What's in a Word?

For the week ending 13 May 2017 / 17 Iyyar 5777

When Just Counting Doesnt Count

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

The Torah commands us to count the days and weeks from Passover until Shavuot (Lev. 23:15-16). Interestingly, the Torah portion which includes this commandment is always read during that time of the year. Counting that forty-nine day/seven week period is known as Sefirat Ha’Omer (“counting of the omer”) because it connects the annual barley sacrifice offered on the second day of Passover (known as the Korban Omer) to the annual wheat sacrifice offered on the festival of Shavuot. The word sefirat (“counting of”) is based on the verb sofer used by the Torah in this commandment to mean “count” (its noun form, mispar, means “number). Nonetheless, the Hebrew language has another word for counting: moneh (whose final number is called a minyan). What is the difference between sofer/mispar and moneh/minyan, and why does the Torah choose to specifically use the word sofer when talking about Sefirat Ha’Omer?

We can suggest some possible ideas, but none of these are hard and fast answers: Firstly, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) explains that minyan is a general count, while mispar refers to the specific number in the count. However, on the other hand, Rabbi Wertheimer proffers evidence that mispar is the general number, while mifkad is the word for a specific count. Secondly, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) explains that the word mispar is related to the Hebrew word sippur (story), because just as the different parts of a story should flow in a natural and logical way, so do the numbers of one counting flow in a logical way (i.e. numerically). One does not count the contents of a set by saying random numbers, just as one does not tell a story by relating unrelated incidents. Nonetheless, this approach ostensibly does not account for how the term mispar differs from the term minyan.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes the word moneh is related to the word maneh, which means, “a respectable portion”. Thus, the connotation of the word moneh is that whatever is included in the set that is counted must be something respectable or important — something worth counting. In contrast, the word mispar also means “number,” but especially connotes the use of a number as a limit. For example, when discussing the halachic punishment of flogging, the Torah limits the amount of lashes to only a mispar (Deut. 25:2) — which tradition reveals is thirty-nine. For this reason the Aramaic word for a nation’s border is sfar (which limits a nation’s territorial domain), and the Aramaic word for barber is sapar (because by giving his client a haircut, he limits the growth of his hair). By this rubric, Rabbi Mecklenburg explains that Sefirat Ha’Omer uses the word sefirah because wording of that commandment reads: “Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count.” The verb “to count” in this context is being limited to forty-nine days, so the word used is sefirah instead of moneh.

Additionally, Rabbi Mecklenberg suggests that the counting of sefirah differs from the counting of moneh in that the latter is simply the counting of numbers, while the former denotes something extra deliberately done or required to mark each unit. Sefirah is not just a count of quantity, but a count of quality as well. The goal of a sefirah-type counting is not just to count the raw numbers, but to also qualitatively improve oneself, to cleanse oneself of impurities. He connects the word sefirah to the Hebrew word sapir (“sapphire” in English) in that sefirah cleanses a person, just as a precious gem is free from impurities.

From a halachic perspective, each day of the Omer may be considered a separate mitzvah, so if an entire day is missed one should continue counting (albeit without a beracha). Many have used the forty-nine day period between Passover and Shavuot to follow a forty-nine step scheme of character development or to focus their energies on the forty-nine ways of acquiring Torah (as listed in the Mishnah Avot in ch. 6) or studying a forty-nine page tractate of the Talmud (like Sotah or Shavuot). Given this model, the purpose of counting the Omer is not necessarily just the destination to reach Shavuot, but the journey itself. If on each day one works to change into a better person, then not only does the final count have special significance, but each day has special significance. In this way, counting the Omer differs from, say, the quorum of ten men (known as a minyan) required for the recitation of certain especially holy parts of the prayers, or the seven times that the Kohen Gadol sprinkles blood towards the Holy of Holies (whose counting the Yom Kippur liturgy describes as moneh, not sofer). In these cases the final numbers are the only requirements, and each individual unit on its own is not necessarily significant.

There is a third set of words for counting/numbering in the Torah, and that is poked/mifkad,but we will have to leave that discussion for another time.

  • Author’s note: Le’Zechut Refuah Shleimah for Bracha bat Chaya Rachel

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