For Lag Ba'Omer: Sfirat Haomer, time of delight and despair

The period has its roots in the Torah, seems to be connected to Temple sacrifice, to the Temple destruction and to preparation for Mount Sinai - so what is the right attitude to it? The deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students may provide the answer.

Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Judaism Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
INN: J. Fogel

The Counting today

The Torah’s instruction that we are to count on a daily basis the forty-nine days between the second day of Passover until the giving of the Torah on the sixth of Sivan is a conflicted period of time.  It is experienced simultaneously as a time of great anticipation and joy as well as time of sadness and mourning.  

The Torah states, “you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Sabbath (Yom Tov) from the day of your bringing the Omer of waiving seven complete weeks they should be.  Until the day following the seventh week, you should count 50 days and you should offer a new meal offering to God.” Leviticus 23:15-16.

To understand this phenomena, we must analyze and take into account two factors:

1. Is the requirement to count the days of the Omer related in any way to the mitzvah of bringing the Omer sacrifice? 

2. If the answer is that the counting is related to the sacrifice, then after the destruction of the Temple when all sacrifices were nullified, does the counting of the Omer still remain a Torah requirement?

The Talmud states:

Abayei said, it is a mitzvah to count the days and a mitzvah to count the weeks.  The Rabbis of the school of Rav Ashi counted days and counted weeks.  Ameimar counted the days, but did not count the weeks.  He said, that this is done as a memory of the Temple (Zecher LaMikdash)  Menachot 66a. 

Rashi explains in detail the opinion of Ameimar:

He (Ameimar) said that the counting of the Omer that we do now is not an obligation. This is because we no longer have the Omer (sacrifice), but it is only a remembrance of the Temple, therefore it is sufficient just to count days.  Ad. Locum.

Although the position of Ameimar is clear (that counting today is only Rabbinic), that of Abayei (that seems to imply that counting today is a Torah requirement) is really unclear.  Did Abayei maintain that counting today has no real connection with the Omer sacrifice? If so, how does he explain the apparent connection that is stated in the Torah?  If he believes that during the period of the Temple there was a connection with the Omer sacrifice, but nevertheless today it is a Torah requirement, then how could the counting remain intact without the basis for the counting?  

We could also say, that both Abayei and Ameimar agree that today counting is a Rabbinic obligation and only disagree as to the stringency of that counting (i.e. whether one needs to count days and weeks) but then we are forced to explain, what is the basis of their disagreement?

The Ran attempts to offer solutions to some of these problems.  He maintains that since Abayei and Rav Ashi are the majority position, we rule as they do (we count both days and weeks), but the Ran does not clearly state whether Abayei’s ruling is a Torah law or Rabbinic law.  Nevertheless, he concludes with the following statement, “most of the commentaries agree that the counting of the Omer today when we do not bring the Omer and there is no sacrifice, is only Rabbinic in order to remember the Temple ritual as Ameimar said.” Ran on Rif Pesachim, p.28a)

Despite this conclusion (that most commentaries say the counting is only Rabbinic) the Ran cites the Baal Hamaor who explains that even though the counting today is only Rabbinic, we nevertheless count both weeks and days. “We count both days and weeks because it is a custom that we have accepted.” Ibid.

(The Shaar Hatzyiun offers a different answer as to why the counting of the Omer, although a Rabbinic mitzvah, takes the form of a Torah requirement: “Even if today this is Rabbinic, all Rabbinic enactments are enacted in a manner that take the form of a Torah requirement.”  Shulchan Aruch 489 on Mishnah Berurah Note 9)

In his analysis, the Baal Hamaor expands the concept of Sefira in a disturbing negative manner.  He asks, why is there no Blessing of the Time, Bircat Hazeman (Bracha of Shehecheyanu), in the act of counting the Omer as there are in all other performances of mitzvoth whether they are of the Torah or Rabbinic.

