Sefirat Ha’omer - Halachot & Insights - Part 1


From among all of the holidays, Shavuot is the only one actually lacking a specific date on which it is to be observed. That’s right. While the Torah gives the exact dates for holidays such as Yom Kippur and Pesach, the date for the holiday of Shavuot is mysteriously missing. This is where the sefirat ha’omer (literally, counting of the omer) comes in. From the second day of Pesach onwards, we are instructed by the Torah to count forty-nine days and then, on the fiftieth day, to observe Shavuot.

This nearly two-month observance nightly counting mysteriously occupies very little space within rabbinic literature – barely two pages of Talmud,[1] and a very short chapter in the Shulchan Aruch.[2] Nevertheless, there is a wealth of meaning, as well as details, in this simple "Shavuot countdown". It is interesting to note that according to some authorities the mitzva of counting the omer is one of those mitzvot which only came into effect once the Jewish people entered Eretz Yisrael. As such, it might just be that this mitzva was not performed during the forty years of wandering in the desert.[3]

The Torah instructs us: “You shall count for yourselves [from Pesach]…seven full weeks…and thereafter you shall bring a new offering [and observe the Shavuot holiday].”[4] The biblical commentators and halachic authorities struggle with this verse, grappling with the following questions: Since there is no Beit Hamikdash today, and by extension no ritual offerings, is there still a mitzva to count these forty-nine days? Is it a biblical mitzva or rabbinical one?[5] Do we have to count the days that have passed, the weeks that have passed, or both? And finally, my favorite, how does one who passes through the international dateline conduct himself with regard to the counting and the observance of Shavuot?

A Biblical or Rabbinical Mitzva?

It seems that it is primarily the Rambam who is of the opinion that the Sefirat Ha’omer count is required by Torah law today, despite the fact that we lack a functioning Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem.[6] Most other authorities rule that Sefirat Ha’omer has the status of a rabbinical mitzva.[7] There’s even a third opinion which tries to reconcile this dispute and suggests that the counting of the days is a biblical mitzva, while the counting of the weeks is a rabbinical one.[8]

In the event that one counted only the days of the Omer and made no mention of the weeks, one still fulfills the mitzva.[9] One does not fulfill the mitzva, however, if one only counted the weeks.[10]It is commendable to repeat to oneself the day's Sefira count numerous times throughout the day.[11] One who does not understand Hebrew should count the sefira in English (or any other language one understands) after first reciting the blessing and counting it in Hebrew.[12] One who arrives very late to Ma'ariv should first count the Sefirat Ha'omer together with the congregation and then recite Ma'ariv afterwards.[13]

The Custom for the Rabbi to Lead the Sefirat Ha'omer

It is customary for the rabbi to lead the congregation in the counting of the omer. The origins of this practice are quite interesting. It is explained that the one leading the counting of the omer is supposed to have in mind not to discharge the mitzva on behalf of the congregation in order that they be able to perform the mitzva themselves. As such, there was some concern that the one serving as the baal tefilla, which were often unlearned individuals, might be ignorant of this halacha and accidentally intend to discharge the mitzva of counting the omer on behalf of everyone in the congregation. As such, it evolved that the rabbi should be the one to lead the counting as he would no doubt be aware of this halacha and arrange his thoughts and intentions accordingly.[14]

Another reason that the rabbi leads the counting of the omer is because one who missed a day and did not count the omer is no longer permitted to recite the blessing when counting the omer on consecutive nights. As such, in order not to embarrass the one leading the services who may have missed a day in the sefira count and would be embarrassed if this information was made public, the rabbi is designated to lead the sefirat ha'omer service, as it is unlikely that he would have missed counting a day of the omer.[15]

Finally, as with many other mitzvot which are somewhat infrequent, it is customary to honor the rabbi with leading the congregation in the mitzva. Doing so is considered a way of bestowing honor upon the local rabbi. Indeed, if the honor of leading the sefirat ha'omer was to be delegated out on a nightly basis it could conceivably lead to power and popularity struggles amongst congregants competing for the honor. Nevertheless, there are a number of congregations where the custom is that whoever leads the Ma'ariv service is the one who counts the omer. Only in the event that the one leading Ma'ariv is unable to count with a blessing, does the rabbi then do so. It is interesting to note that there exists a custom for the congregation to count first and only then for the rabbi to count himself, although this is quite uncommon.[16]

The First Night of Sefirat Ha'omer in the Diaspora

It is a matter of dispute as to when those in the Diaspora should count the omer on the first night of the count considering that they must also conduct a second Seder. This is because it is somewhat contradictory to count the Sefirat Ha'omer after Ma'ariv, which essentially declares that the first day of Pesach is over, and then to hurry home to conduct a second Seder - as if it is the first night of Pesach all over again. As such, some authorities suggest counting the Sefirat Ha'omer after Ma'ariv before the Seder, as is done on all other nights, while others suggest doing so only after the second Seder has been completed.[17]

While the more common custom in the Diaspora is to count the first Sefirat Ha'omer at Ma'ariv[18] many Chassidic communities retain the custom of counting the omer after the Seder. Indeed, one will find many Haggadas which include the counting of the omer service as part of the conclusion of the Seder.[19] Furthering the case that one should count after the Seder, it is noted that in the Beit Hamikdash it is likely that everyone counted late on the first night of anyways. This is because they were required to wait for the holiday to end in order to cut the Omer offering. Both approaches are equally grounded in both halacha and kabbala.[20]

[1] Menachot 65, 66.

[2] OC 489.

[3] Chizkuni, Shemot 28:1.

[4] Vayikra 23:15.

[5] For a discussion of this see Kaf Hachaim, OC 489:5.

[6] Rambam, Hilchot Temidin U'musafin 7:22

[7] Tosfot, Menachot 66a

[8] Rabbeinu Yerucham

[9] Mishna Berura 489:7.

[10] Mishna Berura 489:7, though some poskim maintain that if one counted only the weeks -at a full week in the count- (i.e. "Today is three weeks of the Omer") then one would have indeed discharged one's obligation.

[11] Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 589:5.

[12] Rivevot Ephraim 1:332, 5:341, 8:225:2.

[13] Minchat Yitzchak 6:45:2; Nitei Gavriel, Hilchot Pesach 23:6

[14] Rivevot Ephraim 2:129:16, 3:542:4.

[15] Rivevot Ephraim 1:334.

[16] Nitei Gavriel, Hilchot Sefirat Ha'omer 23:3, Kaf Hachaim, OC 489:14, Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 489:4.

[17] Minhag Yisrael Torah 489:2.

[18] OC 589:2.

[19] See Kaf Hachaim, OC 489:2 who resolves the apparent contradiction.

[20] Kaf Hachaim, OC 489:6; Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 489:1.