To Number Our Days

Parashat Emor 5777

Meir Sendor

As Lag BaOmer approaches an electricity builds up here in the Galil. This day signifies the end of the plague that decimated the students of Rabbi Akiva as related in the Gemara Yevamot 62b. Throughout Israel it’s celebrated by bonfires that fill the air with acrid smoke. I’m not a fan — it’s a noxious and dangerous custom. Its relevance to the theme of the day isn’t obvious until you connect it to another ancient custom — children go around with toy bows and arrows, made at home or, these days, in China. It’s likely that the weapons and the bonfires, calling to mind a military bivouac, are a hidden allusion to the failed Bar Kokhba revolt, which was supported by Rabbi Akiva. His students were likely its soldiers.

Lag BaOmer is also the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose grave and the grave of his son Rabbi Eleazar are located in Meron, across the valley from Tzfat. On Lag BaOmer Meron comes alive. Hordes of people from all over Israel, and all over the world, flock to what is often described as a yearly Torah Woodstock. All hotels and tzimmern of the area are filled, and campsites are opened up for the hardier souls. While the theme of the gathering is holy, the scene gets pretty wild. The meaning of the thirty-third day of the Omer can get a bit lost in the hoopla. And you wonder what Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Eleazar, who dedicated their lives to constant Torah study without any distraction, think of it all.

So it’s valuable to give thought to the deeper meaning of this mitzvah that frames the season we are in right now between Pesach and Shavuot: the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer. While the action of the mitzvah is fairly straightforward – we count each day and week out loud from the day after Pesach until Shavuot, day by day – the meaning of the mitzvah requires some investigation.

It’s called “Counting of the Omer” – and that’s also how we refer to the mitzvah in the berakhah we say for it. Yet what is it we are really counting? An Omer is a Torah measure of volume for food – a little over 2 liters or 2 quarts. There is a separate mitzvah to bring an Omer of barley to the Mikdash as an offering on the day after the first Yom Tov of Pesach. Why is this measure specified for the offering and why does the measure give the offering its name? The Omer was brought only once a year on that day– so what does it mean to “count the Omer” for the succeeding days until Shavuot? And are we counting from Pesach or towards Shavuot, or does the counting signify something else? And finally: the calendar commemorations throughout the year are generally remembrances of the Exodus and the experiences of Bnei Yisrael in the desert. What experience does the counting of the Omer commemorate? With these guiding questions we can explore the deeper meaning of this mitzvah and its relevance for our spiritual lives today.

The mitzvot of the Omer offering and Counting the Omer are described together in this week’s parashah:

ויקרא פרק כג

(י) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וּקְצַרְתֶּם אֶת קְצִירָהּ וַהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת עֹמֶר רֵאשִׁית קְצִירְכֶם אֶל הַכֹּהֵן:

(יא) וְהֵנִיף אֶת הָעֹמֶר לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק לִרְצֹנְכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת יְנִיפֶנּוּ הַכֹּהֵן:

(יד) וְלֶחֶם וְקָלִי וְכַרְמֶל לֹא תֹאכְלוּ עַד עֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה עַד הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת קָרְבַּן אֱלֹהֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם: ס

(טו) וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה:

(טז) עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַיקֹוָק:


10 Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the Land that I am giving you and you reap your harvest, you shall bring an Omer of the first of your reaping to the Kohen.


Note that this mitzvah applies specifically in the Land of Israel.


11 He shall wave the Omer before HaShem on your behalf, on the day after the Shabbat the Kohen shall wave it.


The phrase “day after Shabbat” was the focus of a major dispute between the Prushim and the Tzedukim in the time of the Mikdash. The Prushim, our ancestors, held that it means “the day after Pesach” while the Tzedukim held it means “the day after Shabbat” of the intermediate days of Pesach. But note the phrase “the day after.”

14 And bread, roasted grain and fresh grain you shall not eat until that very day…

This means that the bringing of the Omer offering is a “mattir,” an action necessary to “release” and “permit” the eating of grains harvested since the previous Omer offering the year before. Why is such a “mattir” necessary?

15 And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Shabbat, from the day you brought the Omer of waving, seven complete weeks they shall be.

Here again the phrase “day after the Shabbat” appears. And here the offering is called by its measure – the Omer – not by the grain offered. What does this signify?

16 Until the day after the seventh week you shall count fifty days and bring a new grain offering to HaShem.

The counting brings us to Shavuot, marked by a new grain offering of wheat. And once again the phrase “day after” appears.

