Sefirat HaOmer:  Why Are We Counting?


On the second day of Pesah during the times of the Beit HaMikdash, a Kohen offered the Korban HaOmer, a sacrifice of ground barley, and the Jewish nation would subsequently begin the offering’s eponymous count:  Sefirat HaOmer.  This sacral countdown connected the Korban HaOmer of Pesah to the Shtei HaLehem offering of Shavuot.  The Torah mandates “And you shall count for yourself from the morrow of Sabbath, from the day you bring the Omer, they shall be to you seven complete weeks until the morrow of the seventh Sabbath you shall count fifty days, and you shall offer a new meal-offering to Hashem”[1] and again in Sefer Devarim a similar commandment is listed, “You shall count seven weeks from the beginning of placing the sickle to the standing crop, you shall start to count seven weeks.”[2] The Torah accentuates the role of the Korban HaOmer in initiating the count, however, Sefirat HaOmer continues to command the Jewish nation’s attention from Pesah until Shavuot.  Is our count merely a vestigial rite built to remind us of the bona fide counting that we yearn for with the speedy rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash?  A Mitsvah that occupies a full 49 days of the Jewish calendar certainly necessitates a thorough analysis.  Specifically, what exactly are we accomplishing by counting nowadays?

The Gemara in Menahot 66a presents an ambiguous debate about the requirements of the count.  Abaye thinks it is a Mitsvah to count the days and weeks.  Ameimar only counts the days and not the weeks because the Mitsvah is “Zekher LeMikdash Hoo” (a remembrance of the Beit HaMikdash).  The Rabanan of the Beit Midrash of Rav Ashi concurred with Abaye.  The exact points of contention latent in this back and forth combined with the ambiguity of the Pesukim quoted above stoked an important Mahloket amongst the Rishonim that may clarify the purpose of counting the Omer nowadays.

Ran (Pesahim 28a in the folios of Rif) believes that Ameimar’s statement is fundamentally in agreement with the opinion of Abaye.  Namely, all agree in principle that the Mitsvah nowadays is DeRabanan due to our lack of a functioning Beit HaMikdash.  However, there is a debate about how to actualize the count in our times:  Abaye thinks one needs to count both the weeks and days passed, while Ameimar thinks one need only count the days passed.  We count the days and weeks to acknowledge the majority opinion, which is evident from the Gemara noting the practice of the Beit Midrash of Rav Ashi. Rashi (Menahot 66a s.v. “Ameimar Mani”) clearly explicates that Ameimar only counted days and not weeks because he felt that the Mitsvah is not obligatory when we cannot bring the Korban HaOmer[3]Tosfot (Menahot 66a s.v. “Zekher LeMikdash Hoo”) and Rosh (Pesahim Perek 10, Siman 40) also agree that nowadays the Mitsvah is Rabbinic in nature due to our inability to offer the Korban HaOmer.

So far, the Rishonim cited have all assumed that without the actual offering of the Korban HaOmer in the Beit HaMikdash, the Mitsvah of Sefirah is only Rabbinic in nature.  A simple reading of the Pesukim would seem to bolster this position.  The Torah clearly states that the counting should begin “from the day you bring the Omer.”  The Rishonim mentioned may have felt it compelling to read the Pesukim as making the Korban HaOmer a sine qua non in beginning the count.  The Torah establishes a contingent relationship in which only the ability to sacrifice the Omer would engender a count[4].  Consequently, nowadays when we cannot offer the Omer, our count would be completely Rabbinic in nature, a tearful throwback to the days of the Temple or perhaps a hopeful harbinger of its hasty reconstruction.

If the entire count is dependent on bringing the Omer, the Korban itself would appear to play a very central and fundamental role in understanding the count.  Indeed, the prevalent epithet of this Mitsvah, “Sefirat HaOmer,” places the Omer as the axis upon which the Mitsvah turns.  Avudraham[5] explains that the count plays a pragmatic role for farmers in an agricultural society during the times of the Beit HaMikdash.  Farmers assiduously involved in tending to their crops at this time of year were markedly susceptible to forgetting their obligation of Aliyah LeRegel (pilgrimage to Jerusalem).  Thus, the Torah prescribes a daily counting from the bringing of the Omer on Pesah until the bringing of the Shtei HaLehem on Shavuot to ensure that farmers remember to trek to Jerusalem.  Avudraham’s reasoning highlights the significance of Avodat Beit HaMikdash in maintaining a daily count.  It follows that without the possibility of Avodat Beit HaMikdash and the inapplicability of Aliyah LeRegel, the count could be relegated to the stature of Zekher LeMikdash.  Our count would serve as a mere shadow of the archetypal count, which can only exist within the quintessential context of the Korban HaOmer and Aliyah LeRegel.

