Children are dreamers, living in a world of fantasy, where anything is possible. Just ask a child what he wants to be when he grows up and you’ll get the most fantastic and unrealistic response imaginable. “I’m going to be an astronaut fireman, so that I can save people on the moon.” They live within the infinite, the realm of endless possibility. However, as children grow up they begin to experience the struggle of reality, where their notions of the infinite become challenged. Imagine a child lying on a grassy field, gazing into the nighttime sky. As he stares up into the stars, he thinks to himself, “Look at how enormous the universe is. The sky just expands endlessly... It must go on forever.” After sitting with that thought for a few moments, he becomes uncomfortable. “How can anything go on forever? Everything must stop eventually.” But after a few moments of accepting this comfortable realization, he is again bothered by his thoughts. “But how can the universe stop? What else could there be? It has to go on forever...” And so, this inner conversation continues, as the child grapples with the inner struggle of contemplating the infinite within one’s own finite mind.
This child’s struggle is not a childish one; it is a challenge that confronts any finite being who tries to connect to the infinite. We are all faced with the question: How do we, as physical beings, transcend these finite dimensions? How do we relate to the abstract, to the infinite, to the spiritual? Let us approach this question through the lens of S’firas HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer.
S’firas HaOmer: Questions
We are commanded to count the days between Pesach and Shavuos, a period known as S’firas HaOmer. At first glance, this can be understood on a very simple level: As we head towards Matan Torah, eagerly anticipating the acceptance of the Torah, we excitedly count down each day towards our expected destination. This can be compared to a countdown towards one’s wedding, or a vacation, or some other exciting event. However, there is a feature of the S’firas HaOmer count that is markedly different: Rather than counting down towards our destination, we count up from our starting point! We don’t mark how many days we have left until Shavuos; we count how many days have elapsed since Pesach. What is the meaning behind this strange count?
Furthermore, what does counting accomplish? Why does our counting result in Matan Torah? Why is it so catastrophic if you miss a single day of counting?
In truth, we are not counting towards Matan Torah; we are building towards it, one day at a time. We do not wait for Shavuos to come, we bring it ourselves – through the time and work we invest as we count the Omer. If Shavuos and Matan Torah was a skyscraper, then each day of the Omer would be a brick. Every day is another brick we place in our building, another day where we get to work on ourselves. The reason we can’t miss a single day of the Omer is because every single day, every single brick, is essential. Matan Torah won’t come after the 49 days; it will come because of them, built by them. This is why we count up; we’re not counting down to Matan Torah; we’re building towards it, one day at a time.
Why Don’t We Count the First Day of the Omer?
After developing an understanding of S’firas HaOmer in general, let us focus on a few specifics of the count itself. Why don’t we count the very first day of the Omer, which occurs on the first day of Pesach? In the same sense, why don’t we count the 50th day of the Omer? The Torah says explicitly, “Tisp’ru chamishim yom” (VaYikra 23:16) – you shall count 50 days. Why then do we count 49? Furthermore, the period of S’firas HaOmer that we build today parallels the 49-day process that the Jewish People went through upon leaving Egypt. What is the root of this process, and why is it specifically 49 days long?
The Arizal, Ramchal, Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers explain as follows. Every process contains three stages. The first stage is the high, the inspiration, an experience of perfection and clarity. However, this first stage is fleeting and is followed immediately by a dramatic fall – a complete loss of everything experienced in the first stage. The second stage is a process of rebuilding what was first experienced – working and building towards perfection. There is then a third stage – a return to the original perfection of the first stage. However, this third stage is fundamentally different from the first. It is the same perfection, the same clarity; but this time, it’s a perfection and clarity that you have earned. The first time it was given to you; now you have worked to build it for yourself.
The first night of Pesach was the gift, an experience of infinite transcendence. This night was characterized by Makas B’choros (a plague that Hashem Himself performed), Y’tzias Mitzrayim, and the mitzvos of korban Pesach and bris milah – mitzvos that connected the Jewish people to a higher dimension of existence. However, what followed was a complete fall from this exalted level of transcendence. The Jewish People faced 49 days in the desert, a place of spiritual emptiness. It was during these 49 days of counting, of building, that the Jewish People were able to rebuild and earn that initial transcendent gift. What resulted from those 49 days of building was Shavuos, Matan Torah, an experience of transcendence, of infinity, of the World to Come.
This is why the korban haOmer is a sacrifice of barley, a food described by the Sages as animal fodder. The Shavuos sacrifice is shnei ha’lechem, a sacrifice of bread, a food characterized by the Sages as human food. Before the counting of the Omer, we were on a low spiritual level, the level of animals. After spending the 49 days of the Omer counting and building ourselves, we rise to the transcendent spiritual level of tzelem Elokim, worthy of experiencing Matan Torah. Perhaps this is why there were two loaves of bread, one representing the original gift on the first night of Pesach and the second representing that which we earned after 49 days of building.
We don’t count the first night of Pesach because this night is a gift, something unreal, unearned. Counting represents building, and the building process only begins on the second day of Pesach, once the gift has been lost.
Why 49 days?
