It’s Not Over – It’s Omer

What happens if you forget to count a day of the Omer?

We’re familiar with the calculation.  If one forgets to count at night, one can count during the day without a beracha and can then continue counting with a beracha going forward.  If, however, one forgets to count a complete day, then one can no longer count with a beracha.

This is actually a machloket, a dispute.

The Halakhot Gedolot teaches that the key phrase is “temimot,” seven complete weeks.  One who forgets a day can no longer satisfy the requirement of completeness.  According to this view, the 49 days constitute a single religious act, and if one of the parts is missing, the whole is defective.  It is like a Torah scroll.  If a single letter is missing, the entire scroll is invalid.

According to R. Hai Gaon, however, each day of the 49 is a separate command.  The Torah states, “Count off fifty days.”  If one fails to count one day, that means one commandment has been missed.  That is not an impediment to counting the others.  For example, if one fails to pray on a given day, that doesn’t impact one’s ability to pray on subsequent days.  Each day is a distinct entity in itself, unaffected by what happened before or after.

The final law mediates between these two opinions.  Out of respect for R. Hai, we count the subsequent days, while, out of respect for the Halakhot Gedolot, we do so without a blessing.

These two halakhic positions can help us better appreciate the religious mission of Sefirat Ha-Omer.

1)  There is a macro, collective, and historical message.

2)  There is a micro, personal, and individual message.

1)  The view of the Halakhot Gedolot looks at the totality of the Omer period.  This reflects the idea of the totality of Jewish time.  Past, present, and future merge to form the Jewish story. Each and every moment, each and every component of Judaism, is essential.

Pesach is not enough. We must move forward by counting the Omer.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch captures this theme by noting that the Exodus is a hatchala, a beginning, and not a tachlit, an end to itself.  Pesach is the start of Jewish history, yet it is incomplete.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (Festival of Freedom, 177-178) wrote:

“To exist as a Jew means to be at the juncture of past and future, of that which is no longer real and that which is not yet real.  Our mission is to live in both dimensions.  The experiential merger of past and future, of recollection and anticipation is  symbolized by the process of counting.  When one counts, one ushers in a mathematical series, a continuum…This time-awareness is our challenge.”

Judaism does not exist without this essential connection, and our daily counting – without missing even one day – demonstrates our pivotal role in joining the past with the future.

Rabbi Norman Lamm calls the Omer period one of creative nostalgia.

Think about it.  The entire tenor of the period has been determined by historical events.  We limit our celebrations because of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students.  Moving further along through Jewish history, critical moments like the Crusades, Chmielniczki massacres, and the deportation and murder of Hungarian Jewry all took place during this time of year.  On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Israeli independence and the reunification of Jerusalem took place this time of year.

As we proceed from Passover, we dutifully keep track of every moment that has contributed to our story and our identity.

2)  Sefirat ha-omer also provides a more personal and practical message for each of us.

According to R. Hai Gaon, each day of the Omer is distinct.  Each day is a unique opportunity to rise to the challenge and count the Omer.  Will we succeed every day with a 100% success rate or arrive at Shavuot with a more modest record?

Similarly, our religious lives are not viewed as all or nothing.  There are highs and lows, moments of inspiration and difficult disappointments.  We should embrace the challenge – and the thrill – of each and every opportunity to transcend, sanctify, and ennoble.

The Omer period offers 49 days for reflection and self-improvement.  This fits with the idea of the days and weeks of the Omer being connected with the Kabbalistic sefirot, emanations of God experienced in the physical world.  Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943) writes that even those who don’t understand Kabbalah, can find meaning in these sefirot by seeing each day as an opportunity to achieve something connected to one’s religious development.  There are numerous actions, character traits, and attitudes to develop and improve here on earth.

Appreciating each and every day as an opportunity for growth is the hallmark of the free individual.  Rav Soloveitchik (Sacred and Profane) writes:

“A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric, quantitatively stretching over the period of seven weeks but qualitatively forming the warp and woof of centuries of change is eligible for Torah.  He has achieved freedom.”

Counting the Omer proves that we are up to the privilege of Passover’s freedom.  It allows each of us to look inwards and identify the path that is best for us.

Chasal Siddur Pesach…Pesach is over.  It’s time for Omer.

We utilize the gift of freedom to internalize what it means to count, what it means to be a product of our historical experiences, and how we are critical to forging the future. At the same time, we have 49 distinct days to practice what it means to seize the opportunity to perform mitzvot, to elevate our lives, and to impact those around us.

In particular, this year provides us with a unique insight into the dual nature of the Omer period.  We are facing a Pesach unlike any other.  Jews have faced difficult challenges in the past, yet this year has left its mark, and it will change us.  On a personal level, this season of quarantine has given each of us a chance to look inwards at who we are, what makes us tick, what really matters, and what we need to do to accomplish our goals.  As a people, we will be stronger from this experience, and, as individuals, we will grow.

A story is told of an individual who attended a silent Quaker service.  During the worship, he turned to an usher and asked, “When does the service begin?”

The usher looked at him and said, “Sir, we believe that the real service begins when you leave the sanctuary and live with your fellow human beings on the outside.”

Pesach is over.  At the same time, our work is just beginning.

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.
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