A second creative school of thought exists amongst the RishonimRabbeinu Yeruham[6] thinks that there are two distinct Mitsvot contained within our count.  We count the days passed, which is DeOraita even nowadays, and we count the weeks, which is DeRabanan nowadays[7]Rabbeinu Yeruham reads the Pesukim carefully and notes that in Parshat Emor, only the weeks are mentioned in relation to the Korban HaOmer.  The count of the days is mentioned in Pasuk 16 without reference to the Omer.  Thus, the count of days exists, even without bringing the Omer, as a Mitsvah DeOraita, while the count of the weeks is only a Kiyum DeOraita (a Torah level fulfillment) following the actual offering of the OmerRabbeinu Yeruham also rereads the Gemara in Menahot in this light.  Abaye is telling us that there is a Mitsvah to count days and a separate Mitsvah to count weeks.  Ameimar tells us the character of each Mitsvah by telling us his personal practice and downgrading the count of the weeks as a Zekher LeMikdashRamah subscribes to this approach as well and adds that one should not try to decipher the Torah’s reason for distinguishing between the Mitsvah to count days and the Mitsvah to count weeks[8].  Despite the warning of Ramah, the Or Sameah[9] provides a fascinating basis for the distinction between the Mitsvah to count weeks and the Mitsvah to count days.  He explains that the count of days gives the holiday its moniker of “Atseret” and lets it act as a day to connect to Hashem.  The count of weeks gives the holiday its title of “Hag HaShavuot” and allows the offering of Korbanot.  The Or Sameah points out that the Torah never mentions the name “Shavuot” in relation to the count of days.  Based on this analysis, he explains that the holiday always functions as “Atseret” and allows us to bond with Hashem.  Therefore, the count of days is still DeOraita because improving our relationship with Hashem is timeless.  The count of weeks is only a function of our ability to bring Korbanot and connect to the holiday as “Hag HaShavuot” and thus the count of weeks is DeRabanan today.

The distinction between counting weeks and counting days is particularly cogent based on the Peshat of the Pesukim.  As both Ramah and Rabbeinu Yeruham point out, the Torah ties the weeks specifically to “your bringing of the Omer” and to “the beginning of placing the sickle to the standing crop” while only mentioning the days in regards to “Maharat HaShabbat.” Here we see a fastidious examination of the Pesukim acutely affecting the way Rishonim determine Halakhik minutiae[10].  It appears that the Mahloket about the current stature of Sefirah expresses itself not only in Halakhik Nafkah Minot (practical ramifications), but also in Nafka Minot in understanding the Peshat of the Pesukim.

Rambam presents a potential third understanding of the Mitsvah to count.  In Sefer HaMitsvot Aseh 161, Rambam writes that the Mitsvah is “to count 49 days from the cutting of the Omer” and he quotes the Pasuk of “and you shall count from the morrow of the Sabbath.”  He then specifically preempts the explanation of Rabbeinu Yeruham and Ramah by saying that there is one Mitsvah, and that the days and weeks are two parts of the same Mitsvah.  His clear proof is that we don’t make two Brakhot and that we count the days and weeks together.  He concludes that women are exempt from this Mitsvah.

In Mishneh Torah, Rambam discusses Sefirat HaOmer in the seventh Perek of Hilkhot Temiddin U’Mussafin.  In the Koteret (introductory heading) to these Halakhot, he writes that it is a Mitsvah “for every man to count seven weeks from the day of the bringing of the Omer.”  It is interesting to note that he describes the Mitsvah using only the count of weeks.  In the Halakhot[11], Rambam writes that “there is a positive commandment to count seven complete weeks from the day of bringing the Omer as it says ‘and you shall count from the morrow of the Sabbath seven weeks’ and it’s a Mitsvah to count the days with the weeks as it says ‘you shall count fifty days’.”  In Halakhah 24 he states: “This Mitsvah is upon every Jewish man in every place and in every time and women and slaves are exempt from it.”  Surprisingly, Rambam believes the Mitsvah to count applies on a DeOraita level even without the Beit HaMikdash[12].

There a few puzzling details contained within Rambam’s opinion.

