By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Aside from the mitzvah of counting the Omer, the period of Sefiras HaOmer can be a bit confusing, as there are three aspects to it:
1. It was the time that we transformed as a nation from a lowly spiritual state to our highest point of spirituality ever.
2. On the 16th of Nissan, a measure of the newly grown barley crop was brought to Hashem as an offering in the Beis HaMikdash. The amount of the offering was called an “omer,” which was one-tenth of an eifah. An eifah is the volume of 432 chicken eggs. So the Korban Omer is the volume of 43.2 eggs.
3. It is a sad period during which the 24,000 students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died tragically.
The meforshim (see Rashash Siddur p. 1070) have explained that the first two aspects are tied to each other. The Korban Omer is made of barley, generally the feed of animals. On Shavuos we bring the Shtei HaLechem, food that is the exclusive domain of man. Thus the two offerings represent the transformation from a low spiritual state to a high one. Others have further pointed out that the third aspect also ties into the first two, in that the students of Rabbi Akiva, unfortunately, did not entirely fathom the full depth of the lesson of the spiritual apogee that the Shtei HaLechem offering represents.
The Rambam writes that it is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to count the Omer, as it states (Vayikra 23:15), “And you shall count for yourselves mi’macharas haShabbos.” The word “haShabbos” means after the yom tov—Pesach. The Rambam (Hilchos Temidim uMusafim 7:22) is of the opinion that at this time, even though we are in Galus and we do not have the Beis HaMikdash, the mitzvah still retains its biblical status.
Most other poskim (see Beis Yoseph O.C. 489), however, believe that the mitzvah is now only miDerabannan. The Ran, the Rosh, and Tosfos hold that since we no longer have the Beis HaMikdash, the mitzvah is only of rabbinic origin. The Mishnah Berurah rules like this latter opinion. However, the Rema writes that we must be concerned for the opinion that it is biblical, and that is why we are stringent in regard to these laws.
Period Of Transformation
During this period, with Hashem’s help, the Jewish nation transformed itself from the second-lowest level of impurity into becoming the Dor Deah, the generation of knowledge. In short, they catapulted themselves into becoming the greatest generation that ever lived.
The Zohar teaches us that on account of this transformation of the nation of Israel, the days themselves were imbued with special qualities and capabilities. How can we take advantage of them?
Our general tools of becoming close to Hashem throughout the year involve the areas of Torah, avodah, and chesed. This is through developing our connection to Hashem through studying His Torah, in our davening, and through emulating Him with acts of chesed. The spiritual “high” we feel after performing a genuine act of chesed, such as engaging in hachnasas kallah, is, in actuality, part of the journey of Dveikus Bashem—connecting and cleaving to Hashem.
During the time of Sefirah, we include an additional set of tools. The brother-in-law of Rav Shlomo Alkabetz was Rav Moshe Cordovera, zt’l, or the RaMaK. He lived in Tsfat in the 1500s. In the RaMaK’s Galus HaShechinah (p. 116 Yudaikin Edition) we find how these tools may be used:
Each of the seven weeks of the Omer represents one of the seven attributes of Hashem. Each day in the week also has the qualities of the seven attributes of Hashem as well.
The first week represents the attribute of Chesed, or lovingkindness.
The second week represents the attribute of Gevurah, or strength. Thus, the first day of the first week represents the concept or notion of chesed within the concept of chesed. The second day represents the idea of strength within chesed. Rather than to be ignored, this should be viewed as a rung of spirituality that one can ascend in one’s own personal growth.
The third week represents the attribute of Tiferes, or glory.
Then comes Netzach, consistency.
Hod represents beauty.
Yesod represents fundamentals.
The last week represents the attribute of Malchus—regality.
The combination of each of these attributes, wherein the attribute of the day is an element of the attribute of the week, serves to catapult our personal growth and development in emulating Hashem and developing our Dveikus toward Him. Thus, on the eighth day of the Omer, according to the RaMaK, we should focus on achieving the strength of chesed (gevurah sh’bechesed).
Increasing Our Sense
The Midrash further explains that the Torah gave us this mitzvah of bringing the Korban Omer on the 16th of Nissan in order to remind ourselves of the Omer of manna that we received from Hashem—each day we were in the wilderness. This element of the Sefiras HaOmer therefore serves to increase our hakaras ha’tov to Hashem for sustaining us in the wilderness as He made us into His Torah Nation. It also serves as a reminder that Hashem will always love us and watch out for us.
Manner of recitation. One should stand up both when reciting the berachah and when counting the day of the Omer. One has still fulfilled the mitzvah, however, if either or both were recited while sitting. If one counted silently, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah and must count again with a berachah. If one accidentally informed another of the day of the Omer, then he may not count with a blessing. The preferred response is, therefore, to say, for example, “Last night was the eighth night of the Omer.”
Wording. The Vilna Gaon’s version of the counting has the term “Ba’Omer.” The AriZal and most of the Rishonim had the version “La’Omer.” Each person should follow his or her own custom.
Time. The ideal time to count is after tzeis ha’kochavim—when three stars come out. It is also ideal to count after Maariv (see S.A. 489:1–2), but it is permitted to count even before Maariv (M.A. 489:7). This is true even on motzaei Shabbos. Ideally, one should avoid counting during twilight—bein ha’shmashos (M.B. 489:14). If one did count during this time, he has fulfilled the mitzvah, but he should also try to count after tzeis ha’kochavim without a berachah.
With a minyan. The Shla writes that it is proper to make every effort to count the Omer with a minyan. If one generally waits until the 72 minutes of Rabbeinu Tam but is in a minyan that counts earlier, it is preferable to count with the minyan earlier than on one’s own later (see Minchas Yitzchak Vol. VI #45). Some chassidim, however, hold otherwise (see Klausenberger Rebbe, Divrei Yatziv Vol. II #215).
Forgetting. If one forgot to count at night, then one counts the next day without a blessing, and then it is permitted to continue counting with a blessing on the next nights. If one forgot to count at night and also forgot to count in the daytime, then one may not count with a blessing on subsequent nights. One still continues counting, because many Rishonim hold that he still fulfills the mitzvah. If one counted the days but not the weeks, he has fulfilled the mitzvah, and can therefore continue counting on the next evenings with a berachah. If, however, he remembered (either that evening or the next day) that he did not count the weeks, he should count again without a berachah.
Daytime repetition. Some have the custom to also count in the daytime to help those who forgot to count or erred, so that they may continue to count with a berachah (see Yam shel Shlomo, end of Bava Kamma, that this was the minhag in Eretz Yisrael).
Women’s counting. Many Ashkenazic women have the custom to count with a berachah. According to the Beis Yoseph, as followed by Sephardim, it is forbidden for women to count with a berachah. However, even an Ashkenazic woman who is overburdened with other responsibilities and believes herself unlikely to be able to maintain the count throughout, she should not count with a berachah. A woman may not be motzi a man with the blessing.
Children’s counting. Children should be taught to count the Omer with a blessing. If the child misses one night, the Chofetz Chaim (B.H. 657) indicates that he should no longer recite the blessing but should continue counting. Some poskim disagree with this analysis, so one should consult with one’s rav. v
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