Today is Day 32, which is four weeks and four days, of our lockdown/ quarantine/ isolation, since Israel’s schools shut down; but we are also on Day 4 of a new calculus, that of the seven weeks from Pesach to Shavuot, counting the Omer. Unfortunately, unlike the ban on weddings and haircuts (mourning the students of Rabbi Akiva who died en masse during this season) which ends with Day 33 of the Omer, our contemporary restrictions seem to be getting more stringent.
Now, there are some good things about this stay-at-home era. For Orthodox Jews, prayer is not usually a family affair; but when the synagogues are closed, you get a chance for a service that is truly egalitarian. The experience can be sincerely uplifting, assuming your younger children can stop fighting for 10 minutes. Or maybe even if they cannot.
Still, in our home, we started counting the Omer together long before we had heard of the coronavirus. Appending this biblically-rooted mitzva to the evening service and effectively excluding women from it seemed disingenuous to me. After all, Rav Yosef Karo in the Code of Jewish Law (OH 493:4) mentions only one custom which applies throughout this period:
The women are accustomed not to perform any labor between Pesach and Shavuot, from sunset onward.
He gives no explanation for why women specifically should refrain from working in the Omer eventide, but he gets this idea from the Tur, who cites a general custom to refrain from labor at this hour because that is when the students of Rabbi Akiva were buried; but then the Tur specifically mentions the custom for women to take it easy, comparing this to the counting of the years by the court for the jubilee cycle, both referred to in the Torah as “seven sabbaths.” Just as in the sabbatical year, (agricultural) labor is forbidden, so too during the time to count the omer, labor is forbidden. But what does that have to do with women in particular?
It is notable that while Maimonides explicitly limits the obligation to count the Omer to men, Rav Yosef Karo does not. Some commentators argue that while women should be technically exempt, as they generally are from time-bound positive commandments, “nevertheless, they have accepted it upon themselves as an obligation” (MA 489:1).
Others go further, such as Nahmanides, who argues that counting the omer is not a time-bound mitzva, comparing it to other commandments such as the firstfruits. Yes, they may come at a specific season, but that is not a reflection of some arbitrary clock or calendar, but rather the natural course of the year. Passover is the first day of spring, and when it ends, we begin counting seven weeks until Shavuot, until “the day of the firstfruits,” until we receive the Torah. Indeed, it is the women who are addressed first at Sinai, according to the Mekhilta: “‘So shall you say to the house of Jacob’ (Exod. 19:3) — these are the women; ‘and speak to the sons of Israel’ — these are the men.”
The notion that women cannot be trusted to keep the Omer count seems ludicrous when we consider that the first mitzva of counting seven is the exclusive domain of women–the counting of seven clean days to maintain family purity: “And she shall count for herself seven days, and then she shall be purified” (Lev. 15:28).
The sabbatical year count, carried out by the Jewish court, is indeed a masculine affair (because of Adam’s curse to work the ground?). It is formal and officious, though the sabbatical year is binding for everyone. In parallel, we may see the feminine side of the Omer count towards Shavuot, which is carried out in the home, by the family, while the women of the house refrain from labor.
This year, at least, we should be able to appreciate the unique power of women to bring us to Sinai.