  1. In Sefer HaMitsvot, he amplifies that there is one Mitsvah to count both weeks and days despite initially describing the Mitsvah as a count of 49 days. However, in the Koteret to Hilkhot Temiddin U’Mussafin, he only describes the Mitsvah as counting weeks.
  2. What is his basis for exempting women from this Mitsvah?
  3. Rambam believes the Mitsvah applies as equally today as it did when the Korban HaOmer was actually offered. This is true even though he describes the count as beginning from the day of bringing the Omer” in Sefer HaMitsvot, in his Koteret to Hilkhot Temiddin U’Mussafin, and in the Halakhot.  Perhaps even more shockingly, he discusses this Mitsvah in Hilkhot Temiddin U’Mussafin right after discussing Korbanot and Ketsirat HaOmer (cutting of the Omer).  There seems to be a stark contradiction within Rambam’s delineation of Sefirat HaOmer: he believes that the Mitsvah is independent of the Omer, while seemingly doing whatever he can to describe the Mitsvah in the context of the Omer.

In answering why Rambam interchanges days and weeks in his various descriptions of the Mitsvah, we might suggest that this is his way of saying that there is no difference between the descriptions.  The ability to interchange days with weeks and vice versa only flows from his disclaimer in Sefer HaMitsvot that each is part of one total Mitsvah.  In order to properly fulfill the Mitsvah to count, one must count the days with the weeks, as he says in Hilkhot Temiddin U’Mussafin 7:22.


The key to understanding Rambam’s opinion may be his exemption of women.  The Kesef Mishnah[13] states simply that Rambam considers this Mitsvah a Mitsvat Aseh SheHaZeman Grama (time-bound Mitsvah).  In contrast, Ramban (Kiddushin 33b s.v. “VeHavei Yodeiya”) lists Sefirat HaOmer as a paradigmatic example of Mitsvot that are not time-bound.  The Mahloket may depend on the definition of the Mitsvah of Sefirat HaOmerRamban thinks that the count only begins as a result of offering the Korban HaOmer.  Although technically a function of time, the Korban HaOmer acts as the primary impetus in beginning the count, and thus the count cannot be considered bound to time[14]. Rambam may believe that the count begins irrespective of the Korban HaOmer and stems naturally from the calendar date, lasting 49 days[15].

Based on Rambam’s understanding of the count as time-bound and independent of the Korban HaOmer, his position on the purpose of the Mitsvah may shed further light on his thinking.  Sefer HaHinukh[16] quotes from Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim[17] to explain that counting the Omer is a natural result of our unbridled anticipation of Kabbalat HaTorah.  Just as one counts the days and weeks until he sees an intimate friend, so too we count the days and weeks until our rendezvous with the Ribbono Shel Olam on Shavuot.  This was especially true in the Midbar as Rambam explains that we count from Pesah until Shavuot to signify that the ultimate goal of Yetsiat Mitsrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) was to enable Kabbalat HaTorah at Har Sinai[18].  Again we see that Rambam seems to deny any particular importance for the Korban HaOmer in the Mitsvah to count.

This leaves two salient questions: Why does Rambam emphasize the Korban HaOmer in beginning the count if he thinks it is fundamentally ancillary to the Mitsvah to count?[19]  Moreover, how does Rambam deal with the Pesukim that seem to explicitly demonstrate the role of the Omer in beginning the count?

To solve these problems, it may help to analyze Rambam’s classification of a Niddah[20].  The Torah[21] proscribes “You shall not approach a Niddah to uncover her nakedness.”  By using the descriptive term “Ervah” (nakedness), the Torah appears to categorize a Niddah as one of the “Arayot” (forbidden relationships). Nevertheless, Rabbeinu Tam (Sefer HaYashar Helek HaTeshuvot 80) discusses whether a Niddah can truly be classified as Ervah. He ultimately concludes that she is not considered one of the Arayot by illustrating her exceptional Halakhik status that does not fit under the rubric of “Ervah.”[22]  In firm contradistinction, when Rambam discusses a Halakhah pertaining to a Niddah that should prove she is not considered Ervah, he adds the qualifier “even though she is Ervah” and then proceeds to explain the exceptional law[23].  He thinks that a Niddah is Ervah even though Halakhah treats her differently.  Rambam seems to be hypersensitive to the Peshat of the Pesukim, which appears to label a Niddah as Ervah.  He believes that the Torah’s presentation is conceptually important even when empirical Halakhah militates against the simple understanding of the Pesukim.

