“You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the rest day (Pesach), from the day when you bring the omer (a measure of volume) of the waving – seven weeks, they shall be complete. Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count, fifty days…” (Leviticus 23:15-16)
From the day after Passover until the eve of Shavuot, each member of the people of Israel must count for himself the days until the 50th day. After the evening prayer, each individual must say a blessing and then count each day and number of weeks until the festival of Shavuot. The meaning of this mitzvah appears to be that the two holidays of Passover and Shavuot are integrally connected. After we are liberated from Egypt, there would be an inescapable desire to feel that we have accomplished our goal. “We are free, we have reached our destination” would be the natural inclination of everyone. Yet the Torah reminds us that it is not so. The entire purpose of the freedom was so that we may serve Hashem. As Moshe tells the Pharaoh, “Let My people go so that they may serve Me…” (Shemot 7:16). The physical liberation was only the enabling condition so that Israel would be able to serve Hashem, not the end in itself.
Spiritual freedom is the sole solid foundation of any freedom. Throughout history, there are countless examples where people gave up their liberty or allowed themselves to be enslaved because they lacked inner spiritual freedom. The message of the Torah is that true freedom can only be achieved when people have internalized a series of principles and ideas that will continue to nurture and protect their autonomy. Until we reach the festival of the Torah we cannot be genuinely free. For that reason, the Jewish people count each day until they reach their destination. Like children who are promised a special gift by a certain time, Jews count each day until the desired date when they receive the Torah.
The Rabbis debate whether one may fulfill the obligation by simply listening to another person count and answering Amen and thus fulfill his obligation, following the Talmudic principle of shome’a ke’oneh (answering is akin to saying) as is the case with most oral mitzvot, such as Kiddush or Havdalah. The Talmud tells us, “The Rabbis taught: ‘And you shall count for yourselves’ (Vayikra 23:15); this teaches that the counting shall be done by every individual” (Menachot 65b). Rashi comments that each person is obligated to count, which means that the omer count must be uttered by oneself. Why is the counting of the omer different from the mitzvah of Kiddush and Havdalah? Why must the counting be done by each person individually?
The reason behind this halachah illuminates what is precisely the function of the utterance of the words. The counting constitutes a form of spiritual cleansing, as we say immediately after the count, “You have commanded us to count the omer in order to cleanse us from all our encrustations of evil and from our contaminations.” The Zohar compares the counting of the omer to the counting a woman makes in her period of purification, teaching us that the period of counting is similar to the phase of purification that a woman endures. Thus, the utterance in itself constitutes a form of metaphysical cleansing that is achieved by the mere movement of our lips. Since this act removes some defects in our personality, we cannot delegate this activity to someone else, especially since each person carries his or her own type of emotional imperfections or psychological flaws.
This counting precedes the Festival of the Giving of the Torah because the Torah cannot be received in an impure heart. The counting of the omer is a prelude to the receiving of the Torah and a reminder that we need to remove our imperfections of character and personality if we wish to be a part of the Torah heritage.
In addition to this process of identifying and perfecting our emotional blemishes, there is a positive outcome from this act of counting that may only be discerned in a spiritual realm. Rabbi Nebenzahl pointed out that in the act of counting we also are able to open up special talents and emotional powers that may have been hidden until now.
Thus, the counting effects two important changes in each person: the perfecting of some emotional deficiency, and the discovery and reinforcing of positive gifts that we possess but have not yet been uncovered. These changes, the Torah teaches us, are the necessary condition for our receiving the Torah. Although we may not notice immediately the changes, and we all say the same words, the Omniscient, to Whom all is open and clear, knows how this recitation rectifies, remedies, and amends in each individual the specific deficiency that needs to be fixed. Moreover, by this recitation of the counting, we strengthen various emotional faculties and abilities that will be required for our being able to receive the gift of the Torah in our lives.
“May [this counting] correct our lives, spirits, and souls from all dregs and blemish; may it cleanse us and sanctify us with Your exalted holiness. Amen. Selah.” (Siddur)
Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.