Why Parshas Naso Sometimes Introduces Shavuos

Question #1: In most years, the parsha of Bamidbar falls on the Shabbos before Shavuos, and Parshas Naso falls the Shabbos after Shavuos. However, this year Bamidbar falls out a week earlier, and Naso is also before Shavuos. Why is this year different from the other years?

Question #2: Why are most of the “Double Parshiyos” clustered together in and around Sefer Vayikra?

Question #3: Why are the Torah’s parshiyos of such disparate length? Some parshiyos are very long — the longest being this week’s Parsha, Naso, which contains 176 pesukim. Yet at the end of the Torah we have four parshiyos that are extremely short – all of them between 30 and 52 pesukim. Why aren’t the parshiyos of similar length?

Answer:

The Gemara teaches:

Ezra decreed that the Jews should read the curses of the Tochacha in Vayikra before Shavuos and those of Devarim before Rosh Hashanah. Why? In order to end the year together with its curses! [The Gemara then comments:] We well understand why we read the Tochacha of Devarim before Rosh Hashanah because the year is ending, but why is that of Vayikra read before Shavuos. Is Shavuos the beginning of a year? Yes, Shavuos is the beginning of a new year, as the Mishnah explains that the world is judged on Shavuos for its fruit” (Megillah 31b).

However, this Gemara does not seem to explain our practice. There are two Tochachos in the Torah, one in Parshas Bechukosai, the last parsha of sefer Vayikra, and the second in Parshas Ki Savo, but neither of these parshiyos is ever read immediately before Shavuos or Rosh Hashanah. There is always at least one other Shabbos wedged between. In the case of the Tochacha of Parshas Bechukosai, Shavuos occurs usually after the next parsha, Bamidbar, but occasionally after the following parsha, Naso, as it does this year. The reading of the second Tochacha, Ki Savo is never the parsha before Rosh Hashanah. The parsha after it, Netzavim, always has the distinction of being read on the Shabbos immediately before Rosh Hashanah.

Tosafos (ad loc.) explains that the Tochacha should be read two weeks before each “New Year” to allow a buffer week between the Tochacha and the beginning of the year. Thus, Ezra’s decree was that the two Tochachos should be read early enough so that there is another reading following them before the “year” is over. The Levush (Orach Chayim 428:4) explains that without the intervening Shabbos reading as a shield, the Satan could use the Tochacha as a means of prosecuting against us on the judgment day. The intervenient Shabbos when we read a different parsha prevents the Satan from prosecuting, and as a result we can declare: End the year together with its curses!

Divide and Conquer!

We can now explain why the very end of the Torah is divided into such small parshiyos. The Tochacha of Parshas Ki Savo is located towards the end of Sefer Devarim. In order to complete our annual reading of the Torah on Simchas Torah, we want to read this Tochacha at least two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, which means that we must divide the remainder of Sefer Devarim into enough parshiyos for:

(1) A buffer parsha between the Tochacha and Rosh Hashanah.

(2) One or two Shabbosos between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos.

(3) The Torah reading for Simchas Torah, when we complete the year’s reading, as established by Chazal (Megillah 31a).

To accommodate all this, the end of Devarim is divided into four tiny parshiyos: Netzavim, Vayeileich, Haazinu, and Vezos Haberacha:

Netzavim always becomes the “buffer parsha” read on the Shabbos before Rosh Hashanah. When we need two Shabbos readings between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos, then Vayeileich is read as a separate parsha on Shabbos Shuva, and Haazinu is read on the Shabbos between Yom Kippur and Sukkos. When there is only one Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos, then Haazinu is read on that Shabbos, which is Shabbos Shuva. And Parshas Haazinu must be short enough to create a parsha after it, Vezos Haberacha, which serves as the reading for Simchas Torah.

Bamidbar is always before Shavuos

Returning back to the Gemara in Megillah, we now understand why the end of Sefer Vayikra always falls at least two Shabbosos before Shavuos. Since the Tochacha is located at the end of Vayikra, Bamidbar must always be read before Shavuos to be a buffer between the Tochacha and the “new year” of the produce of the trees, as explained by the Gemara.

We can now refer back to one of our original questions: Why are most of the “Double Parshiyos” clustered together in and around Sefer Vayikra?

The “Double Parshiyos”

There are seven potential occurrences when we read “double parshiyos“, that is, two consecutive parshiyos are read on one Shabbos as if they are one long parsha. These seven are:

Vayakheil/Pekudei, the last two parshiyos of Sefer Shemos.

Tazria/Metzora, in Sefer Vayikra.

Acharei Mos/Kedoshim, in Sefer Vayikra.

Behar/Bechukosai, in Sefer Vayikra.

Chukas/Balak, in Sefer Bamidbar.

Matos/Masei, the last two parshiyos of Sefer Bamidbar.

Netzavim/Vayeileich, towards the end of Sefer Devarim.

This leads us to a series of interesting questions:

(1) Why are there no doubled parshiyos in Bereishis, nor any for almost the entire length of Sefer Shemos?

(2) Why do we cluster together four doubled parshiyos between the last week of Shemos and Sefer Vayikra?

