Sefirat Ha’Omer and Shavuot Sources, Reasons, and Lessons
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Parsha Halacha – Parshat Emor
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Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner in loving memory of Stephen’s father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella’s parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen.
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The Torah portion of Emor contains the Parshat HaMo’adot, the section discussing all of the Yamim Tovim (festivals) on the Jewish year. We read this section on the second day of Pesach, the second day of Shavuot, and the first two days of Sukkot. The discussion about the holidays seems to be out of place in the third book of the Torah, Vaykira (Levitcus), which is called Torat Kohanim, the Torah for the Kohanim, as it mostly discusses laws that are relevant to Kohanim.
The Ramban explains why the Yamim Tovim are included here: The festivals relate to the Kohanim because they are the ones who offered the festival sacrifices (korbanot) in the Beit HaMikdash. As we read at the end of the Parshat HaMo’adot (Levit, 23:37), “These are G-d’s appointed… holy occasions, on which to offer up a fire offering to the L-rd, burnt offering and meal offering, sacrifice and libations, the requirement of each day on its day.” Despite this, the details of the holiday sacrifices (Musafin) are not given here since these sacrifices were not brought in the desert. Instead these are discussed in the Torah portion of Pinchas (Numbers 28 and 29), which was taught to the Jewish people several months before they entered the land of Israel.
Bringing Down the Divine
The Seforno offers a different explanation as to why the festivals are discussed in Vayikra (the Torah for the Kohanim): Just as the Kohanim bring down the Shechina (Divine Presence) to this world, so, too, the Jewish people draw down G-dliness into this world on the holidays by spending their time praying and studying Torah.
An Eternal Statute for All Generations
The commentaries discuss why the Torah specifies that some holidays should be observed in all times and places but does not mention that by all the holidays. Specifically, the Torah says “חֻקַּ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בְּכֹ֖ל מֽשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם This is an eternal statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places” concerning the prohibition of eating new grain Chadash (verse 14) and observing Shavuot (verse 21). In addition, regarding Shabbat and Yom Kippur it says (verse 3 and 31), “בְּכֹ֖ל מֽשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם in all your dwelling places.” Such expressions, however, are not found regarding Pesach and Sukkot.
Shabbat Celebrated in each Location According to its Time
The Seforno explains that the Torah writes “בְּכֹ֖ל מֽשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם in all your dwelling places” concerning Shabbat to teach us that Shabbat is observed in each place according to the time of sunrise and sunset of that place rather than observing it at one time for the entire globe.
Shabbat is Only Fully Observed Outside the Beit HaMikdash
In addition, the Ramban writes that by writing “בְּכֹ֖ל מֽשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם in all your dwelling places” the Torah is alluding to the fact that Shabbat is only observed fully in your [private] dwelling places. Whereas in the Beit HaMikdash it is not fully observed as the communal sacrifices were offered there every day of the week including Shabbat.
Chadash in the Diaspora
The Ramban explains that by writing “חֻקַּ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בְּכֹ֖ל מֽשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם This is an eternal statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places” concerning Chadash, the Torah teaches us that this law applies even in the diaspora (even though barley from the diaspora is not fit for the Omer sacrifice) and even when there is no Omer sacrifice. (The Ramban is following the opinion that Chadash is an obligation in the diaspora. See O.C. 489:10 and commentaries that some disagree.)
Shavuot without the Two Loaves
Since the central sacrifice of Shavuot is the two new loaves of wheat bread, one might think that the holiday needs to be observed only when there is a Beit HaMikdash where this sacrifice could be brought. The Torah teaches us that this is not so. Rather, Shavuot must be observed eternally (even when there is no Beit HaMikdash) and even in the diaspora (in all your dwelling places). Once we learn regarding Shavuot that it applies in all times and places, it is not necessary to specify it regarding the other festivals.
Nevertheless the Torah repeats the need to observe in the diaspora (“in all your dwelling places”) regarding Yom Kippur as one may think that Yom Kipur only atones for us if we bring the requisite sacrifices of the day. As such the Torah emphasizes that even when there is no Bait HaMikdash, we still receive atonement simply by observing the other mitzvot of the day (i.e., fasting and refraining from work).
