by Jonathan Udren
The Mitzvah of Counting
The first evening after the Passover seder, after we've eaten matzah
and maror, and recounted the story of our exodus, the Torah presents us
with the following mitzvah:
"You should count for yourselves from the day after Passover, from
the day that you will bring the barley offering (omer in Hebrew),
count seven complete weeks, until after the seventh week, count fifty
days" (Lev. 23:15).
From this passage we actually learn two separate mitzvot: the first is
the priestly obligation to bring a special barley offering in the Temple
each evening beginning from the sixteenth of the month of Nisan for fifty
consecutive days, until the holiday of Shavuot.
The second is a seemingly bizarre mitzvah, called Sefirat HaOmer,
or the Counting of the Barley Offering. Every Jew is told to count each
day that the barley offering is consumed on the altar in the Temple. Even
though we have no Temple offer sacrifices today, we still perform this
count at the end of the evening prayer service, along with a special blessing
made in conjunction with the counting, till Shavuot fifty days later.
In order to explain this strange command, the Zohar, the fundamental
text of Jewish mysticism, speaks about Sefirat HaOmer in several
places. One particularly interesting comment that the Zohar makes is as
"The Days of Counting (the Omer) reflect an aspect of the counting
of the seven clean days before a woman and her husband can be intimate;
this occurs before the holiday of Shauvot, since it is likened to a marriage."
As we will see, this cryptic statement in the Zohar contains two fundamental
understandings of the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer.
Longing for the Torah
Rav Daniel Frish, author of the noted commentary on the Zohar: Matok
Mi'dvash, quotes an interesting midrash in his book on Sefirat
HaOmer called U'Sefartem Lechem:
"When Moses told the Nation of Israel that they were going to serve
G-d on Mount Sinai, the Nation responded, 'Moses our Teacher, when is
this going to happen?' He answered them, 'Fifty days from now.' Afterwards,
each person counted the days to himself (until the time of serving G-d
at Mount Sinai). Therefore, the Sages set as a custom that each Jew should
count the fifty days for himself."
The midrash illustrates the great longing that the Nation felt
after being told of the opportunity to serve G-d. There was a deep anticipation,
almost an obsession, with Mount Sinai, so much so that every day as the
moment neared their anticipation grew stronger and stronger. This is one
facet that the above Zohar illuminates: the lovesickness the nation felt
as it approached the giving of the Torah could only be compared to a bride
counting the days until she is united with her groom. In many other midrashic
sources, the metaphor of a wedding is used, in which the Jewish people
are compared to the bride, G-d as the groom, and Mount Sinai as the wedding
The seven clean days that the Zohar speaks about are a reference to the
laws of family purity. According to Jewish Law, when a married woman begins
to menstruate, she must separate physically from her husband. After she
completes her menstrual cycle, she then counts "seven clean days,"
meaning seven days without seeing blood. Only then can she immerse herself
in the ritual bath, and afterward be intimate with her husband.
Though the laws of family purity require a deeper explanation, one simple
understanding is that they assist in maintaining a healthy sexual relationship
between the couple, even after many years of marriage. On the night when
the woman immerses in the ritual bath, she is said to be dear to her husband
like a new bride. The short separation allows for a deep emotional longing
to build between the couple, and their physical reunion allows them to
recreate their first moment of intimacy. The Zohar is purposefully using
vivid imagery to illustrate the depth of the emotional and spiritual longing
Israel had for G-d leading up to their encounter at Mount Sinai.
Counting Towards Character Refinement
There is another lens through which we can view the above Zohar based
on an article written by the great modern Chassidic master Rabbi Shalom
Noach Berzavsky, known as the Slonimer Rebbe, author of Netivot Shalom.
He brings up an obvious difficulty with our Zohar: how can it compare
the seven clean days with the seven weeks of counting? If a parallel truly
existed, the Torah would have instructed that we count seven days, not
The Slonimer Rebbe begins by explaining that the seven days of repentance
between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are in relation to the seven middot,
otherwise known as the seven lower sefirot in the language of the
Kaballah. These are seven general attributes or building blocks through
which we understand G-d's interaction with our world. For example, the
first trait is called chesed, usually translated as loving kindness,
and the second is called gevurah, or judgment.
Each of the seven days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as
an auspicious time for internal work and character refinement, mirror
one of these seven characteristics. Each day during that week is a concentrated
period of time appropriate for deep personal cleansing and growth.
However, during the forty-nine days of counting of the omer, we have
seven times seven. The seven traits are manifest not in seven days, but
over seven weeks. Instead of one concentrated day for each middah,
each one is spread out over a week, allowing one to focus on a single
trait in a much deeper fashion.
The Slonimer Rebbe, according to the Zohar, is pointing out the spiritual
power contained during this period. Even more than the seven days between
Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, the forty-nine days of Sefirat HaOmer
allow for internal work in comprehensive fashion found no other time during
the year. We each have the chance to look deep into our character and
fine tune ourselves in preparation for the wedding at Mount Sinai on Shavuot,
when we receiving the Torah anew.
This seemingly odd mitzvah of counting offers us a chance to recognize
the beauty and uniqueness of our relationship with G-d, and how we are
provided with incredible opportunities for personal growth. If we view
the Torah as a powerful tool for self-refinement, and for cultivating
our relationship with G-d, then we too can feel that yearning for Sinai
like a bride for her groom under the wedding canopy.
[First published on our sister site, KabbalahOnline.org]
Yonatan Udren, originally from Ft. Lauderdale, FL, has lived in Israel
since 2001. He is a freelance/creative writer, currently living in Efrat.
Any comments or questions can be directed to his e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.