(3) And lastly, why do we not double any parshiyos at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar?

With a little more background, we will be able to answer all of these questions.

In this article, I will discuss the reason for the first four of these doubling of the parshiyos.

Leap and Common Years

When Hashem commanded us to create a calendar, He insisted that we use the moon to define the months, and yet keep our year consistent with the seasons, which are dependent on the sun. (The word “month” originally meant “a period of time corresponding to the moon’s cycle,” which is approximately 29 1/2 days, but the use of “month” today in the western calendar is simply a convenient way to divide the year and has nothing to do with the moon’s cycle.)

This mitzvah does not allow us to create either a purely solar calendar, the basis of the common western calendar, which ignores the moon’s changing phases. Nor does it allow us to create a perfectly lunar calendar of twelve lunar months, since this lunar “year” is approximately eleven days shorter than a solar year. If we were to follow a calendar of twelve lunar months every year, our months would not fall out in the same season. Pesach would occur sometimes in the dead of winter and Sukkos in the spring. This is exactly what transpires in the Moslem calendar, which always has exactly twelve lunar months in every year. Moslem months do not fall out in the same season. For example, Ramadan this year falls in the summer, but in a few years will occur in the winter.

The Torah requires that Pesach fall in the spring, yet requires that the months correlate to the cycle of the moon. We fulfill this mitzvah by occasionally adding an extra month to the year – thereby creating 13 month years, which we call “leap years,” to offset the almost 11 day difference between twelve lunar months and a solar year. These extra months keep the Yomim Tovim in their appropriate seasons.

When we add an extra month to the year, we add four and sometimes five Shabbosos to the year, yet we want each calendar year to complete the entire Torah reading on the next Simchas Torah! In order to have a reading for every possible Shabbos, we need to divide the Torah into enough parshiyos so that even the longest year has a parsha for each Shabbos. Since a Jewish leap year may contain 55 Shabbosos, Chumash is divided into a total of 54 parshiyos so that there is always a parsha to read every week. (There are 54 parshiyos, and not 55, because we do not read a consecutive Torah parsha on the Shabbos that occurs during Pesach. Although this is also true on Sukkos, remember that on Simchas Torah we read Parshas Vezos Haberacha, which is one of the 54 parshiyos, so Sukkos does not eliminate the need for a parsha that week.)

To sum up, the reason for dividing the Torah into 54 parshiyos is so that there are enough parshiyos for every Shabbos of the yearly cycle that begins and ends on Simchas Torah. In reality, the need for reading each of the 54 parshiyos on a different Shabbos occurs very rarely – only on leap years when Erev Pesach falls on Shabbos. Only that particular year has 54 Shabbosos that do not coincide with any Yom Tov dates (or more accurately, 53 Shabbosos plus Simchas Torah).

Why do we “double” Parshiyos?

Since most years require less than 54 parshiyos, how do we make sure that we complete the Torah reading for the year on Simchas Torah? The answer is that we combine parshiyos.

In almost every occurrence of a common year, we double the following parshiyos: Tazria/Metzora; Acharei Mos/Kedoshim and Behar/Bechukosai. Why these three sets of parshiyos, all of which are in Sefer Vayikra?

Just as a leap year is created by adding an extra month to Adar shortly before Pesach, the parshiyos are not doubled until the month of Nisan. Thus, we do not add these extra parshiyos until the year is clearly a common year.

At this point we can answer the second question raised above: Why do we “double up” so many parshiyos in Sefer Vayikra?

The answer is that we do not double parshiyos until it is already obvious whether it is a leap or common year, yet we need to read the parshiyos in a way that we complete this process early enough to read Bamidbar before Shavuos. The above-mentioned parshiyos are not read until the beginning of the month of Nisan. Thus, we have a small window between the beginning of Nissan and the end of Sefer Vayikra in which we try to complete all the double parshiyos necessary.

Why did I write above “in almost every occurrence of a common year, we double these parshiyos“? Because there is one instance in which the parshiyos of Behar and Bechukosai are combined in Chutz La’aretz, but they are read on separate weeks in Eretz Yisrael. This occurs in a common year when the eighth day of Pesach, observed only outside Eretz Yisrael, falls on a Shabbos. The communities of the exile read a Yom Tov reading, whereas in Eretz Yisrael communities read Parshas Shemini, the next reading in order. In this instance, the communities of Eretz Yisrael must separate Behar from Bechukosai to avoid the Tochacha from being read the week before Shavuos.

Vayakheil/Pekudei

Almost, but not all common years, also combine together the last two parshiyos in Sefer Shemos, Vayakheil/Pekudei. There is one instance of a common year when this does not happen. When Rosh Hashanah and Shemini Atzeres fall on Thursday in a common year that has 355 days, a fairly rare occurence [and one of the instances of a common year when Erev Pesach falls on Shabbos], there is an extra Shabbos between Sukkos and the next Rosh Hashanah, and in this year Vayakheil and Pekudei are read on separate weeks even though it is a common year.

I still have not explained the answer to our first question: Why this year does Bamidbar fall out two weeks before Shavuos, rather than the week immediately before Shavuos.