We do not say the Bircat Hazeman except in a mitzvah which has some form of benefit e.g. taking of the lulav which comes to express joy, blowing of the shofar which is an act of Remembrance between Israel and their Father in Heaven and the reading of the Megillah where God had pity on us and redeemed us. Also in the redemption of the first born son, where the father recites the blessing of Shehecheyanu when his son is no longer in the category of dying prematurely after 30 days. But, in the case of the counting of the Omer, there is no reference to any benefit which is derived, but rather, to our sorrow at the destruction of the place of our desire (the Temple). Hamaor Hakatan on Rif Pesachim 28a.

Without getting involved in the well known principle that Mitzvoth were not given to provide us with benefit, it is clear from the Baal Hamaor that if the counting of the Omer is in any way related to the Omer sacrifice, it could only lead us to regret and despair for it reminds us of the destruction of the Temple.  

From the Rambam it is clear that the counting of the Omer today is a Torah obligation.  He states:

It is a positive Mitzvah to count seven complete weeks from the day of the bringing of the Omer, for it says, “you are to count for yourselves from the morrow of the Sabbath seven weeks.” And it is a Mitzvah to count days with the weeks for it says, “you are to count fifty days.”  And we count from the beginning of the day, thus one counts from the night of the sixteenth of Nisan. Mishneh Torah, T’midim Umusafim 7:22.

This Mitzvah is incumbent on every man in Israel, in every place, and at all times. . .Ibid 24

If the Mitzvah of counting is valid in every place and all times, then it is no different than any other Torah commandment like Shofar, Lulav, or Matzah.  As to why there is no Bracha of Shehecheyanu, it could be because Sefira is of such long duration that it is not totally under one’s control.

Is the counting related to the Temple sacrifice?

Nevertheless, the questions that we raised above are still valid.  What then is the relationship between the counting of the Omer and the Omer sacrifice? Are they still connected? Have they become severed? Or in fact, were they never connected?  

From the formulation of the Rambam, it is most likely that they were really never connected.  If they were once connected and are now severed, the Rambam would have to explain how could the pre-severence Mitzvah be the same as the post-severance Mitzvah?  How could it be a Torah Mitzvah if the basis for the Mitzvah no longer exists?  At best we could say that they were only tangentially connected. This is indicated by the Rambam’s initial statement which states that the counting of the Omer occurs from the day that the Omer is brought.  The Omer is an event which simply marks that day. This is a statement of correlation rather than causation.

The Omer was not a causal factor, even when it was brought. What is emphasized is the time frame rather than the act itself. Finally, the Rambam’s position clarifies that Abayei is actually stating that counting today is a Torah requirement which disagrees profoundly with Ameimar. The Rambam  thus rules like Abayei and is of the opinion that Abayei did not need to establish a connection between the Omer and the counting of the Omer.

Increasing holiness

When understood in this light, the counting of the Omer becomes primarily a celebrative act, and not a tragic reminder of the destruction of the Temple. It is a joyful process, for it directs towards the future in anticipation of God’s revelation and the giving of the Torah.  In this light, the act of counting itself is a process of self development.  Each day that we count enhances our soul and increases the spiritual potential of our minds to appreciate God and to rise in sanctity.  We can see an analogous process occurring in the lighting of the Hanukkah lights.

There is a controversy in the Talmud between the School of Hillel and the School of Shamai about the correct order of the lighting of the candles during the eight days of Hanukkah.  The School of Hillel requires one candle the first night and an additional candle each subsequent night until the eighth night.  The School of Shammai maintains that on the first night one lights eight candles and reduces one candle each additional night.  Various reasons are offered in the Talmud for these conflicting opinions.  The major opinion offered on behalf of the School of Hillel is that in matters of sanctity, one should only increase it and never decrease it (Maalin B’kodesh V’ain Moridin).  See Shabbat 21b.

In reality, this principle (Maalin B’kodesh) is based on aspect of the Temple ritual which has nothing to do with time, but having to do with the three tables upon which the show bread was placed. (See Menachot 99a).  With the Hanukkah candles, this concept was now applied to the process of time, where each day creates greater sanctity.