Using a similar methodology, we may be able to explain Rambam’s opinion on Sefirat HaOmer.  He reads the Pesukim as indicating the calendar date on which the count should begin, “from the day you bring the Omer,” meaning the second day of Pesah.  The count begins independent of the Omer.  However, he also believes that the Torah’s use of the Omer to frame the Mitsvah is not irrelevant or inconsequential.  On the contrary, he thinks that the conceptual echo of the Korban HaOmer is important even when offering the Korban is a technical impossibility. Perhaps the intent of Rambam is that the count exists equally in all times because Kiyum HaMitsvot is consistently relevant, and through counting, we are trying to anticipate Kabbalat HaTorah.  The centrality of the Omer in the Pesukim and in the writings of Rambam is meant to focus our Kabbalat HaTorah.  During the times of the Beit HaMikdash we strive to appreciate our full ability to serve Hashem through the Korbanot, and during our times, we yearn for the day when we can serve Hashem in the prototypical fashion.  We begin and end the count with Avodat Beit HaMikdash to exemplify the acceptance of Torah that we are trying to anticipate.

In a similar vein, Arukh HaShulhan (OC 489:3) explains that Rambam believes that the Omer and Shtei HaLehem are merely symbols of our journey from Pesah to Shavuot.  The Omer consists of animal food and represents us before we received the Torah, while the Shtei HaLehem is a bountiful offering meant to represent us after receiving the Torah. The underlying assumption within Arukh HaShulhan’s approach is that the crux of the Mitsvah is anticipating Kabbalat HaTorah, and the Korbanot are meant to typify our concurrent spiritual experience[24].  There is an ideal count that begins and ends with Avodat Beit HaMikdash to instantiate consummate Kiyum HaMitsvot and Kabbalat HaTorah.  Today’s count that lacks the kickoff of the Korban HaOmer and the coda of the Shtei HaLehem is less ideal, however our anticipation of Kabbalat HaTorah shaded by our blatant lack of a Beit HaMikdash is still a valid Kiyum DeOraita.

In sum, there is a massive Mahloket amongst the Rishonim in just understanding the Peshat of the Pesukim about Sefirat HaOmer.  Some believe the Torah means to teach us that the count is contingent on offering the Omer.  Others believe the Torah bifurcates the Mitsvah based on a careful reading of the PeshatRambam believes that the Peshat is meant to color our ideation of the optimal Halakhah, even if the practical applications don’t always reflect the ideal.  The count for Rambam is meant to mark our march from the physical freedom of Pesah to the spiritual freedom of Shavuot.  We anticipate Shavuot every year and hope for the ability to fulfill the totality of Hashem’s commands through Avodat Beit HaMikdash.  The holiday of Shavuot entails Kabbalat HaTorah and acts as the spiritual apex of Jewish history and every Jewish calendar year.  Rambam teaches us that the attitude of yearning for Limmud HaTorah and Kiyum HaMitsvot surely should pervade “all places in all times.”

Josh Schilowitz is currently learning at Yeshiva University.

[1] VaYikra 23:15-16

[2] Devarim 16:9-10.  All translations are mine.

[3] Rashi only explains the position of Ameimar.  It is not clear from his comment whether he thinks Abaye agrees that the count is Rabbinic nowadays.  It may be safe to assume that this is Rashi’s only comment on the Sugya because he is trying to explain why Ameimar felt it sufficient to only count the days.  Abaye would agree fundamentally to Ameimar’s characterization of the Mitsvah as Zekher LeMikdash.  This is in fact how the Kesef Mishnah to Rambam Hilkhot Temiddin U’Mussafin 7:24 reads this Rashi.

[4] It may be possible to suggest that just the ability to offer the Omer would create the beginning of the count.  However, the Ran, Rosh, and Tosfot all seem to emphasize that the actual bringing of the Omer starts the count.

[5] Sefer Avudraham Tefillot Pesah

[6] Toldot Adam VeHavah, Netiv 5 Helek 4

[7] Rav Yeruham Fischel Perlow in his commentary to Rav Sa’adya Gaon’s Sefer HaMitsvot Aseh 51 believes that Rabbeinu Yeruham thinks a separate Brakhah would be made on the count of the weeks during the times of the Beit HaMikdash.  Rav Perlow also points out that the possibility of making a Brakhah on a Zekher LeMikdash Mitsvah is itself subject to discussion.