Why Count the Omer?
The commentaries give various explanations for the mitzvah of counting the Omer:
- Anticipating the Giving of the Torah
The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 306) explains that it reminds us of the first year when the Jewish people counted every day from the Exodus to the giving of the Torah in anticipation of the great event. Today, too, we count these days to elicit a yearning within ourselves to renew our connection to the Torah.
- Purification Process
The Ohr HaChaim quotes the Zohar which says that the seven weeks of the counting of the Omer corresponds to the seven clean days which a Zavah (a woman who experienced unnatural menstrual bleeding) must count. Because the impurities of Egypt were very severe, we needed to count seven “clean” weeks instead of just seven clean days. Even today, thousands of years later, we must purify ourselves on an annual basis from our own “Egypt,” or own, self-imposed limitations, and renew our commitment to the Torah on Shavuot. This is why the count starts from the day after the first day of Pesach since the first day was spent (partially) in Egypt and cannot count as part of the “clean days.” This is similar to the law of a woman who is counting her seven clean days and can only count a day as part of her clean days if it is completely clean of any blood. Similarly, every year we leave our own spiritual Egypt on the night of the first Seder and thus cannot count that day as part of the Omer count.
- Prayers for the Harvest
The Seforno explains that the Omer (first barley) sacrifice was brought to thank G-d for the spring season. The sacrifice offered together with the Omer (see verse 12) was brought as a prayer that the coming season bring successful crops. We then count every day to remind us to continue praying for those crops to be successful. The holiday of Shavuot was then celebrated to thank Hashem for the harvest. It is called the Holiday of Weeks (see Exodus 34:22, Numbers 28:26 and Deut. 16:10) as it recalls the weeks that led up to the harvest which were crucial to its success. Then on Sukkot we further thank G-d, this time for the grain we gather in from the fields (see Deut 16:13).
The following verse (in Jeremiah 5:24) indicates that the word Shavuot, weeks, can allude to the weeks that lead up to a successful harvest. “לוֹא־אָֽמְר֣וּ בִלְבָבָ֗ם נִ֚ירָא נָא֙ אֶת הַנֹּתֵ֥ן גֶּ֛שֶׁם יוֹרֶ֥ה וּמַלְק֖וֹשׁ בְּעִתּ֑וֹ שְׁבֻעֹ֛ת חֻקּ֥וֹת קָצִ֖יר יִשְׁמָר־לָֽנוּ And they did not say in their heart, ‘Let us now fear the L-rd our G-d, Who gives rain, the early rain and the latter rain in its time, the weeks of the laws of harvest He keeps for us.’”
Acquiring a Good Heart
The Benei Yissachar points out that the words “לב טוב a good heart” have the Gematriyah of 49 because through the purification process of counting the Omer we acquire for ourselves a good heart.
The Ohr HaChaim points out that the words וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ (Count for yourselves) can be translated as “You shall polish yourselves” because the word ספיר means sapphire. Thus, the verse alludes to the fact that through this counting we can spiritually elevate ourselves so that the luchot (two tablets of the law), which were (and are) given on Shavuot and were made of sapphire, can become part of us.
Why Is Pesach Called Shabbat in the Verse?
The Torah says (verse 11) that the Omer should be sacrificed on the day after Shabbat. According to our sages the word Shabbat in this verse means the first day of the holiday of Pesach. The Ohr HaChaim offers the following interpretation as to why the Torah uses the word Shabbat instead of the word Chag which is the usual term for holiday:
- Pesach – a Day for the Soul
The term Shabbat is used to indicate that we received (the beginning) of our Jewish soul on the first day of Pesach just as the world received its soul on the first Shabbat. This is alluded to in the verse (Exodus 31;17) שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ “He rested and [the world] got a soul” and in the verse (Gen 2:2) וַיְכַ֤ל אֱלֹקים בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְׁׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה And G-d completed on the seventh day His work that He did.” Although G-d did not create anything on Shabbat, it is considered that He completed His work on that day as that is when the world received its soul. (The soul in this context means a deeper aspect of spirituality.)