The Longest Year

The answer is that whenever a leap year falls out with Rosh Hashanah on a Thursday, as it does this year, that year has an extra Shabbos. In this instance, the leap year added five shabbosos to the year. The result of having no double parshiyos in these years between Simchas Torah and Rosh Hashanah is that both Bamidbar and Naso fall before Shavuos.}

Conclusion

We now understand what the printers and calendar makers have known all along: Why and when certain parshiyos are doubled and when not. All this is to guarantee that we have a chance to revisit every part of the Torah in the course of the year, and to celebrate our annual siyum haTorah on Simchas Torah!

Make Our Mitzvos Count!

 

clip_image002Since many have the custom of studying the 613 mitzvos on Shavuos, I will address this topic:

We all know that the Torah contains 613 Mitzvos. However, most of us are unaware of the vast literature that debates, disputes and categorizes what exactly comprises these 613 Mitzvos, and the halachic ramifications resulting from these discussions. I will simply note that counting every time the Torah says to do or not to do something, will result in thousands of Mitzvos. Aren’t we shortchanging ourselves by limiting our mitzvah count to 613? Since the Mishnah (at the end of Makkos) states: Hashem wanted to provide Israel with much merit and therefore, provided them with much Torah and many Mitzvos, why do we limit the count to 613?

Why 613?

What is the source for the count of 613 Mitzvos?

The Gemara teaches: Rav Simla’i explained: “Moshe Rabbeinu was taught 613 Mitzvos, 365 negative Mitzvos equal to the number of days of the solar year, and 248 positive Mitzvos, corresponding to a man’s number of ‘limbs.’Rav Hamnuna said: “What verse teaches this to us: ‘Torah tzivah lanu Moshe morashah kehilas Yaakov’ Moshe taught us the Torah, which is an inheritance of the community descended from Yaakov. The Gematriya (numerical value) of the word Torah equals 611, and two Mitzvos of Anochi Hashem and Lo Yihyeh Lecha were taught to us directly by Hashem” (Makkos 23b).

Thus we now know that we have 613 counted Mitzvos, and yet there are thousands of places that the Torah commands us what to do. Obviously, some of the Torah’s commandments are not counted, but which ones? And why should the Gemara not want to count them? This question led many early authorities to calculate exactly what is exactly included in the 613 Mitzvos and thereby understand what the Gemara means. Several Geonim and Rishonim authored works that list the 613 Mitzvos of the Torah, and no two lists are the same. As a matte of fact, there are major disputes among the early authorities what are the rules that govern what we include in the count of the 613 mitzvos.

The Sefer Hachinuch

Most of us are familiar with the listing of the 613 Mitzvos of the Sefer Hachinuch. Actually, this author did not develop his own list of 613 Mitzvos, as he mentions himself several times in his work. He followed the calculation of the Rambam, who wrote a large work on the subject called Sefer HaMitzvos, which includes both the rules of when to count something as a mitzvah, and a list of the 248 Mitzvos aseh and the 365 Mitzvos lo saaseh, organized in a logical pattern.

Chronology versus Logic

The Sefer Hachinuch reorganized the Rambam’s list, numbering each mitzvah according to its first appearance in the Torah. Thus, the first mitzvah of the Torah, Pru Urvu, producing children, which is mentioned in Parshas Bereishis, is the first mitzvah; Bris Milah, mentioned in parshas Lech Lecha is counted as the second mitzvah, and Gid Hanasheh, taught in Parshas Vayishlach, completes the three Mitzvos mentioned in Sefer Bereishis. Parshas Bo contains a total of twenty Mitzvos, reflecting its significance as the first parsha in which Hashem directly commanded Mitzvos to the Jewish people, as Rabbi Yitzchak noted in the Midrash Rashi quotes in his opening words of his commentary to Chumash.

What Counts as a Mitzvah?

In the first section of the Sefer HaMitzvos, the Rambam details the rules that he used to determine what qualifies as a “mitzvah” in the count of 613. He establishes 14 rules, which include:

No Rabbinics

I. Any mitzvah that is only miderabbanan is not counted among the 613 Mitzvos. This rule may seem obvious since the Gemara is calculating the 613 Mitzvos that Hashem commanded us, and not those later added by the Sages. However, one of the greatest of the Geonim, the author of the Baal Halachos Gedolos, counts many Mitzvos derabbanan in his list of the 613, including kindling Ner Chanukah, reading Megillah on Purim, and Reciting Hallel. How could the Baal Halachos Gedolos include these in his list of Mitzvos that Hashem commanded us?

The Ramban, in his exhaustive commentary to the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos, provides two answers:

A. There is an alternative text to the Gemara in Makkos, which reads, “The Jewish people are commanded 613 Mitzvos.” According to this wording, the Gemara there cites a Biblical verse not to imply that we derive these 613 Mitzvos from the Torah, but merely as a mnemonic device (based on the Gematriya of the word Torah) to remind us that there are a total of 613 Mitzvos of both Torah and rabbinical sources.