Let us now turn to our next question. Why is the Counting of the Omer specifically 49 days long? The days of the Omer set us up for Shavuos, for Matan Torah. What is the significance of this number? In order to understand the number 49, we must recall a principle we have developed previously. The Maharal explains that seven is the number of the natural. All physical and natural components of this world are comprised of sevens: There are seven days in the week, seven notes in the musical scale, seven colors in the spectrum of light, etc. If seven is the number of the physical, eight is that which goes beyond seven, that which transcends the physical. This is why bris milah is performed on the eighth day – we transform the most physical and potentially animalistic organ into a vehicle of holiness and transcendence. This same theme of eight is why the miracle of Chanukah lasted eight days, and it is why the miracle came through shemen (oil), a word with the same root and concept as sh’monah, eight. This is also why S’firas HaOmer is a seven-week process of seven days each. We build level by level towards transcendence, towards the infinite, towards the eighth week – Matan Torah. However, why is it that seven and eight represent these concepts?
Another interesting feature of the Omer is the emphasis on counting each day. This suggests that S’firas HaOmer is one long mitzvah, complete only if each of the 49 days are counted. However, l’halachah, we make a brachah on each separate day of the Omer, suggesting that each one is a mitzvah in its own right. How do we reconcile this apparent inconsistency? To understand this, we need to first explore two different levels of order.
Two Levels of Order
Rav Dessler describes two different types of order: The first is a practical one, where the order facilitates access and usability. For example, a library is organized according to a system that allows one to access each piece of information efficiently. Without an ordered system, it would be hard to benefit from a huge collection of books. The order therefore provides access and usability.
There is a second level of order, one in which the pieces of a structure come together in a specific way so that the whole transcends the sum of its parts. For example, a radio is composed of a bunch of pieces, none of which is too valuable on its own. However, when these pieces are put together in just the right way, something emanates from the pieces – a radio signal.
This level of order is fundamentally different from the first form of order. Regardless of their organization, each book in a library maintains its individual worth, nothing greater results from their order. However, even in a system of the second order, it is only when all the pieces come together in the exact right way that something truly valuable results.
Six, Seven, and Eight
We live in a three-dimensional world. However, this really refers to the six directions of space: right-left, up-down, forward-backward – the six sides of a three dimensional cube. Interestingly, the six sides don’t automatically result in a three dimensional cube, the six sides can be lying face down on the floor, comprising nothing. The “seventh” refers to that which connects all the pieces together into a single unit. This is the unifying factor that creates a physical form and vessel out of the six disparate parts. The “eighth” refers to that which transcends the sum of the pieces, the transcendent aspect that emanates from the level of seven. “Six” represents the physical pieces, such as the days of the week. “Seven” represents that which connects the physical pieces together, connecting the physical to the spiritual, such as Shabbos. “Eight” represents that which transcends the physical, such as bris milah and Chanukah.
49: Ultimate Expression of Seven
This is why we count 49 days. During S’firas HaOmer, we build from the finite to the infinite, from the physical to the spiritual. This is the journey from six to seven to eight. The number 49 is the ultimate expression of seven, since every single digit within “seven” is also made up of seven (the numbers one to seven are each made up of seven parts), and 7x7=49. We’re not only trying to reveal the concept of seven, but also the seven within the seven. Of course, even the seven within the seven is made up of seven, ad infinitum; but once you’ve established the principle, you don’t need to go further.
Why Don’t We Count the 50th?
We can now explain why we don’t count the 50th day of the Omer. While six represents the pieces, and seven represents that which connects the pieces together, the eighth represents that which transcends the pieces, that which emanates from the pieces. The “eighth” of 49 is the fiftieth. We can’t count the 50th since we can’t build it; the 50th is the result of everything we’ve built and constructed during our 49 days of counting. The 50th day, Shavuos, is the result of all the pieces coming together, of all of klal Yisrael bonding into a oneness. The result is Matan Torah, a transcendent experience of connection with Hashem, the infinite, the World to Come.
This also sheds light onto why we don’t count the first day of Pesach either. The first day is the gift, unearned and unreal. The next 49 days are the days of building, creating, and earning it ourselves. The 50th day is the same as the first day, transcendent, uncountable; but this time, we’ve earned it, it’s real, it’s ours. In truth, even the 50th has a dimension of “gift” to it, but it is only given once we’ve created the vessel to receive it, after 49 days of building. As the Ramchal explains at the end of M’silas Y’sharim: “T’chilaso avodah, v’sofo g’mul (The beginning is hard work and the end is a gift).” Although we have worked towards the 50th day for 49 days, the transcendence we experience on that day transcends anything we could have expected.
This is why we only count 49 days, and this is why it’s called Shavuos – Weeks – the same root as sheva – seven. We are building seven weeks, and the transcendent fiftieth, Matan Torah, is what manifests from that which we create. This is why the Maharal also refers to Torah as the “eighth,” as it is Hashem’s transcendent wisdom and will, which He bestowed upon us on the 50th day.
This also explains the dichotomy between each day of the Omer containing its own significance and the fact that it is one long mitzvah, whereby if you miss a single day you can no longer count with a brachah. Each piece contains Omnisignificance, but only in as much as each day is built correctly, building off of the previous structure and preparing for what is yet to come. Only when each and every one of the 49 pieces is built correctly can the 50th emanate from the pieces, and can Matan Torah occur.
Connecting to the Infinite
Just like the little boy in the introduction, we all struggle to connect with the infinite, to see the spiritual within the physical, to find genuine meaning and purpose in an often turbulent and chaotic world. It can feel overbearing to build a skyscraper; the task is quite daunting. However, the key is to have the general goal in the back of our minds while we focus each day, each moment, on placing this brick perfectly. Each day of the Omer is a new brick – a new part of our journey towards Matan Torah, towards the infinite, towards marrying Hashem. May we be inspired to create something magical as we build towards Matan Torah, one day at a time.