We see this notion in the manner in which the Torah describes the creation of the world.  God could have created the world in one instant.  He chose, however, to extend the process of creation for seven days.  Each day extended and developed the creation to a greater level, until finally, man, the height of creation was created on the sixth day.  This ultimately leads to the highest sanctity, when God ceased creation and rested on the seventh day.

The same principle occurs with the counting of the Omer.  Each day of counting expands the sanctity of the one who counts and provides him with greater preparation as he anticipates God’s revelation at Sinai.  The expansion of Kedusha is absolutely necessary for an encounter with the Divine. Thus the days of the counting of the Omer should be the highest expression of joy which a Jew can express.  In no way should they elicit a sense of sorrow, grief, and despair.  It is for this reason that we always count in increasing numbers and not in decreasing numbers.  Each day increases sanctity and joy in the same manner as the Hanukkah candles.

Rabbi Akiva's students and the Omer period 

The extreme dichotomy between these two approaches in counting helps us understand a very difficult and disturbing event that occurred during the period of the Sefirah.  The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students spread out throughout Israel and that they all died in one time frame between Pesach and Shavuot, i.e. during the period of Sefira.  As a result, the world was devastated for the study of Torah no longer seemed possible. The world recovered when Rabbi Akiva went to the Rabbis of the South and taught them and they reestablished the learning of Torah. 

We are told that Rabbi Akiva’s students all died a horrible death because they did not act respectfully towards one another.  See Yevamot 62b.  It is primarily because of this incident that today Sefira is seen as a time of mourning when weddings, celebrations, music and the cutting of hair is forbidden.

There are three things that are difficult to explain about this incident. 

First, why does the Talmud state that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs and not simply state that he had 24,000 students? 

Second, we are not given any inkling or clue as to why these students of one of our greatest rabbis did not respect one another?  

Finally, why was the transgression of these students so profound that it brought about such a severe punishment?

It is difficult to speculate, but it could be suggested that the students did not respect each other because they had conflicting understandings of the nature of Sefira which we have discussed above.  The two understandings of Sefira are irreconcilable.  Sefira is either a time of expanding religious and spiritual growth which leads to the greatest of joy, or it is a time of the destruction of the spirit and hope which leads to the greatest of despair.

For the students of Rabbi Akiva who cared so deeply about these matters, it would be difficult for one who held one position to fully respect one who would hold a contradictory viewpoint.  One viewpoint literally destroys the spirit of the other. This normally occurs in pairs wherein a pair one juxtaposes on a very deep level the position of the other. Where each one has a deep need to express the true concept of Sefira.

Finally, why was the punishment of these students so severe?  As we stated earlier, the time between Pesach and Shavuoth is a time when the Jews are preparing themselves to accept the Torah.  That is why we have the counting of Sefira, each day increases our Kedusha as we get closer to Matan Torah (similar to the Chanukah candles where we add a candle each night to show that the Kedusha is increasing).  When the Jews left Egypt, they increased in Kedusha until they were ready to accept the Torah.  The Torah says with regard to when the Jews reached Mount Sinai, “and Israel camped there next to the mountain.” Exodus 19:2.  Rashi notes that the word “camped” is written in the singular.  He states, “like one person with one heart. . .”   

Later, the Torah states, “and the people answered together and said, everything Hashem says we will do.”  Exodus 19:8.  The Torah emphasizes not only that the people answered, but that they answered together.  Finally, when the revelation occurs, Hashem speaks to Israel in the singular as though they were one person, “I am Hashem your (singular) God.”   Thus, at the time the Jews received the Torah, the height of their Kedusha, they were in a state of Achdut, unity. 

When the students of Rabbi Akiva cut each other down, they were not merely fighting among themselves.  These students were the role models for the people.  If these great Rabbis did not respect each other, one can only imagine how that impacted the way regular people treated each other.  Thus, these students of Rabbi Akiva were responsible for breaking the unity of the Jewish people.  Moreover, they did this during the time of Sefria, the time when they, as great rabbis, had the responsibility to raise the Kedusha of the people in preparation for Shavuoth.  Thus, they violated the rule Maalin B’kodesh V’ain Moridin. They lowered the holiness of the Jewish people and that is why they were severely punished.