COUNTING THE DAYS – a post-Passover message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Although this Mitzvah starts on the Second Day of Pesach, our Torah readings won’t mention it for a few weeks. Chapter 23 of Leviticus spells out the law: “Count for yourselves, from the day after the Sabbath, the day when you bring the Omer to be waved, seven complete weeks. Until the day after the seventh week, you will count 50 days.”
Which Sabbath are we talking about? What is the Omer? And why should we count? Fair questions, surely.
Well, the day of rest here called Shabat is actually the First Day of Pesach. So the counting starts the next day, on the 16thday of Nisan.
Omer was a sheaf of grain of the first barley harvest. The High Priest waved it as a thanksgiving offering. In Temple times, animal sacrifice accompanied the ceremonial waving.
We count the 50 days until the first fruits of the spring harvest appear and signal the culmination of our festival of freedom. So the holiday we celebrate then we call Shavuot – “Weeks”. In the Talmud it is called Atzeret—“concluding festival”, and its biblical description is Yom haBikkurim– “the Day of First Fruits.” Our prayers identify Shavuot more powerfully: Z’man matan Torateynu – “the time of giving our Law.” Passover celebrates our physical freedom. Cross the Red Sea and Goodbye Egypt. That was step one. Arrive at Sinai and receive the Torah. That was 50 days later. Shavuot celebrates Israel accepting the Law and thus becoming a nation.
Of course the physical Omer, that sheaf of grain, could not be brought to the Temple after the Destruction. But that doesn’t stop us from counting. Significantly, the Hertz commentary quotes Maimonides: “We count the days that pass since the preceding festival, just as one who expects his most intimate friend on a certain day counts the days and even the hours.” And he emphasizes that the Law-giving was the object of the Exodus.
So given the historical background, we can appreciate this 7-week process called S’firah – Counting. And we even have a brief daily ritual to assign a number to each day. On the Jewish calendar, of course, a day starts at sunset. We learn to pronounce a blessing and then identify the day as for example “today is 18 days, which is 2 weeks and 4 days of the Omer.” And if we forget to do it that evening, we can do it in the morning without the blessing. Not a hard job. And this year of 5778, it is made quite convenient because for the first 30 of those 50 days, the number corresponds exactly to the April date on the 2018 calendar. Wouldn’t the High Priest like that!
On a deeper level, you and I can enjoy counting the Omer. Personally, religiously, and morally. Can we share this mitzvah with our spouse, our child, our friend? Or with a Jew who never did this before? Let’s count today together. Or can we make this new day special with a minimal contribution to a worthy cause? Or, as the years pass, can we make this day honor a treasured memory?
Here the English language helps to support our counting. Indeed we can strengthen ourselves at this season, when we count our days, to make our days count.