MY YEAR > TORAH TALK > why sefira?
why sefira?

Why Do We Count The Omer?

    The time period between Pesach and Shavuot is known as Sefirat Haomer which literally translates as the “counting of the omer”. It was during this time that our ancestors who left Egypt waited and counted forty-nine days from Yitziat Mitzrayim until receiving the Torah on Har Sinai. While this is certainly a time of great joy, we also know that it is a time which is infused with certain elements of mourning.  Let’s take a closer look at this period and some of the customs which have grown up around it.  

    God in His infinite wisdom understood that reenacting the experiences of our ancestors would make deep impressions on us -even thousands of years later. Hence, we find that there are many mitzvot in the Torah that are essentially reenactments of the experiences our ancestors went through in the past.  For instance, on Sukkot we sit in the sukkah to remember the clouds of glory that encircled our forefathers in the desert.  On Pesach we eat matzah to remember that our forefathers ate matzah when they left Egypt on short notice.  Similarly, during this period of time of Sefirat Haomer we count the forty-nine days, one by one, from Pesach until Shavuot just as our ancestors counted the forty-nine days, one by one, from when they left Egypt until they received the Torah on Har Sinai.  Our rabbis tell us that just as Bnei Yisrael prepared themselves and grew spiritually in preparation for receiving the Torah, so too are we responsible to do the same today. They point to the great students of Rebbi Akiva to illustrate this point.

    Rebbi Akiva was one of the greatest rabbis that ever lived. Indeed, the Medrash tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu was shown all the future generations of the Jewish People.  When he saw Rebbi Akiva teaching Torah, he was so impressed that he asked Hashem why He hadn’t given the Torah through him.  Nevertheless, despite Rebbi Akiva’s greatness, all 24,000 of his students died tragically during this time period of Sefirat Haomer. One could imagine the pain and anguish this brought Rebbi Akiva as well as the entire Torah world. A great teacher has great students and the students of Rebbe Akiva were no exception. They were all great Torah scholars in their own right.  Our rabbis looked at this tragedy and tried to make some sense of it.  

    What they came up with was that the timing of their death during the period when Jews prepare to receive the Torah, indicated that their Torah learning was lacking in some way. They determined that while the learning itself was at the loftiest levels, the respect these students had for one another, was not what it should have been, considering who they were.  For such great people, this seemingly minor shortcoming was, in fact, considered to be a very grievous sin which, unfortunately, warranted their deaths.

    Over the centuries, the Jewish people’s response to this great tragedy has been to mourn the deaths during this period of time when we prepare ourselves to receive the Torah on Shavuot.  By doing so, we thereby emphatically internalize the lesson that all Torah learning, no matter what the level, has to include utmost respect for one another as well as good middot in general.  

    Klal Yisrael took upon themselves this period of mourning sometime during the period of the Gaonim, between 589 and 1038 CE. The original custom only included refraining from marriages and haircuts. During the time of the Magen Avraham (1633-1683 CE) the customs were added to refrain from listening to live music and to refrain from dancing or singing without music. It’s very interesting that although this custom was introduced by the Magen Avraham who was Ashkenazic, the Sephardim have also taken upon themselves the custom of not listening to music during Sefira. With respect to recorded music, being a relatively new phenomenon of the past 100 years or so, there are differing opinions as to whether it is permitted or not during Sefira.  Most of the difference in opinion has to do with how much joy a person receives from recorded music and whether or not prohibition of that amount of joy was originally intended by the custom. As in all such matters, with respect to one’s own personal conduct, one should consult their own halachic authority.

    Perhaps the area where customs vary the most is with respect to which days the mourning practices are observed.  Tradition has it that the students only died for thirty-three days. The question is which days were they? Some opinions say that it was the first thirty-three days of the omer period ending on Lag Baomer. Others say that it started on Rosh Chodesh Iyar and ended right before Shavuot. Still others say that it was the whole period between Pesach and Shavuot minus the days we do not say Tachanun which are Pesach, Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh which also gives us a total of thirty-three days. Hence, we have three minhagim, those that observe the mourning practices until Lag Baomer, those that start at Rosh Chodesh Iyar and continue to Shavuot with a break of Lag Baomer in the middle and those that keep the whole seven week period.

    We should note that up to this point we have only been speaking about Ashkenazic practice.  Sephardic practice is somewhat different.  Rabbi Yosef Caro writes in the Shulchan Aruch that Sephardim wait until the day after Lag Baomer, or the morning of the thirty-fourth day to complete their mourning. This is because he had a tradition from his teachers that the mourning practices stopped on that day.

    In the end, whether we observe one minhag or another, the important thing to remember is that this mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer is a wonderful opportunity for us to develop our middot and refine our character as we prepare to relive our acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot. If we take advantage of it, this period of time can be a powerful catalyst for our individual spiritual growth from year to year.  May that be the case for us this year and in all the years to come.

Rabbi Eliezer Kessler
Houston, Texas