B. The Ramban contends that even the text of the Gemara that I quoted earlier, which states that Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded 611 Mitzvos, does not present an obstacle to the Behag’s approach, and could include Mitzvos introduced by Chazal. The Ramban cites many places where even though the Gemara states that “The Torah required…” or “Hashem said…” the statement refers to a rabbinic command, not a Torah requirement. In his opinion, Chazal used this terminology even in the context of Rabbinic requirements, since the Torah requires us to observe the Mitzvos that Chazal commanded.

Thus, although the Rambam insists that there are 613 Mitzvos that Hashem commanded the Jewish people, and his opinion is accepted by most authorities, there are substantive Torah leaders who understand that this list also includes Mitzvos introduced by the Sages.

Dispute the Rules

In addition to the above dispute, there are other authorities who disagree with almost all of the other thirteen rules that the Rambam used to define the Mitzvos. Nevertheless, since the Jewish people have come to accept the Rambam’s and Chinuch’s count of the Mitzvos, it is important for us to know and understand these rules.

II. Only What the Torah Says

The Rambam’s second rule is to not count any mitzvah that is derived hermeneutically, through a drasha, but only mitzvos that are mentioned outright in the Torah. Therefore, says the Rambam, we do not list the requirements to treat one’s stepfather or stepmother with appropriate respect as separate mitzvos, since these requirements are derived from the extra word es. Instead, these are included under the mitzvah of respecting one’s parents. Indeed, if we begin including these requirements as separate mitzvos, the list would be far greater than 613. Similarly, the Rambam rules not to count Visiting the Sick (Bikkur Cholim) or Comforting Mourners (Nichum Aveilim), as separate mitzvos, but includes them under the Torah’s mitzvah of emulating Hashem by acting in ways that imitate His acts of kindness.

III. Mitzvos are Forever!

One only counts a mitzvah that is everlasting, and not a mitzvah that is inherently temporary. For example, we do not count that a Levi may not serve in the Mishkan past his fiftieth birthday as one of the 613 commandments since this rule applied only in the Desert and not afterwards.

The reason for not counting these commandments is that the 613 Mitzvos bond an eternal relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people, and as such apply only to mitzvos that apply forever. However, many mitzvos unapplicable today due to the absence of the Beis Hamikdash still count in the list of 613. This is because these mitzvos are eternal commandments that are temporarily beyond our ability to observe.

IV. Torah, but Not the Whole Torah!

One should not count as part of the 613 any command that includes observing the entire Torah. For example, the Torah states: Be careful concerning all that I am telling you (Shemos 23:13) and Guard my decrees and observe my judgments (Vayikra 18:4). These and other similar statements are not counted among the 613 mitzvos. The Rambam explains that each of the 613 Mitzvos involves a different mode of developing our relationship with Hashem, while a pasuk that instructs to keep all the mitzvos is not indicating any specific way to grow.

V. No Reasons!

In the instances when the Torah provided a reason to observe a mitzvah, we do not count the reason as a separate mitzvah. Although these reasons are significant in understanding both our relationship with Hashem and why we observe His mitzvos, they do not obligate any additional actions with which to deepen our relationship with Hashem.

VI. Yes and No

When there are two commands pursuant to an activity, one a positive command (mitzvas aseh) and the other a negative mitzvah (mitzvas lo saaseh), we count the mitzvah twice, once among the 248 Mitzvos aseh and once among the 365 Mitzvos lo saaseh. There are numerous examples of this: For example, there is a positive mitzvah, “to keep Shabbos,” and a negative mitzvah, “not to perform melachah on Shabbos.” The situation is repeated concerning the observance of all the Yomim Tovim (seven times, or 14 more mitzvos), afflicting ourselves on Yom Kippur (which has both a positive and a negative commandment), and regarding all korbanos being salted before placing them on the mizbeiach (which also has a lo saaseh, Do not place unsalted korbanos on the mizbeiach).

VII. Details, Details

Details about when a mitzvah applies and how to fulfill it do not count as separate mitzvos. For example, for certain sins the Torah requires an atoning korban that has a sliding scale: a wealthy person offers an animal, a pauper offers only a grain offering, and someone in-between offers a dove or pigeon. All this counts as only one mitzvah, although there are many different ways of accomplishing it. Here again, there is one mitzvah that develops our relationship with Hashem, although depending on one’s financial circumstances, there are different ways to perform it. Dividing this into several mitzvos would send an erroneous message.

VIII. Not Every “No,” means “No!

There are instances where even though a verse might seem to be forbidding something, a careful reading of the verse indicates that the Torah is merely stating that something will not happen or does not need to be performed. Obviously, these instances do not qualify as mitzvos. For example, the Torah says that no prophet will arise who will be like Moshe. Although the wording of the Torah, Lo kam od navi kemoshe, might be read to mean, “No prophet should arise like Moshe,” which implies that we are commanded to make sure this does not happen, the translation of the verse is actually a prophetic Divine statement: “No prophet will arise like Moshe.” Thus, this verse is not a directive and does not count as a commandment.

IX. Five times One equals One.

When the Torah repeats a mitzvah many times, one does not count each time as a separate mitzvah, but we count it as one mitzvah. Therefore, although the Torah prohibits eating blood on several occasions, it counts as only one of the 613 mitzvos. As a result, in the Rambam’s opinion, someone who violates this prohibition is punished only as if he violated one lo saaseh, and not many.