There is a saying of Rabbi Berekhiah that appears in Midrash Vayikra Rabbah that gives us the key to what’s going on. Whenever you see a quote from Rabbi Berekhiah, a fourth century Amora of the Land of Israel, pay attention. He always offers deep insight. He was a student of Rabbi Helbo who taught in Tiberias, the town on the Kinneret just down the mountain from Tzfat. He probably walked these mountains and valleys. Rabbi Berekhiah gives the following midrashic reading:

ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשה כח

אמר רבי ברכיה אמר הקב”ה למשה לך אמור להם לישראל כשהייתי נותן לכם את המן הייתי נותן עומר לכל אחד ואחד מכם הה”ד (שמות טז) עומר לגלגולת ועכשיו שאתם נותנים לי את העומר אין לי אלא עומר אחד מכלכם ולא עוד אלא שאינו של חטים אלא של שעורים לפיכך משה מזהיר את ישראל ואומר להם והבאתם את עומר.

Rabbi Berekhiah said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe “go and say to Israel ‘when I would give you the Manna I would give an Omer to each and every one of you, as it says ‘an Omer per head.’ Now that you are giving Me an Omer, all I get is one Omer from all of you, and not only that, it’s not from wheat but barley. Therefore, Moshe, warn Israel and say to them “and you shall bring the Omer…”

Rabbi Berekhiah notes that the fact that the verse calls the offering of grain an Omer, and puts the measure first, is unusual. Offerings are usually called by their purpose or their content, not by their measure. Here, the measure is the clue to the meaning.  The emphatic use of the measure of an Omer for the grain offering on the day after Pesach connects it to another well-known Omer that occurs earlier in in the Torah: the Omer of Manna. Rabbi Berekhiah is telling us that the Omer offering is a commemoration of the Omer of Manna that fell every day and provided food for the Children of Israel throughout their forty years wandering in the desert:

שמות פרק טז

ד) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה הִנְנִי מַמְטִיר לָכֶם לֶחֶם מִן הַשָּׁמָיִם וְיָצָא הָעָם וְלָקְטוּ דְּבַר יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ לְמַעַן אֲנַסֶּנּוּ הֲיֵלֵךְ בְּתוֹרָתִי אִם לֹא:

(יג) וַיְהִי בָעֶרֶב וַתַּעַל הַשְּׂלָו וַתְּכַס אֶת הַמַּחֲנֶה וּבַבֹּקֶר הָיְתָה שִׁכְבַת הַטַּל סָבִיב לַמַּחֲנֶה:

(יד) וַתַּעַל שִׁכְבַת הַטָּל וְהִנֵּה עַל פְּנֵי הַמִּדְבָּר דַּק מְחֻסְפָּס דַּק כַּכְּפֹר עַל הָאָרֶץ:

(טו) וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו מָן הוּא כִּי לֹא יָדְעוּ מַה הוּא וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֲלֵהֶם הוּא הַלֶּחֶם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְקֹוָק לָכֶם לְאָכְלָה:

(טז) זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק לִקְטוּ מִמֶּנּוּ אִישׁ לְפִי אָכְלוֹ עֹמֶר לַגֻּלְגֹּלֶת מִסְפַּר נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם אִישׁ לַאֲשֶׁר בְּאָהֳלוֹ תִּקָּחוּ:

(יז) וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּלְקְטוּ הַמַּרְבֶּה וְהַמַּמְעִיט:

(יח) וַיָּמֹדּוּ בָעֹמֶר וְלֹא הֶעְדִּיף הַמַּרְבֶּה וְהַמַּמְעִיט לֹא הֶחְסִיר אִישׁ לְפִי אָכְלוֹ לָקָטוּ:

(כו) שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תִּלְקְטֻהוּ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לֹא יִהְיֶה בּוֹ:

(לא) וַיִּקְרְאוּ בֵית יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת שְׁמוֹ מָן וְהוּא כְּזֶרַע גַּד לָבָן וְטַעְמוֹ כְּצַפִּיחִת בִּדְבָשׁ:

(לה) וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָכְלוּ אֶת הַמָּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה עַד בֹּאָם אֶל אֶרֶץ נוֹשָׁבֶת אֶת הַמָּן אָכְלוּ עַד בֹּאָם אֶל קְצֵה אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן:

(לו) וְהָעֹמֶר עֲשִׂרִית הָאֵיפָה הוּא: פ

4 And HaShem said to Moshe: behold I am raining down for you bread from Heaven, and the people will go out and collect it day by day, in order for me to test them as to whether they will walk in My Torah or not.

