Parshat Emor: Sefirat Ho’omer

“And you shall count for you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving seven weeks. They shall be complete.” (VaYikra 23:15)

We are currently involved in the mitzvah of sefirat ho’omer – the counting of the omer. We begin counting the omer on the second night of Pesach and continue the process up to Shavuot. This mitzvah requires that each night we verbally identify the new day’s number within the fifty days of the omer. On the second night of Pesach we declare that we are in the first day of the omer. We declare the following night as the second day of the omer. We repeat this process nightly until we arrive at Shavuot. The first mention of this mitzvah in the Torah is found in our passage.

Sefer HaChinuch provides an explanation for this mitzvah. He explains that the fundamental purpose of this mitzvah is to link Pesach with Shavuot. Why is it important to make this connection? Pesach recalls and celebrates our redemption from Egypt. However, this celebration is only completed with Shavuot. Shavuot recalls and celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. Our redemption from Egypt was designed to prepare us for this receiving the Torah. This was the purpose and sole objective of our redemption from Egypt. Without the Torah our redemption would have been meaningless. Therefore, we are required to acknowledge that the redemption that we celebrate on Pesach was – in itself – an incomplete event. It was a step in the progression towards revelation. We acknowledge this concept by linking – through our counting – the redemption of Pesach with the revelation of Shavuot.[1]

In our times, this remains an important message. Pesach is the most widely celebrated Jewish festival or annual event. It would seem that this popularity stems from its theme. The theme of an oppressed people achieving freedom from torment and bondage has broad appeal. This theme resonates with humanistic, enlightened values. However, it is unfortunate that this perceived theme of Pesach is not the actual message of the festival. We are not celebrating freedom in itself. Freedom is significant because of the opportunities that it provides. The virtue of freedom lies in the choices made by the free, unfettered individual or people. Freedom can be used wisely or destructively. We celebrate our freedom because of the opportunity that it provides us to serve Hashem. If this element is absent from the Pesach celebration, the festival has been fundamentally altered from the Torah’s design.

This observation is not intended to suggest that we should not be gratified by the widespread celebration of Pesach. Instead, this observation should indicate to us that much work must still be done to communicate to the wider Jewish world the full meaning of Pesach.

The counting of the omer is an individual obligation. Each person fulfills this obligation through his individual verbal declaration of the number of the day. This raises an interesting question. The question requires a short introduction. There are many Torah obligations that are fulfilled through verbal pronouncements. For example, each Shabbat night we are required to individually recite Kiddush. However, it is not the common practice for each member of the household to recite Kiddush. Instead, the head of the household recites Kiddush for the other member of the household and guests. How does the Kiddush recited by the head of the household fulfill the individual obligation of the others present? The answer is that the others present fulfill their obligation through the legal principle of shomeah ka’oneh – one who listens is equated with the one who verbalizes. According to this principle, a person who listens to a verbal pronouncement is considered to have actually made the pronouncement. There are two important conditions that must be met for this principle to be applied. First, the person who wishes to fulfill his obligation with someone else’s pronouncement must listen attentively. Second, both parties must share the intention to fulfill the listener’s obligation through the other party’s verbal pronouncement.

With this background, the question can be introduced. Can the principle of shomeah ka’oneh be applied to the counting of the omer? In other words, can a person fulfill his personal obligation to count the omer through listening to another person count?

One would expect that the principle does apply. After all, why should counting of the omer be different from reciting Kiddush? If a person can fulfill one’s obligation to recite Kiddush through listening to someone else, it is reasonable to assume that one can fulfill the obligation to count the omer in the same manner. This is the position of Rav Yosef Karo.[2]

Others disagree. Magen Avraham suggests that the principle of shomeah ka’oneh cannot be applied to the mitzvah of counting the omer. He offers an interesting explanation for his position. This explanation is based upon the Talmud’s analysis of our passage. The passage instructs that “you shall count (the omer) for you.” What is the meaning of the seemingly superfluous phrase “for you”? The Talmud explains that this phrase teaches us that each person must count.[3] Tosefot comment that the Talmud distinguishes between the counting of the omer and the counting of the fifty years from one Jubilee to the next. The counting of the years between Jubilees is performed by the Sanhedrin – the high court. There is no obligation upon individuals to conduct this counting. In contrast, the mitzvah of counting the omer is not placed upon the Sanhedrin. In this instance, the individual is required to perform the counting.[4] Magen Avraham explains that because the Talmud concludes that the obligation to count the omer is placed upon each individual, the principle of shomeah ka’oneh cannot be applied. Application of this principle would result in one person counting on behalf of many other individuals.[5]

Magen Avraham’s comments are difficult to understand. It is unlikely that the message of the Talmud is that the Torah wishes to establish a proliferation of counters! The more reasonable interpretation of the Talmud’s message is that the obligation of counting the omer should not be confused with the counting of the years between Jubilees. The counting of the omer is a personal obligation and not an obligation upon the Sanhedrin. Then, the counting of the omer can be equated with obligation to recite Kiddush. Both are personal obligations. Yet, the principle of shomeah ka’oneh does apply to Kiddush. Why should this principle not apply to the counting of the omer?