According to this approach, when two similar mitzvos lo saaseh or two similar mitzvos aseh are both counted as mitzvos, this must be because one mitzvah is more comprehensive than the other is. Otherwise, this mitzvah would not be counted more than once.

Here is an example:

The Rambam counts two different mitzvos against owning chometz on Pesach, bal yera’eh, that chometz should not be seen, and bal yematzei, that chometz should not be found. Why does he count both of these mitzvos, whereas he counts only one mitzvah not to eat blood?

The answer is that these two mitzvos are not identical: bal yematzei includes cases that are not included under bal ye’ra’eh. Specifically, someone who buried chometz on his property does not violate bal ye’ra’eh, since the chometz cannot be seen. However, he does violate bal yematzei since the chometz can be found.

This distinction not only affects whether this mitzvah is counted once or twice among the 613, but also has other halachic ramifications. Someone who purchased chometz or mixed dough and allowed it to rise on Pesach thereby violates two different prohibitions. Since these prohibitions count as two separate mitzvos, the violater is punished for two different violations.

X. Prelimary Steps do not a Mitzvah Make

Preliminary steps involved in the performance of a mitzvah are not counted as a mitzvah on their own. For example, one does not count the statement that one should take flour to bring a korban mincha, a grain offering, as a mitzvah on its own. It is simply one stage in the performance of the mitzvah.

XI. Part of a Mitzvah is Equal to None

There are mitzvos in which several items are involved in successfully performing one mitzvah, such as taking the four species on Sukkos. The Rambam points out that one counts the taking of the four species as one mitzvah, not as four separate mitzvos, since taking each of them without the others, or even three without the fourth, does not execute any mitzvah.

XII. Completing one Part of a Mitzvah

Some mitzvos involve the successful completion of several other commandments, such as, the mitzvah to build the Mishkan/Beis Hamikdash, which involves the completion of many of the vessels, including the Menorah, the Shulchan, and the Altar. Each of these independent mitzvos is not counted separately: Since the purpose of all of them is the creation of the Mishkan/Beis Hamikdash, they are all included under the one mitzvah of building Hashem’s “house.”

XIII. Many Days are not Many Mitzvos

If a mitzvah persists for several days, one counts the mitzvah only once. It is interesting that the Rambam counts offering the Korban Musaf on Sukkos as only one mitzvah, even though the number of its bulls changes daily.

Included in this rule is that a mitzvah observed more than once a day is counted only once. Therefore, reciting Keriyas Shma every morning and evening is counted as only one mitzvah (Kinas Sofrim).

XIV. Punishments are not Mitzvos

When the Torah describes the punishment for violating a specific mitzvah, we do not count that punishment as a separate mitzvah in its own right.

Although almost every one of the Rambam’s rules has its disputants, this last rule is interesting because it entails a major dispute between the Geonim’s approach to counting mitzvos and the list of the Rambam. Several of the Geonim listed the 613 Mitzvos, and they counted everytime the Torah mentions a punishment for violating a certain command as a separate mitzvah. This is because the individual’s command not to violate this prohibition of the Torah counts as a mitzvah, and the Beis Din’s instruction to mete out a specific punishment to those who violate this prohibition is counted as a separate mitzvah. This understanding of the Mitzvos creates a list of 71 Mitzvos of the Torah that apply to the Beis Din.

As mentioned above, the Rambam disputes this approach and counts simply five Mitzvos for the Beis Din to fulfill, one for each of the four types of capital punishment Beis Din carries out, and one for malkus, lashes.

Other Lists

Among those who did not follow the Rambam fully, the one closest to the Rambam’s count of the 613 Mitzvos was Rav Moshe of Coucy, one of the Baalei Tosafos, whose magnum opus, the Sefer HaMitzvos HaGadol (often abbreviated to Smag) is a compendium of all the halachic conclusions of the Gemara, with a full analysis of the author’s decision, organized according to the list of the 613 Mitzvos. Although the book is not commonly studied today, and it is never used as the final halachic decision, at one time it was the major decisor of halachah for Ashkenazic Jewry.

What is interesting is that although he also organized the mitzvos in a logical fashion, similar to the approach of the Rambam, his list is in a very different order from that of the Rambam. Nevertheless, his count is so similar to the Rambam that in his list of 248 positive mitzvos, he agrees with the Rambam on 245 of them.

His extra three, which the Rambam does not count, include:

To accept Hashem’s judgment on anything that happens. Whereas the Smag counts this as one of the 613 Mitzvos, deriving it from a pasuk, the Rambam does not count this as one of the 613 Mitzvos.

The Smag counts one of the 613 mitzvos — calculating seasons and the heavenly bodies to know how to determine the Jewish calendar. The Rambam mentions in his second rule that one should not count this as a separate mitzvah, because it is derived from a drasha. The Smag does not accept this rule.