- Pesach is from Above
The Arizal explains that the holiness of Shabbat is not dependent on our actions. Rather, it is a gift from G-d which He gives to the world every seven days since the beginning of creation. On the other hand, the holiness of the Yamim Tovim (holidays) is one that the Jewish people bring about by establishing the Jewish calendar and by our spiritually preparing ourselves for the Yom Tov. In this respect the first day of Pesach is like Shabbat because it represents how G-d extricates us from our spiritual impurities even if we do not deserve it as He did in Egypt many years ago. We must then work during the days of the Omer to internalize these revelations so that their imprint on us is everlasting.
Why Matan Torah is Not Mentioned Regarding Shavuot
Based on the Torah’s account of the giving of the Torah (Matan Torah), we know that it took place on the day we celebrate as Shavuot even though the Torah does not mention this explicitly. Rather it simply calls Shavuot the holiday of weeks (see above) and the holiday of the Bikurim/first fruit (see Numbers 28:26). The Kli Yakar explains that the giving of the Torah is alluded to in the verse (16) regarding Shavuot that says : “וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֛ם מִנְחָ֥ה חֲדָשָׁ֖ה לַֽה׳ Bring a new meal offering to G-d.” This alludes to the Torah which should always be new and fresh every day as the Talmud (Eiruvin 54b) says that just as a baby finds a new taste every time it nurses so, too, one can always find new insights in the Torah. This is also the reason why the date of the giving of the Torah is not explicitly mentioned in the verse as one should not wait until Shavuot to find new inspiration in the Torah but should do so every day. The meal offering brought on Shavuot is chametz (leavened) unlike most other meal offerings. This alludes to the fact that the Torah is the antidote to the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) as the Talmud says (Kiddushin 30b), “I have created the Yetzer HaRa and I have created the Torah as its antidote. The Chida adds that the purpose of the exile in Egypt was to weaken our Yetzer Hara by making us more submissive so that we could more easily accept the Divine yoke of the Torah.
This is also the reason why the Torah does not explicitly say that Rosh Hashanah is the judgment day. It is rather a tradition of our sages (see the commentaries on Job 1:6), for if it were explicitly stated, one might delay repenting until Rosh HaShana. Whereas in fact one should do Teshuvah every day as to a certain degree we are judged every day of the year.
Why No Shehechiyanu for Counting the Omer?
The Pardes Yosef brings various explanations as to why we do not recite the Shehechiyanu blessing when counting the Omer for the first time as we do when doing other seasonal mitzvot:
- A Painful Reminder
The Rashba (Responsa 1:126) writes that when we count the Omer we are reminded that we no longer have the Beit HaMikdash and the Omer sacrifice. As a result this mitzvah is not so joyful, which is why we do not recite the Shehechiyanu blessing as it is only recited on a joyful occasion.
In addition, the Omer is a time of Divine judgment, which is why the students of Rabbi Akiva were punished at that time (see Yevamot 62b).
- A Preparatory Act
The Radvaz writes (Reponsa 1327) that the counting of the Omer is a preparation for the holiday of Shavuot (as explained above). As such, it does not merit its own Shehechiyanu blessing just as one does not recite Shehechiyanu when building a Sukkah as he will recite it when he eats in the Sukkah.
- May Forget
The Maharil writes that we don’t recite Shehechiyanu when counting the Omer in case we don’t complete the count in which case (according to some opinions) we would not fulfill the mitzvah.
- Yearning for the Torah
The Kedushat Levi (Naso, Sefiarah) explains that the counting of the Omer expresses our yearning to rid ourselves of the impurity of Egypt and purify ourselves to receive the Torah (as explained above). In fact we wish we were spiritually ready earlier and would not have to wait 50 days for this. It is therefore not appropriate to say Shehechiyanu since we wish we would not need this mitzvah but could receive the Torah immediately.
May we Merit to Internalize the Revelations of these Holy Days!
Wishing you a Happy Pesach Sheini and a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!