Magen Avraham provides an important hint to his reasoning in his discussion of another issue. Can a person count the omer in a language that he does not understand? Magen Avraham discusses this issue in regards to the obligation to recite the Shema. He explains that the Shema can be recited in any language with the single provision that the person understands the language.[6] He adds that this ruling also applies to Kiddush, prayer, and the reciting of blessings. The implication of this ruling is that if a person recites the Shema in Hebrew, it is not necessary for the person to understand the language. Mishne Berurah confirms this interpretation.[7]

We would expect this ruling to apply to the counting of the omer. In other words, if a person counts the omer in Hebrew without understanding the language, one fulfills the obligation. However, this is not Magen Avraham’s position. In the case of counting the omer, Magen Avraham rules that the person must understand the meaning of his statement. A person can only count in Hebrew if he understands the meaning of his words.[8] Why is the counting of the omer an exception to the general rule regarding Hebrew? Why in this instance is Hebrew only acceptable if the person counting understands the language?

Let us begin with this last question. It seems that Magen Avraham is concerned with a basic issue regarding the mitzvah of counting the omer. Is this mitzvah fulfilled merely by pronouncing the appropriately formulated declaration on each night or must a person actually engage in a conscious act of counting? If we assume that the obligation is fulfilled through the pronouncement of the properly formulated declaration, then one should be permitted to count in Hebrew regardless of one’s mastery of the language. After all, the appropriate formula has been pronounced. The obligation is fulfilled. Magen Avraham rejects this interpretation of the mitzvah. His understanding of the mitzvah is that one must engage in a conscious act of counting. If one does not understand the meaning of the formula that he pronounces, then one has not fulfilled his obligation. In this respect, counting of the omer differs from the obligation to recite the Shema and other similar obligations. In these instances, one fulfills the minimal obligation through properly reciting the required statement. Of course, the mitzvah is performed on a more meaningful level when one understands the meaning of his statement. But on a minimal level, this is not required to fulfill the obligation.

We can not return to our original question. According to Magen Avraham, why does the principle of shomeah ka’oneh not apply to the counting of the omer? Magen Avraham is suggesting that this principle has a significant limitation. What is precisely accomplished though shomeah ka’oneh? This principle provides a means through which one person’s pronouncement can be applied to another person’s obligation to make this pronouncement. Again, let us consider the example of Kiddush. Through shomeah ka’oneh one person can recite Kiddush and this recitation can be related to and fulfill the obligation of all others who listen attentively.

However, according to Magen Avraham, the obligation of counting the omer is not fulfilled through producing a properly formulated pronouncement. Instead, each individual is required to engage in a conscious act of counting. The principle of shomeah ka’oneh cannot be applied to this obligation. One does not become a “counter” through shomeah ka’oneh.

A simple analogy will help illustrate this distinction. An organization sponsors a “walkathon”. Supporters of the organization can participate in two ways. They can walk or they can sponsor a walker. The sponsor pledges a donation to the organization for every mile that the sponsored walker completes. On the day of the walkathon, the walkers and sponsors converge on the site of the event. The walkers embark on their walk and the sponsors stand on the sidelines. The sponsors are participating. They deeply identify with the walkers they have sponsored and feel very proud of their support for their walkers. At the end of the event, a medical team checks the health of each walker. All of the walkers have elevated heart rates. They have enjoyed the cardiovascular benefits of the event. One of the sponsors asks a member of the medical team to check his heart rate. Should he expect to have enjoyed the same health benefits that the walkers have experienced? Of course not! He can take pride in his participation in the event. But he did not actually walk!

The principle of shomeah ka’oneh presents a similar phenomenon. The listener has participated. Through his participation, he fulfills his obligation. But he cannot be viewed as performing a conscious act of counting. Therefore in the instance of counting the omer, shomeah ka’oneh cannot be applied.

[1] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 306.

[2] RavYosef Karo, Bait Yosef Commentary on Tur, Orach Chayim 489.

[3] Mesechet Menachot 65b.

[4] Tosefot, Mesechet Menachot 65b.

[5] Rav Avraham Avlee, Magen Avraham Commentary on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 489:1.

[6] Rav Avraham Avlee, Magen Avraham Commentary on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 62:2.

[7] Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan, Mishne Berurah, 62:2.

[8] Rav Avraham Avlee, Magen Avraham Commentary on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 62:2.