The Third Smag Addition:

The Smag counts as a mitzvah: To distance oneself from falsehood. I admit to having no idea why the Rambam does not count this as a mitzvah. He includes all the laws of the mitzvah under the mitzvas lo saaseh of “Do not bear a false story,” a lo saaseh that includes the laws of saying loshon hora. However, as we mentioned earlier, the Rambam contends that one counts overlapping mitzvos aseh and lo saaseh separately, so why does he omit the count of this mitzvah?

In conclusion, we have seen that much halachic literature is devoted to counting and understanding the various counts of the the 613 Mitzvos. Some people have the practice of reviewing the mitzvos that are included in the week’s Torah reading at the Shabbos table, a minhag that is not only praiseworthy, but also familiarizes us with all the 613 Mitzvos.

The Mourning Period of Sefirah – What Are the Guidelines of the Aveilus Observed During the Sefirah Weeks?

Reason for Mourning

The medrash teaches that one reason for the counting of the omer is so that we again experience the excitement of anticipating the receiving of the Torah (quoted by Ran, end of Pesachim). At the same time, it is unfortunate that this very same part of the year has witnessed much tragedy for the Jewish people. Indeed, the Mishnah (Eduyos 2:10) points out that the season between Pesach and Shavuos is a time of travail. One major calamity that befell us during this season is the plague that took the lives of the 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva. They died within several weeks in one year between Pesach and Shavuos because they did not treat one another with proper respect (Yevamos 62b). The world was desolate for the loss of Torah until Rabbi Akiva went to the southern part of Eretz Yisroel to teach five great scholars, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabbi Yosi, and Rabbi Elozor ben Shamua, who became the upholders of the future of Torah.

Again, in the time of the Crusades, terrible tragedies happened to the Jewish communities of the Rhine River Valley during the period between Pesach and Shavuos (Taz and Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chayim 493). Some of these catastrophies are recorded in the Kinos that we recite on Tisha B’Av. The reciting of “Av HaRachamim” after Keriyas HaTorah on Shabbos was introduced as a testimonial to remember these holy communities who perished in sanctification of Hashem’s name rather than accept baptism.

What Practices Are Prohibited

At the time of the tragic passing of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, the minhag was established to treat the sefirah period as a time of mourning and to prohibit the conducting of weddings during this season. It is interesting to note that although it is forbidden to hold a wedding during this season, if someone schedules a wedding during this season in violation of the accepted community practice, we do not penalize him for having done so (Tshuvos Geonim #278). Thus, although this person violated the community rules by scheduling the wedding, others may attend the wedding (see Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:95). There are poskim who permit weddings under extenuating circumstances, such as concern that a delay may cause the engagement to be broken (Aruch HaShulchan 493:2).

In addition to abstaining from weddings, certain other mourning practices are also observed during the period of sefirah. One does not take a haircut during this season (Tur Orach Chayim Chapter 493). However, if there is a bris during sefirah, the mohel, the sandek, and the father of the baby are permitted to have their hair cut in honor of the occasion (Rema), but not the kvatter or those who are honored with “cheika” (Mishneh Brura 493:12). Those who are permitted to have their hair cut in honor of the occasion may even have their hair cut the evening before (Mishneh Brura 493:13).

Dancing is not permitted during the sefirah season (Magen Avraham). Listening to music is likewise prohibited (Igros Moshe 1:166; Minchas Yitzchok 1:111; Yechaveh Daas 3:30). One is permitted to teach, learn, or play music if it is for his livelihood (Igros Moshe 3:87). This is permitted since he is not playing for enjoyment. However, one should not take music lessons for pleasure.

Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that if a wedding took place on Lag B’omer or before Rosh Chodesh Iyar (in places where this is the accepted practice, see below), it is permitted to celebrate the week of sheva berachos with live music and dancing (Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:95). There are others who disagree (Shu”t Minchas Yitzchok 1:111. See Piskei Tshuvos Chapter 493 footnotes 39 and 81 who quotes many authorities on both sides of the question.).

Although certain mourning practices are observed during sefirah, many practices that are prohibited during the three weeks or the nine days preceding Tisha B’Av are permitted. For example, house remodeling, which is prohibited during “the nine days” preceding Tisha B’Av, is permitted during the sefirah period (Shu”t Yechaveh Daas 3:30). Similarly, although during the nine days one is discouraged from doing things that are dangerous, no such concern is mentioned in regard to the period of sefirah. Thus, although the Minchas Elozor reports that he knew of people who would not travel during sefirah, he rules that it is permitted, and that this practice is without halachic basis (Shu”t Minchas Elozor 4:44).

In a similar vein, according to most poskim, one may recite a brocha of shehechiyanu on a new garment or a new fruit during the period of sefirah (Maamar Mordechai 493:2; Kaf HaChayim 493:4). The Maamar Mordechai explains that the custom not to recite shehechiyanu is a mistake that developed because of confusion with the three weeks before Tisha B’Av when one should not recite a shehechiyanu (Maamar Mordechai 493:2). However, there are early poskim that record a custom not to recite shehechiyanu during the mourning period of sefirah (Piskei Tshuvos, quoting Leket Yosher).

It is permitted during sefirah to sing or to have a festive meal without music (Graz; Aruch HaShulchan). It is also permitted to make an engagement party (a vort) or a tnoyim during the sefirah period, provided that there is no music or dancing (Shulchan Aruch Chapter 493 and Magen Avraham).

