Starting from the night of the Omer harvest, there is a mitzvah to count forty-nine days, which are seven weeks. The Omer is harvested on the sixteenth of Nissan, which coincides with the night after the first day of Pesach. That night, our ancestors would go out to the fields, cut down stalks of barley, bring them to the Temple courtyard, thresh them, winnow them, separate out the chaff, toast the grains, grind them well, produce a tenth of an eifah of flour, sift it in thirteen sifters, mix it with a log [measure] of oil, and place upon it a kometz (around ¾ of a handful) of levonah (frankincense). The next day, part of the mixture would be offered on the altar. First, a kohen (priest) would wave it; and then he would separate a kometz from the mixture, and burn it on the altar. After the kometz was burnt up, everyone was permitted to eat from the new grains.
It is important to know that the holiday of Shavu’ot does not have a calendar date like the other holidays do. For example, Pesach begins on the fifteenth of Nissan and Sukkot on the fifteenth of Tishrei. The date on which Shavu’ot falls, however, is determined by the Omer count. The holiday arrives after the seven-week count is completed, which is why it is called Shavu’ot – the Festival of Weeks. This is the meaning of the verse:
“You shall count for yourself seven weeks; from when the sickle begins [to cut] the standing crop shall you begin to count seven weeks. Then you shall observe the Festival of Weeks for the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 16:9-10). It is also written:
“You shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the “Sabbath” – from the day you bring the Omer of waving – seven weeks; they shall be complete. Until the morrow of the seventh week, you shall count fifty days, and you shall offer a new meal offering to the Lord“(Leviticus 23:15-16).
The foundation of this mitzvah is rooted in our national inception. Our Sages explain that the Children of Israel descended to the forty-ninth level of impurity during their bondage in Egypt. This made them unworthy of receiving the Torah and necessitated a purification process. Therefore, God waited seven weeks to enable them to purify themselves from the defilement of Egypt and reach a state in which they could receive the Torah. The sefirah (counting) also expresses our anticipation for the giving of the Torah. The Midrash relates that when Moshe told the Jews that after leaving Egypt they would serve God on Mount Sinai and receive the Torah, they asked, “When will this service take place?” Moshe answered, “Fifty days later.” Then, due to their great love for God, they counted every day and said, “Behold, one day has passed; two days have passed,” and so on. On account of their love and anticipation for the Torah, it seemed to them an eternity.
Thus, Sefirat HaOmer expresses our yearning for that great day, the day on which God gave us the Torah, while we simultaneously undergo a process of purification in all the forty-nine levels of which man is comprised. The purer and “cleaner” a person is, the more he will be able to absorb the Torah’s light. In this way, we prepare ourselves every year for the receiving of the Torah by way of the Omer count.
The Process of Ascension from Nationalism to Spirituality
By counting the Omer, we draw a line that continuously ascends from Pesach to Shavu’ot. The holiday of Pesach represents Israel’s national side, for the Exodus from Egypt revealed Israel’s uniqueness, in that God chose us from among all the other nations, despite the fact that we were sunken in the forty-nine levels of impurity. The holiday of Shavu’ot, on the other hand, represents Israel’s spiritual side, for that is when we reached the spiritual pinnacle of receiving the Torah. On Pesach, we began the process of liberation from the yoke of Egypt, and on Shavu’ot we completed our freedom from the yoke of desire and human perceptions, receiving a heavenly Torah, which makes all those who engage in it truly free.
Another angle: On the holiday of Pesach, the simple, natural faith that is hidden in the soul of every Jew, and remained hidden in the Jewish people’s collective soul even when they were enslaved in Egypt, comes to the fore. On Shavu’ot, however, we rise to a more developed faith, one that is clarified and expanded by virtue of the Torah. Natural faith is very powerful, and it is the foundation of life, but it is not capable of guiding and perfecting life. By way of the Torah and its commandments, we are able to link all aspects of our lives – those related to thought, emotions, and actions – to faith.
Consequently, by counting the Omer we gradually elevate ourselves in two ways, ascending from a level of nationalism to that of spirituality, and from natural faith to a sophisticated faith based on Torah and mitzvot.
It is impossible to reach Shavu’ot without Pesach. Once Israel’s unique nature (segulah) is recognized, we are able to rise up and attain the Torah. Once we realize that Israel is the chosen nation, as the Exodus from Egypt demonstrated, we can receive the Torah, as we say in the blessing over the Torah:
“Blessed are You, O Lord, Who has chosen us from all the nations,” and subsequently “has given us His Torah.”
Similarly, it is impossible to absorb the complex, developed faith that is assimilated in the intellect without first discovering the simple, natural faith. Therefore, it is very important to connect the holiday of Pesach to that of Shavu’ot. The counting of the Omer is the link and the ladder that connects these two holidays.
This idea is alluded to in the fact that we are commanded to count “from the day you bring the Omer of waving” (Leviticus 23:15). The Omer is a unique offering made from barley, which is animal food. This represents the physical-national side of Israel. Before we receive the Torah and attain knowledge of the Divine, we are like animals, lacking intellect. When we finish counting fifty days and are privileged to receive the Torah and reach a lofty spiritual state, then, “You shall offer a new meal-offering to the Lord” (ibid. 23:16). Similarly, matzah is bread of affliction, and the Zohar teaches that it is bread of faith, or natural faith. The new meal-offering brought on Shavu’ot is made of leavened wheat; it is rich and developed, alluding to the complete revelation of faith in every aspect of this world. On Pesach, the revelation of natural faith occurs through limitation – the restriction against leavened bread. On Shavu’ot, however, it occurs through expansion (see Rabbi Kook’s Orot Yisrael 8:1).
Perhaps it is possible to say that this is the basis of the dispute whether counting the Omer today is a Biblical or Rabbinic mitzvah. If the purpose of the count is to raise ourselves from simple faith to intellectual faith, by way of Torah study, then it is Biblically ordained even today. But if the purpose is to elevate us from a revelation of faith by way of limitation and abstinence, which expresses itself in the prohibition of leavened bread, to a level of faith that reveals itself in all areas of life, in the physical world with all its pleasures, then the matter depends on the existence of the Holy Temple, which connects heaven and earth. Therefore, as long as we are unable to offer the Omer, which represents the material forces and which enables us to rise to the level needed to offer the Two Loaves on Shavu’ot, we cannot completely reveal faith in all areas of life. Consequently, the counting is only of rabbinical ordinance.
This article appears in Rabbi Melamed’s highly popular series of books on Jewish law, “Peninei Halakha:Z’manim”, and was translated by Rabbi Moshe Lichtman. Other writings by Rabbi Melamed can be found here: http://en.yhb.org.il/