Sefirat Haomer: A Parable of the Bechor Shor

In Parshat Emor the Bechor Shor provides a beautiful explanation that he learned from his father on the topic of sefirat haomer, the counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot.

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.  You must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. (Vayikra 23:15-16)

Why are we commanded to count the days between Passover and Shavuot, and why specifically do we count up and not down? The Sefer Hachinuch suggests that we are counting because we are excited to offer the new grain offering on Shavuot. When people are excited about reaching an event they count the days until the event. However if it was a countdown beginning with 50, then the people would get discouraged and disheartened at the beginning of the count because there are so many days ahead of them. Therefore we count up.

While the Sefer Hachinuch has an interesting approach, it’s predicated on the assumption that the Jewish people knew how many days there would be until the grain offering on Shavuot, and therefore could have started the count from 50 had they wanted to. But they didn’t want to do that because 50 is a big number.

The Bechor Shor disagrees and argues that the people didn’t know how many days there would be until Shavuot. Therefore they could not have started at 50 because they did not know how many days in total there would be between Passover and Shavuot. But why then did they count at all?

The Bechor Shor provides a parable to answer this question. A man is in prison and is visited by a servant of the king. The servant has a very special message to share: The man will be released from prison and then 50 days after his release, he will marry the daughter of the king. At first, the man does not believe the message of the servant of the king. Then he is unexpectedly released from prison. The moment that he is released from prison he realizes that the first half of the message was true and therefore the second half of the message must also be true. So the man starts counting the days after his release knowing that after 50 days have passed he will marry the daughter of the king.

Likewise, explains the Bechor Shor, Moses came down to Egypt and told the Jewish people that they would be released from slavery and would worship God at Sinai. But the people did not believe Moses because they were so overwhelmed with slavery. However, at the Exodus from Egypt when the people saw that the first half of Moses’ message came true, they realized that the second half would come true as well. They therefore started to count the days in eager anticipation of the experience at Sinai.

Since they counted up that first year because they did not know how many days it would be until Shavuot, we too count up as well to relive that initial excitement for Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

This parable of the Bechor Shor is reminiscent of the well-known episode recorded at the end of Masechet Makkot with Rabbi Akiva. Shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, three of the great rabbis of the time stood at the Temple Mount and cried over the rubble. Rabbi Akiva did not cry, he laughed. The rabbis asked him how he could laugh at such a sight. He responded as follows:

Until the prophecy of Uriah with regard to the destruction of the city was fulfilled I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled, as the two prophecies are linked. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled with regards to the destruction, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah remains valid with regards to the rebuilding. (Makkot 24b)

Rabbi Akiva reminds us that if we observe the first part of a prophecy come to fruition then we are compelled to believe that the second part will come true as well. As the Jewish people left Egypt they too understood this, and therefore counted the days in eager anticipation of the fulfillment of the divine promise.

Let us also look into the history of our people, and the miracles within our own lives, and realize that if thus far we have been the recipients of divine help then we too should anxiously await what is to come.