When Do We Observe Mourning?

There are numerous customs regarding which days of sefirah are to be kept as a period of mourning. The Shulchan Aruch rules that the mourning period runs from the beginning of the sefirah counting and ends on the thirty-fourth day of the omer count (Beis Yosef and Shulchan Aruch Chapter 493; Kaf HaChayim 493:25). In his opinion, there is no celebration on Lag B’Omer, and it is forbidden to schedule a wedding on that day! The source for this opinion is a medrash that states that the plague that caused the deaths of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva ended fifteen days before Shavuos. According to Shulchan Aruch’s understanding, the last day of the plague was the thirty-fourth day of the omer. Thus, the mourning ends fifteen days before Shavuos, ending the day after Lag B’Omer.

However, the generally accepted practice is to treat the thirty-third day of the Omer count as a day of celebration (Rema and Darchei Moshe Chapter 493, quoting Maharil) because according to this tradition, the last day of the tragedy was the thirty-third day (Gra). There are several other reasons mentioned why Lag B’Omer should be treated as a day of celebration. Some record that it is celebrated because it is the yahrzeit of Rav Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar (Birkei Yosef; Chaya Odom, Klal 131:11; Aruch HaShulchan). Others say that it is celebrated because it is the day that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was able to leave the cave in which he had been hiding (Aruch HaShulchan). Another reason recorded for celebrating this day is because it was the day that Rabbi Akiva granted semichah to his surviving disciples (Kaf HaChayim 493:26). Others record that it was the first day that the man began falling for the Jews in the desert (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #233 s.v. amnam yodati).

According to Maharil and Rema, the evening of Lag B’Omer should be included in the mourning period and the celebration should not begin until morning. In their opinion, Lag B’Omer is still counted as one of the thirty-three days of mourning. The aveilos period ends on the morning of Lag B’Omer because of a concept called miktzas hayom ki’chulloh, which means that the last day of mourning does not need to be a complete day (Gemara Moed Katan 19b). If one observes the beginning of the day in mourning, the entire day is included in the count of the mourning days. For this reason, someone getting up from sitting shiva does so on the morning of the seventh day. Observing mourning requirements at the beginning of the seventh day satisfies the requirement to observe the seventh day of shiva. Similarly, one satisfies the requirement to observe the thirty-third day of sefirah mourning by observing mourning only at the beginning of the thirty-third day of sefirah. According to this approach, one should not conduct a wedding on the evening of Lag B’Omer, but only in the daytime. This is because we paskin according to the opinions that the principle of miktzas hayom ki’chulloh only applies if the mourning was observed in the daytime, and it is insufficient to observe aveilos only in the evening of the seventh day.

However, there are other opinions that permit scheduling a wedding even on the evening of the thirty-third, at least under extenuating circumstances (see Gra”z 493:5; Kaf HaChayim 493:28; Igros Moshe 1:159). Some explain that since we consider Lag B’Omer to be a day of celebration, it is not counted as one of the days of mourning (see Chok Yaakov 493:6 and Kaf HaChayim 493:28). Thus, there are some poskim who contend that there are only thirty-two days in the sefirah mourning period (Gra”z 493:5). Another reason to permit scheduling a wedding the evening of Lag B’Omer is based on the opinion that rules that miktzas hayom ki’chulloh applies even when one observes the mourning only at night (Ramban in Toras HoAdam, Chavel edition page 215). Thus, according to this approach, it is sufficient to have the beginning of the night of Lag B’Omer as a mourning period. (It should be noted that according to this opinion, shiva ends in the evening of the seventh day, not in the morning.)

When Lag B’Omer falls out on Shabbos or Sunday, there is a dispute among early poskim whether one is permitted to get a haircut on Friday in honor of Shabbos. The accepted practice it to permit it (Rema 493:2 and Be’er Heiteiv ad loc.). Apparently, the combined honor of Shabbos and the approaching Lag B’Omer together supersede the mourning of sefirah. Some poskim even permit a wedding to take place on the Friday afternoon before Lag B’Omer that falls out on Sunday (Shu”t HaAlef Lecho Shelomoh, Orach Chayim #330). (Bear in mind that the custom in Europe going back hundreds of years was to schedule most weddings on Friday afternoon.)

Are those who follow the practice of observing mourning during the beginning of sefirah permitted to play music during chol hamoed? This subject is disputed by poskim, but the accepted practice is to permit music during chol hamoed (see Piskei Tshuvos 493:6).

There are several other customs that observe the mourning dates of sefirah in different ways. Some observe the mourning period the entire time of sefirah until Shavuos except for Yom Tov, Chol HaMoed, and Rosh Chodesh (and also presumably Lag B’Omer). Therefore, they permit the playing of music on Chol HaMoed and holding weddings and music on Rosh Chodesh. (One cannot have a wedding on Chol HaMoed for an unrelated reason. The sanctity of Yom Tov precludes celebrating a wedding on this day, see Gemara Moed Katan 8b.) This approach is based on an early source that states that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died only on the thirty-three days of sefirah when tachanun is recited, thus excluding the days of Shabbos, Yom Tov, Chol HaMoed, and Rosh Chodesh (Bach, quoting Tosafos). If one subtracts from the forty-nine days of sefirah for the days of Pesach, Chol HaMoed, Rosh Chodesh, and the Shabbosos, one is left with thirty-three days. It is on these days that the mourning is observed. (This approach assumes that in earlier days they recited tachanun during the month of Nisan and during the several days before Shavuos.)

