar mitzvah between Pesach and Shavuos recite a brocha on the counting of sefirah? Even if the twelve-year old was counting sefirah every night very diligently, he was not fulfilling a mitzvah since he was still a minor. Thus, if the mitzvah of counting sefirah is dependent on a complete count, the bar mitzvah bochur may not have a complete sefirah count.
Many poskim discuss this issue and there is no common agreement what to do. (See for example, Birkei Yosef 489:20; Shaarei Tshuva 489:20; Shu”t Maharam Shick #269; Shu”t Har Tzvi 2:76.) Therefore, one should ask his Rav for a ruling on this shaylah.
As we mentioned above, someone who missed one day of sefirah should continue counting but without a brocha. However, someone who is not sure if he missed counting one day may still count with a brocha (Shulchan Aruch 489:8). Since it is not certain that his counting is incomplete, he can rely on the possibility that his counting is still complete with the possibility that the halacha is that one can recite a brocha even if the count is incomplete. This concept is called a sfek sfeika, which means that there are two possibilities why it is permitted to do something. In this case, the two possibilities that it is acceptable to recite the brocha allow him to recite a brocha.
Similarly, in any other case where it is questionable whether he fulfilled the requirement to count, or where the law is that he should count without a brocha on a particular night, the halacha is that he may proceed to continue counting the next night with a brocha (Mishnah Berurah 489:38).
If on a given night someone counted sefirah without reciting a brocha first, he may not recite the brocha afterwards for that day’s counting. Although he fulfilled the mitzvah of counting omer that night, he is unable to fulfill the mitzvah of making a brocha on the counting. Therefore, one should be careful not to tell someone what night of sefirah it is before one has fulfilled the mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch 489:4). The accepted practice is to respond to the question “What night is it?” by stating what was the count of the previous day.
Some Unusual Applications
What is the halacha if someone alluded to the correct number of the day’s omer count, but did so in an unusual way? For example, has someone fulfilled the mitzvah if he counted on the thirty-ninth day of the omer that today is “forty days minus one”? Is this considered a valid method of counting thirty-nine days, or must one count thirty-nine in a direct way? The halacha is that this unusual method of counting is considered counting, and he has fulfilled the mitzvah (Be’er Heiteiv 469:6).
Another shaylah about an unusual method of counting has very common application.
In Hebrew, one can allude to a number by reciting the Hebrew letter or letters that represent it. For example, one could attempt to count the eleventh day of sefirah by stating that today is yud alef b’omer, or attempt to count the thirty-third day of sefirah by counting that today is lag b’omer. Poskim dispute whether one fulfills the mitzvah if one counts this way. Whereas some poskim rule that this is a valid method of counting, other poskim rule that he has not fulfilled the mitzvah since he did not count the number explicitly (Shaarei Tshuvah 489:6).
There is a very common shaylah that results from this dispute. On the evening of Lag B’omer someone stated “tonight is Lag B’omer” before he counted sefirah. Can he still recite a brocha on the counting of sefirah that night, or do we say that he has already counted for that night and cannot recite the brocha anymore? Biyur Halacha rules that this issue remains unresolved. Therefore, one should count in the regular way to make certain he fulfills the mitzvah, but without a brocha since it is a doubt whether he is still obligated to perform the mitzvah (Biyur Halacha 489:1 s.v. moneh). On subsequent nights he would be able to resume counting with a brocha.
The Korban Omer was harvested at night, hence the mitzvah of counting Omer is at night. If the omer was not harvested at night, there is a dispute among poskim whether it could be harvested instead in the daytime (Tosafos Menachos 66a). The same dispute is reflected in a different shaylah that is germane to each of us: If someone forgot to count the omer at night, can he still fulfill the mitzvah if he counts in the daytime? Since the matter is disputed, he should count in the daytime, but without a brocha, since we refrain from making a brocha whenever it is uncertain whether one is performing a mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch 489:7). The accepted psak halacha is that he may resume counting with a brocha the following evening (Mishnah Berurah 489:34).
What Happens if…
As we mentioned above, according to most poskim the mitzvah of counting the omer is only rabbinic in our era since unfortunately the Beis HaMikdash is destroyed. Some poskim contend that since the counting is only midirabanan one is permitted to count the omer before it is definitely nightfall (Rosh and other Rishonim, end of Pesachim). Thus, the practice developed in some communities to count the omer during twilight even though it is uncertain whether it is day or night. Shulchan Aruch rules that one should preferably wait until after nightfall to count. However, someone who is davening in a shul where the people are counting before nightfall is permitted to count with them lest he forget to count later (see Shulchan Aruch 489:2-3). In this situation, Shulchan Aruch rules that he should count together with the shul without a brocha and have in mind that if he remembers later, he will count again. If he indeed remembers to count again, then he recites a brocha and counts a second time.
This ruling seems very strange. How can one count the second time with a brocha—didn’t he fulfill the mitzvah the first time he counted? Counting with a brocha should be a brocha li-vatala, a brocha recited in vain!
The answer is that when he counted the first time, he made an automatic condition that if he indeed remembers to count again later, he does not want to fulfill the mitzvah now. It is considered that he specified that he does not want to fulfill the mitzvah. However, if he forgets to count later, then the first counting he performed is valid, since his condition was not fulfilled. Thus, he will rely on the opinions that counting sefirah before nightfall is valid, and he may resume counting the following night with a brocha.
Is writing out the number count of the sefirah considered counting sefirah? If someone wrote a letter before he had counted sefirah, and he dated the letter with that night’s sefirah count, may he still count sefirah with a brocha? This issue is discussed at length by poskim. The conclusion is that although writing shows the intention of the person, it does not constitute speaking. When a mitzvah requires one to speak, such as saying Shma, reciting tefila, or counting omer, one does not fulfill his mitzvah by writing. Thus, someone who dated a letter with the night’s sefirah count before he counted sefirah can still recite a brocha on the night’s sefirah count.
As mentioned above, the Torah associates the counting of the sefirah with the offering of the korban omer. An additional idea is conveyed by the Medrash. When the Jews brought the Pesach offering in Egypt, they were eager to receive the Torah immediately. When they asked Moshe, “When do we receive the Torah?” he answered them, “On the fiftieth day”. In their enthusiasm, each of them counted every day, eagerly awaiting the exciting day on which they would receive the Torah. In commemoration of this event, we count the days from Pesach until Shavuos. (This Medrash is quoted by Ran at the end of Mesechta Pesachim.) We should all be zocheh to anticipate receiving the Torah anew on Shavuos with the same excitement and enthusiasm that our ancestors had.