Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 27 May 2017 / 2 Sivan 5777

Preparing for Shavuot through Sefirat HaOmer

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

The simple explanation for counting the omer is a counting toward the long-awaited day of receiving the Torah. Based on this, the commentaries explain that the counting of the omer is comparable to a person who is counting to the day when he will reunite with his beloved. So too, we count toward the glorious day of the giving of the Torah. While this idea is certainly true, it does not fully account for how we count the omer. According to the above, it would seem ideal to start the count with the number 50, and count down to Shavuot. However, we count starting with the number one, up toward the day of Shavuot. What additional lesson does this method of counting teach us about the mitzvah of sefirat ha’omer? (See Sefer Hachinuch 306)

To answer this we first need to address another fundamental question. It is known that names in Judaism always express its essence. By studying the depth behind names, we are able to gain an understanding of the spiritual nature of the person, object, etc. bearing that name. Similarly, the names of the holidays reflect their core (Michtav M’Eliyahu II p.17). We reach a difficulty with this idea, however, when we examine the name Shavuot. Shavuot literally means weeks, which is referring to the weeks of sefirat ha’omer that precede the holiday. How do the weeks of sefirat ha’omer that precede Shavuot represent the essence of the holiday? Not only that, but an actual date or month for Shavuot is never provided in the Torah; the Torah only writes that the holiday of Shavuot is at the completion of seven weeks. In fact, in the times when the Sanhedrin determined the new moon, Shavuot could have fallen out on the fifth, sixth, or seventh days of Sivan. The fact that Shavuot is always 50 days from Pesach regardless of which day it falls on in Sivan, shows that Shavuot is essentially rooted in the weeks of sefirat ha’omer. How is this so?

The commentaries explain that every year on Shavuot everyone is allotted a portion of Torah that he will merit the upcoming year. Therefore the days of sefirat ha’omer are meant to be used as a preparation for each individual’s yearly Matan Torah. It says in Pirkei Avot 6:6 that there are 48 different ways to acquire the Torah. Based on this, Rav Simcha Zissel says that on each day of sefirat ha’omer one should prepare himself for Shavuot by working on one of these ways listed. On the last day before Shavuot, the 49th day, he should go over all the 48 steps (Alei Shor, chelek bet, II, p. 397). Based on this, it is essentially the preparation before Shavuot that determines the Torah that one will receive on Shavuot.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that the name Shavuot, literally weeks, so beautifully conveys this idea since the holiday of Shavuot is an outcome of the weeks that precede it. For this very reason, the date of the holiday of Shavuot is determined by the 49 days of sefirat ha’omer, and not the date, because the 49 days prior, that are used to prepare, are essential to the holiday, and are required in full (see Shem M’Shmuel, Bamidbar 5675).

This explanation also helps us understand why we count up during sefirat ha’omer, instead of down. Rabbi Shimshon Pincus explains that counting downward implies that the 49 days prior to Shavuot are just an impediment to the day itself. It is almost as though they are unnecessary, and we are trying to get rid of that time. However, that is not the case at all with the days of sefirat ha’omer, during which the days themselves are absolutely essential for the holiday. Instead, we count upward so that we appreciate the special ways in which we grow over the time as we prepare ourselves for Matan Torah. May we all take advantage of this special time and thereby merit receiving a special portion of Torah on Shavuot.

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