13 And it came to pass at even, that the quails came up, and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew round about the camp. 14 And when the layer of dew was gone up, behold upon the face of the wilderness a fine, scale-like thing, fine as the hoar-frost on the ground. 15 And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another: ‘What is it?’–for they knew not what it was. And Moses said unto them: ‘It is the bread which the LORD hath given you to eat. 16 This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded: Gather ye of it every man according to his eating; an omer a head, according to the number of your persons, shall ye take it, every man for them that are in his tent.’ 17 And the children of Israel did so, and gathered some more, some less. 18 And when they did mete it with an omer, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; they gathered every man according to his eating.


26 Six days ye shall gather it; but on the seventh day is the sabbath, in it there shall be none.’

31 And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna; and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. 35 And the children of Israel did eat the manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat the manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan. 36 Now an omer is the tenth part of an ephah. {P}

There are a number of points to note in the Torah account of the Manna. It’s called “bread from Heaven,” a providential food. Not only does it appear miraculously with the dew every morning, but the same measure is provided to every person. Whether they collect a lot or a little, a person always finds he or she has collected just an Omer, just what they need. An Omer is the amount of food a person eats in one day.

It is collected “day by day.” This is the basis of the mitzvah of counting the Omer, day by day. And this is why the count is called “counting the Omer,” that is, we count the Omer of Manna that fell every day, day by day.

It is a test as to whether the nation will keep the Torah or not. Between the time Israel escaped from Egypt to the time, fifty days later, that they receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, the falling of the Manna day by day in a precise amount served as a training and a test. The nation of Israel was being disciplined to take each day on its own and to trust that HaShem would provide for them. They were being taught not to hoard, not to be anxious about the future, but to put their faith in HaShem that He provides for all their needs. They also learned about Shabbat from the Manna – that it did not fall on Shabbat, and they are prohibited from work on Shabbat. So they needed to prepare on the sixth day of the week for Shabbat. The receiving of the Manna was the schooling that Bnei Yisrael received that prepared them for receiving the Torah – this is the event of the wilderness commemorated in these seasonal mitzvot.

And finally, the Manna fell for forty years in the desert, until Bnei Yisrael came to the settled Land of Canaan. This moment at which the Manna ceased also clues us in to the deeper meaning of the mitzvot of the Omer Offering and Counting the Omer. The moment is described with uncanny resonance in the Book of Joshua:

יהושע פרק ה

(י) וַיַּחֲנוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּגִּלְגָּל וַיַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת הַפֶּסַח בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ בָּעֶרֶב בְּעַרְבוֹת יְרִיחו

(יא) וַיֹּאכְלוּ מֵעֲבוּר הָאָרֶץ מִמָּחֳרַת הַפֶּסַח מַצּוֹת וְקָלוּי בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:

(יב) וַיִּשְׁבֹּת הַמָּן מִמָּחֳרָת בְּאָכְלָם מֵעֲבוּר הָאָרֶץ וְלֹא הָיָה עוֹד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מָן וַיֹּאכְלוּ מִתְּבוּאַת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִיא: ס

10 And the Children of Israel encamped at Gilgal and made Pesach on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening on the plains of Jericho.

11 And they ate from the produce of the Land from the day after Pesach, matzot and roasted grain on that very day.

12 And the Manna ceased from the day after, with their eating of the produce of the Land, and there was no longer any Manna for the Children of Israel, and they ate from the produce of the Land of Canaan that year.

Of all possible dates, Joshua and the nation of Israel enter the Land of Israel for the first time at Pesach. They eat from the produce of the Land “on the day after Pesach.” Here’s that phrase we saw frequently repeated in the mitzvah of the Omer offering. The timing of the experience of Joshua and the Israelites reveals the meaning of the Omer offering commanded by the Torah. On this day after Pesach, the first time Bnei Yisrael eat from the produce of the Land of Israel, the Omer of Manna that fell from Heaven for every Jew, “bread from Heaven,” is transmuted into “bread from the Land.” The mitzvah of the Omer offering, that can only be done in the Land of Israel, alerts us to recognize that in this Land we are still being cared for providentially, by hidden miracles. The “bread from the Land” and all our sustenance, is still and always “bread from Heaven.” The Omer offering serves as a “mattir,” a release, in order for us to eat the new grain of the year with the consciousness that the new grain is truly “bread from Heaven.” And we Count the Omer, to internalize the lesson of the Manna, that HaShem is still providing for us miraculously day by day. We count the days to make every day count with this awareness.

In Israel you truly experience this miraculous providence day by day. There’s an intensity of meaning. I’m not talking about interpreting events as full of signs and symbols. That’s a superficial and often superstitious approach to experience. The intensity of meaning is just in this sense we have of feeling intimately cared-for and cared-about. The more we are mindful of HaShem, the more HaShem is mindful of us, says Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed 3:18, 52). This is the lesson Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai conveyed through his intense dedication to constant Torah study.

In the Land of Israel you live this.







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