Another custom recorded is to refrain from taking haircuts or making weddings from the beginning of sefirah until the morning of Lag B’Omer, but after Lag B’Omer to observe partial mourning by refraining from weddings, although haircuts were permitted. This approach follows the assumption that the original custom of aveilus during sefirah was based on the fact that the plague that killed the disciples of Rabbi Akiva ended on Lag B’Omer. Later, because of the tragedies of the Crusades period, the custom developed not to schedule weddings between Lag B’Omer and Shavuos. However, the mourning period accepted because of the tragedies of the Crusades was not accepted as strictly, and it was permitted to take haircuts (Taz 493:2).

Still others have the custom that the mourning period does not begin until after Rosh Chodesh Iyar but then continues until Shavuos (Maharil, quoted by Darchei Moshe 493:3). This approach assumes that the thirty-three days of mourning are contiguous, but that the mourning period does not begin until after the month of Nisan is over. In Salonica they observed a Sefardic version of this custom: They practiced the mourning period of sefirah from after Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavuos. However, they took haircuts on the thirty-fourth day of the sefirah count (cited by Shu”t Dvar Moshe, Orach Chayim #32).

A similar custom existed in many communities in Lithuania and northern Poland, where they kept the mourning period of sefirah from the first day of Rosh Chodesh Iyar until the morning of the third day of Sivan. According to this practice, weddings were permitted during the three days before Shavuos. This practice was based on the assumption that the disciples of Rabbi Akiva died after Lag B’Omer until Shavuos (Aruch HaShulchan, based on Gemara Yevamos). Magen Avraham reports that this was the custom in his area (Danzig/Gdansk); Chayei Adam reports that this was the practice in his city (Vilna), and Aruch HaShulchan report that this was the custom in his community (Novardok). These customs are followed to this day in communities where weddings are allowed after Pesach through the month of Nisan.

Rav Moshe Feinstein points out that although these customs differ which days are considered days of mourning, the premise of most of the customs is the same: Thirty-three days of sefirah should be observed as days of mourning in memory of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. In Rav Moshe’s opinion, these different customs should be considered as one minhag, and the differences between them are variations in observing the same minhag (Igros Moshe 1:159). This has major halachic ramifications, as we shall see.

Can One Change From One Custom to Another?

We would usually assume that someone must follow the same practice as his parents – or the practice of his community –­­ because of the principle of al titosh toras imecha, “do not forsake the Torah of your mother (Mishlei 1:8)”. This posuk is understood by chazal to mean that we are obligated to observe a practice that our parents observed. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein contends that since the different customs that are currently observed are all considered to be one minhag, changing from one custom to another is not considered changing one’s minhag, and it is therefore permitted. There is ample evidence that other, earlier poskim also agreed that a community may change its custom how it observes the mourning days of sefirah (see Shut Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim #142). According to this opinion, the specific dates that one observes are not considered part of the minhag and are not necessarily binding on each individual, as long as he observes thirty-three days of sefirah mourning.

How Should a Community Conduct Itself?

Rama rules that although each of the various customs mentioned has halachic validity (Darchei Moshe 493:3), each community should be careful to follow only one practice, and certainly not follow the leniencies of two different customs. This is because if a community follows two different practices, it appears that Hashem’s chosen people are following two different versions of the Torah, G-d forbid.

Rav Moshe Feinstein points out that the Rama is discussing a community that has only one besdin or only one Rav. Under these circumstances, the entire community must follow the exact same practice for sefirah. However, in a city where there are many rabbonim and kehilos, each of which has its own custom regarding the observance of sefirah, there is no requirement for the entire community to follow one practice (Igros Moshe 1:159). Thus, there is no requirement that everyone in a large city follow the same custom for sefirah, unless it has been accepted that the community has one standard custom.

Of course. as in all matters of halacha, each community should follow its practices and Rabbonim, and each individual should follow the ruling of his Rav.

Attending a Wedding During One’s Sefirah Mourning

If a friend schedules a wedding for a time that one is keeping sefirah, is it permitted to attend? One is permitted to attend and celebrate a wedding during his sefirah mourning period, even listening to music and dancing there (Igros Moshe 1:159).

Thus, although I am required to have a mourning period during sefirah of at least thirty-three days, I may attend the wedding of a friend or acquaintance that is scheduled at a time that I keep the mourning period of sefirah. However, Rav Moshe rules that if one is going to a wedding on a day that he is keeping sefirah, he should not shave, unless his unshaved appearance will disturb the simcha (Igros Moshe 2:95).

We should all hope and pray that the season between Pesach and Shavuos should cease from being a time of travail, but instead revert to being a time of total excitement in anticipation of the receiving of the Torah.

Making Our Days Count

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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.

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