[8] Iggerot HaRamah Siman 79.  Ramah clearly holds that Ameimar agrees that the count of days is independent of the Omer and DeOraita nowadays.  He seems to believe that Abaye might hold that the count of weeks is also independent of the Omer and also DeOraita nowadays.  This may be possible to read into Rabbeinu Yeruham too.

[9] Or Sameah commentary to Rambam Hilkhot Temiddin U’Mussafin 7:22.

[10] The point being made is that a careful reading of the Pesukim shaped Rabbeinu Yehuram’s view of the practical Halakhah.  It is theoretically possible that the causal relationship works the other way in that his Halakhik approach determined his read of the Pesukim.  However, a close read shows that Rabbeinu Yeruham first explains his interpretation of the Pesukim and only then determines the Halakhah.  Therefore, it seems more plausible that his view of the Pesukim influenced his Halakhik view.

[11] Hilkhot Temiddin U’Mussafin 7:22-25

[12] Ran in Pesachim ibid. reads Rambam as saying the Mitsvah is DeOraita today.  This read appears to be the consensus.

[13] Kesef Mishnah to Hilkhot Temiddin U’Mussafin 7:24.

[14] This is similar to a suggestion of Turei Even to Megillah 20b.  He explains that Bikkurim is not considered Zeman Grama because time itself does not cause it to apply.  An external factor of “Zeman Simkhah” that characterizes the harvest season allows bringing Bikkurim.  Thus, if the harvest would last past Hanukkah, it would still be considered “Zeman Simkhah” and Bikkurim could still be brought.  The window of time to bring Bikkurim is determined by the harvest and not by time itself, and therefore the Mitsvah is not considered time-bound.

[15] This would fit very well with Rambam’s own definition of Zeman Grama in Hilkhot Avodah Zara 12:3 as “MeZman LeZman” (passing from time to time).

[16] Sefer HaHinukh Mitsvah 306

[17] Moreh Nevukhim 3:43

[18] Ramban to VaYikra 23:36 describes the period between Pesah and Shavuot as “Hol HaMoed.”  This would seem to strengthen the natural connection between Pesah and Shavuot.

[19] Rav Perlow in his commentary to Rav Sa’adya Gaon’s Sefer HaMitsvot Mavo Perek 12 asks why Rambam counts the Mitsvah in Hilkhot Temiddin U’Mussafin thereby connecting the Mitsvah to the Korban if he really believes that the Mitsvah is DeOraita nowadays.  Based on the strength of this question, Rav Perlow suggests that Rambam reversed his position in Mishnah Torah from the one he takes in Sefer HaMitsvot.  Instead of thinking there is one integrated Mitsvah, Rambam in Mishnah Torah takes an approach similar to Rabbeinu Yeruham that the count of days is DeOraita today, while the count of weeks is DeRabanan.  This view seems untenable, as Rambam never qualifies his statement that this Mitsvah applies in all times.  Furthermore, in the Koteret, Rambam only lists the count of weeks even though that would seem to be the less relevant Mitsvah according to Rav Perlow’s suggestion.  In Mishnah Torah itself Rambam says the Mitsvah is to count days with the weeks.  He combines the two parts, which would seem to indicate an integrated Mitsvah as opposed to two distinct Mitsvot.  Finally, in Halakhah 24, Rambam refers to the count in the singular – “Mitsvah Zu.

[20] Rav Rosensweig briefly discussed the following conceptual treatment of a Niddah while learning the Sugya of Chuppat Niddah this year.

[21] VaYikra 18:19

[22] For example:  There is a rule “Ein Davar Ervah Pahot MiShnayim” (matters relating to Ervah require two witnesses).  However, a Niddah is solely responsible for counting her “clean” days.

[23] See for example Hilkhot Issurei Biah 21:4 and 22:1.  There he explains that a man can gaze at his wife who is a Niddah and can be alone with her despite the fact that she is Ervah.

[24] Arukh HaShulhan may be suggesting that the whole purpose of beginning and ending the count with these Korbanot is to represent our spiritual progress.  Alternatively, if we take the approach that the Korbanot are meant to represent total Kabbalat HaTorah, then his suggestion may still help explain why specifically these two Korbanot are used to begin and end the count.  Even if Arukh HaShulhan’s approach is distinct, he still clearly believes Rambam assigns significance to the Korbanot despite thinking they don’t affect the practical Halakhah.