The Controversy Surrounding the Omer

    May 2008            
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Counting the Omer

By Nachum Mohl

Counting the Omer, sounds simple enough, but are you aware of the controversy that once raged around when the starting time begins? We have a tendency to think that the way things are today are merely a continuum of what existed ages ago. Well, it just ain't necessarily so.

Long ago there was quite a bit of contention and controversy regarding the time to begin counting the Omer. (By the way the Omer is a measure of grain that was harvested and subsequently brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as a sacrifice.) The verse in the Torah (Leviticus 23:15) which was the battleground of debate says:

    "and you shall count unto yourself from the day after the Shabbat from the day on which you brought the Omer of offering seven complete weeks. Until the day after the seventh Shabbat shall you count fifty days and they offer the meal offering to G-d."

Now at the end of the second Temple period lived many Jewish splinter groups who insisted on interpreting the Torah each according to their ability and individual understanding. They understood that the counting should begin on "the day after the Shabbat" meaning on Sunday. The sages of the Talmud understood differently. The sages based their understanding not just on logic but also on tradition – not on conceiving a new interpretation but in continuing that which was handed down from previous generations. They explained that one verse says, "seven complete weeks" and the other verse says, "count fifty days". This can be contradictory if counting begins on the Shabbat after the first day of Passover since the Shavuot holiday is fifty days after Passover. If Passover were to begin in the middle of the week and the following Shabbat would not be for several days later, then the total of the counting of fifty days would not correspond to seven complete weeks until Shavuot. Tradition told them this.

The sages explained that the use of the word "Shabbat" in these verses did not refer to the seventh day of rest but to the Passover holiday. The various splinter groups disagreed and said Shabbat is Shabbat and not Passover and refused to accept the sages' explanation.

Disagreement with the traditional explanation continued for many centuries. The Tzaddukim (Sadducees) and the Baytomim who were the splinter groups in those days have disappeared. The descendants of these groups, mainly today's Samaritans, are not even considered Jewish but rather a religious group apart since their religious practises are so totally different from ours.

The Mishnah (Menahot 66) goes to great detail explaining the ceremony that was performed to gather the Omer. Since the Omer was brought to the Temple on the second day of Passover, its harvesting over rode the laws of Shabbat. It was reaped at night of the sixteenth of Nisan irregardless if it was a weekday or the Shabbat.

To highlight their interpretation, the representatives of the High Court would go out to the fields prior to the Passover and tie some of the barley stalks as a preparation for the cutting ceremony. Then on the night following the first day of Passover they would go there with a large assembly of the local villagers. They would harvest the grain with great ceremony.

They would make a great point of asking questions. Each question concerning the reaping would be asked three times. To which the assembled would then answer each time "yes". Even when the day after Passover was the Shabbat, they would perform this ceremony. They would ask three times, "is today the Shabbat?" The assembled crowd would answer three times, "yes." "Shall I reap?" "Yes." This was done to impress on the public the need to follow the traditional interpretation of the Torah.

Until this Omer was brought to the Temple, the Jews were forbidden to eat of the new harvest.

The later rabbis disagreed if counting of the Omer still applies today as it applied in the time of the Temple. Some rabbis say that indeed this is a Torah ordained mitzvah; while others argue that today when we do not have the Temple, it is a rabbinically ordained mitzvah. In either case, there is a requirement to count the days of the Omer. The correct time for counting the Omer is at night and every one starts on the night after the Passover. If a person forgot to count the Omer at the beginning of nightfall, he may count it through out the night. If he did not remember until the morning he can still count, but should omit the blessing.

The blessing is as follows:

    Blessed are thou, Lord, our God, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.

Since the Torah requires us to count the days "count fifty days" and the weeks "seven complete weeks", we count both. The first seven days we count only days, such as:

    Today is the fourth day of the Omer.

Once we reach seven days and above we count both days and weeks, such as:

    Today is the tenth day which is one week and three days of the Omer.

The counting of the Omer is likened to a bride and groom who are waiting for the day of their wedding. They have set the date and are now counting to the big event. For us, we are counting to the time on which the Torah was given on Mount Sinai; a day to which G-d revealed Himself in a manner never before revealed to man. It was a time to which our ancestors looked forward to and indeed so do we.


from the May 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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