For the week ending 18 May 2024 / 10 Iyar 5784

Taamei Hamitzvos - Counting the Omer

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Reasons Behind the Mitzvos: Counting the Omer

By Rabbi Shmuel Kraines

“Study improves the quality of the act and completes it, and a mitzvah is more beautiful when it emerges from someone who understands its significance.” (Meiri, Bava Kama 17a)

Mitzvah #306


The Torah commands us to count the forty-nine between the Omer offering on the second day of Pesach and the Two Loaves on Shavuos. On a simple level of understanding, the period between Pesach and Shavuos is the time of harvest, when people are busy in the fields. Consequently, many people did not know when the Beis Din sanctified Rosh Chodesh Sivan and did not know which day in that month would be Shavuos. Therefore, Hashem commands each individual to count the days from Pesach to Shavuos (Moshav Zekeinim).


The entire purpose of the Exodus was the receiving of the Torah on Shavuos. The Midrash relates that upon leaving Egypt, the Jewish people asked Moshe when they would receive the promised Torah, and he told them that they would have to wait fifty days. On their own accord, they counted those days in anticipation (Shut HaRashba,Vol. 3 §284). The Midrash compares this to an imprisoned slave who cried out to the king to free him, and the king said that he would free him and also promised to give him his daughter in marriage after fifty days. Out of his great love for the king, the slave counted those days. So too, our counting the days until we receive Hashem’s prized Torah is like that prisoner eagerly counting the days until he merit to wed the king’s prized daughter (Moshav Zekeinim). By counting the Omer we express our yearning for the Torah, which is the purpose of our lives and the only reason for our existence as a nation.

The Omer offering consists of barley, a food primarily fed to animals, whereas the Two Loaves on Shavuos are of fine wheat, which is the staple of humans, symbolizing our rise in spiritual status by receiving the Torah. The Two Loaves that are offered on Shavuos correspond to the Two Tablets that we received on that day (Ra’ayah M’heimana 98a). They are like a Todah (thanksgiving) offering for the gift of the Torah that transforms us from animals into man, with the spiritual potential of becoming greater than the holiest angels (Meshivas Nefesh).


The Jewish people sunk to the 49th level of impurity in the Egyptian exile, and it was therefore impossible for them to receive the Torah and form a marital union with Hashem until they counted 49 days of purity, which are seven weeks. These seven weeks of national purification that enable us to unite with Hashem parallel the seven days of personal purification that are counted by a zavah (woman in a state of impurity). This applies to us as well, as the Sages teach that a spiritual echo of the Exodus and the purification leading up to the Giving of the Torah reverberates every year and enables us to break out of the shackles of our earthly drives, refine ourselves, and bond with Hashem through His Torah. The Torah says to count “for yourselves…complete days” to indicate that the count pertains not only to the quantity of the days but also to their quality. Each must be spiritually “complete” and pure so that it can count. The word usfartem (“you shall count”) is related to the word sapir, a sapphire. This alludes to the idea that by keeping pure for each of these days, we are polishing and revealing the brilliance of our souls, which are carved out of Hashem’s sapphire Throne of Glory (Ohr HaChaim and HaKesav VeHakabalah).As our souls become cleansed, we may perceive more and more of the Torah wisdom, which is measured in fifty levels. We do not count the fiftieth day, Shavuos, which corresponds to the fiftieth level, because that level is unattainable to us in our restricted physical forms, and even Moshe did not attain it (Recaniti).

Although both the Omer and the Two Loaves are mitzvos that pertain to the nation as a whole, the Torah commands each individual to count the interim days for himself. This may allude to the idea that every individual receives his own portion of Torah on Shavuos, for which he must prepare in his own way.

Alshich adds that the fifty days of the Omer correspond to the fifty primary years of a lifetime, from age twenty until age seventy. Every single Jew is entrusted with the grand task of making each day of his lifetime count. On Shavuos, we bring the Two Loaves from the new wheat crop, which the Torah calls “a new offering.” This alludes to the idea that when every Jew leaves this world, he will present to Hashem whatever Torah insights and good deeds he managed to produce in his lifetime.

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