The Mitzvah of Counting

On the second night of Passover, either at the end of the Evening Prayer, or at home before, during or after the Seder (depending on custom), we begin to fulfill the following Torah 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 follows:

The Days of Counting reflect...the seven clean days before a woman and her husband can be intimate...

"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

Rabbi 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 canopy.

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.

The short separation allows for a deep emotional longing to build between the couple...

Though the laws of family purity require a deeper explanation, one simple understanding is that they assist in maintaining a healthy intimate 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 seven weeks!

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 Kabbalah. 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 gevura, 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 midda, each one is spread out over a week, allowing one to focus on a single trait in a much deeper fashion.

We each have the chance to...fine tune ourselves in preparation for the wedding at Mount Sinai on Shavuot...

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.

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