In describing Benei Yisrael’s departure from Egypt, the Torah (Shemot 12:39) emphasizes the fact that they left Egypt without having prepared proper provisions for travel (“ve-gam tzeida lo asu lahem”). Chazal, in the Mekhilta, view this point as a testament to the people’s faith: “This expresses the praise of Israel, as they did not say to Moshe, ‘How will we leave into the wilderness without provisions for travel?’ Rather, they believed and followed Moshe.” The Mekhilta adds that it was in reference to this act of faith that God proclaimed many centuries later through the prophet Yirmiyahu (2:2), “I remember for you the kindess of your youth, your bridal love, following me into the wilderness, in an uncultivated land.”
God describes Benei Yisrael’s departure from Egypt as an expression of “ahavat kelulotayikh” – “bridal love.” They are compared to a bride who commits herself to her beloved unconditionally, even if she is uncertain how he will provide for and care for her. Her love for her groom exceeds such considerations, and she is prepared to live simply and austerely for the sake of being with him. Benei Yisrael followed God into the wilderness without asking questions, because they desired to be under His care and in His company even if this meant living in an “uncultivated land.” (Of course, as we read later in the Torah, there were many instances when the people failed in this regard, and complained bitterly about the conditions in the wilderness. Nevertheless, as we read in Yirmiyahu, God is forever mindful of the nation’s “bridal love” as expressed at the time of the Exodus.)
Chazal here remind us that our love of God and desire to be in His presence should trump other concerns and considerations. There are times when we are called upon to follow God into a “wilderness,” to make difficult sacrifices for the sake of fulfilling His will. Torah observance at times demands that we act counterintuitively and against what at first appears to be our best interests. The Mekhilta draws our attention to the example set by Benei Yisrael right at the dawn of our nation’s history, an example of faith and of a desire to follow the Almighty wherever He leads us, despite the sacrifices this might entail.
The Ba’al Ha-maor, at the end of Masekhet Pesachim, famously raises the question of why we do not recite the berakha of “she-hechiyanu” each year when we begin counting the omer. Seemingly, just as we recite this berakha as an expression of joy the first time we perform other seasonal mitzvot, such as matza, sukka and Chanukah candles, we should likewise recite it the first time we begin the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer each year. The Ba’al Hamaor answers, intriguingly, that sefirat ha-omer differs in that it is purely commemorative. Following the position of the majority of the Rishonim (the Rambam being the famous and notable excpetion), who maintained that counting the omer after the Temple’s destruction is required only by force of rabbinic enactment, the Ba’al Ha-maor asserts that our counting merely commemorates the counting that was done in the times of the Mikdash. As such, it lacks the kind of joy that is normally experienced when we perform an annual mitzva, and it therefore does not warrant the recitation of “she-hechiyanu.”
Among the many questions asked regarding the Ba’al Ha-maor’s theory is how can it be reconciled with the practice of reciting “she-hechiyanu” when taking the arba minim. Outside the Beit Ha-mikdash, the mitzva to hold the four species applies on the level of Torah obligation only on the first day of Sukkot; thereafter, we take the arba minim merely to commemorate the mitzva performed in the Mikdash throughout the seven days of Sukkot. And yet, if a person did not perform the mitzva on the first day of Sukkot, and takes the arba minim for the first time on the second day or later, he recites “she-hechiyanu” the first time he performs the mitzva (Shulchan Arukh, O.C. 662:2; see Mishna Berura). Even though he performs the mitzva for purely commemorative purposes, as the Torah obligation applies only on the first day, he nevertheless recites “she-hechiyanu.” Would the Ba’al Ha-maor disagree with this ruling, or would he distinguish between the commemorative function of sefirat ha-omer and that of the arba minim after the first day of Sukkot?
A possible basis for such a distinction, as noted by Rav Akiva Kister in his Yekar Tiferet (Parashat Emor), is a famous passage in the Ramban’s Talmud commentary (Kiddushin 34), where he lists several examples of mitzvot asei she-lo ha-zman gerama – mitzvot which are not “time-bound.” There is a general halakhic principle absolving women from “time-bound” obligations – though there are many exceptions – and the Ramban, in discussing this rule, gives several examples of mitzvot which do not fall into this category, and which thus apply to both men and women alike. Surprisingly, the Ramban includes sefirat ha-omer in this list. Many Acharonim struggled to explain how sefirat ha-omer, a mitzva which applies in seven specific weeks during the year, can be considered anything but “time-bound.” Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, in Mikraei Kodesh – Pesach (vol. 2, p. 67), explained that according to the Ramban, the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer is not bound to a particular calendar date. The obligation is triggered – in the Ramban’s view – not by the onset of the 16th of Nissan, but rather by the offering of the omer sacrifice on that day. The Torah commands counting the omer “from the day you bring the omer” (Vayikra 23:15); the time of this mitzva is not a specific date, but rather a specific event. Hypothetically, if Halakha would one year require offering the omer sacrifice on a different day, sefirat ha-omer would bring on the day, and not on the 16th of Nissan. As such, the Ramban classified sefirat ha-omer as a mitzvat asei she-lo ha-zman gerama.
Perhaps, Rav Kister suggests, this strong link between sefirat ha-omer and the korban ha-omer allows for distinguishing between sefirat ha-omer and arba minim after the first day of Sukkot. Sefirat ha-omer is inherently linked to the sacrifice, as by definition, the requirement is to count from the time of the sacrifice. As such, our counting nowadays is, essentially, a commemoration of the korban ha-omer sacrifice. Since we do not offer the sacrifice, our counting is very far removed from its Biblical source. The obligation of four species, by contrast, is not inherently linked to any other mitzva. And thus when we take the arba minim outside the Mikdash after the first day of Sukkot, we perform the precise same mitzva as was done in the Temple. Unlike our commemorative sefirat ha-omer, it is a precise replica of the mitzva we seek to commemorate. For this reason, perhaps, the mitzva of arba minim is more eligible for the recitation of “she-hechiyanu” than the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer, which is very far removed from the original mitzva which it serves to commemorate.
The Magen Avraham (489:2) rules that if one recites the counting of the omer but does not understand the words he recites, then he does not fulfill the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer. Meaning, if a person does not understand any Hebrew, and on the second day of the omer he recites the words, “Hayom shenei yamim la-omer,” he does not fulfill the obligation, since he does not understand what he says. Rav Yaakov Emden, however, in his She’eilat Yabetz (139), disagrees. He notes that whenever Halakha requires reciting a text, such as kiddush and hallel, one fulfills the obligation if he recites the original Hebrew even if he does not understand the words he recites. By the same token, then, one fulfills the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer by reciting the Hebrew words, regardless of whether or not he understands what he says.
This debate, as noted by Rav Avraham Dov Kahana Shapiro of Kovno, in his Devar Avraham (34), likely reflects the more fundamental question as to the precise definition of the sefirat ha-omer obligation. Rav Yaakov Emden compared sefirat ha-omer to mitzvot such as kiddush and hallel, which require the recitation of a text. In his view, it appears, the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer requires that we recite that day’s number, and thus we may apply to sefirat ha-omer the same guidelines that apply to other required recitations. The Magen Avraham, by contrast, followed what seems to be the more intuitive approach – that sefirat ha-omer requires an act of counting, not a recitation. Counting, by definition, requires that one understands what he says. Accordingly, one does not fulfill the mitzva by reciting the counting without understanding the words. Although he recited the required text, he does not fulfill the obligation to count.
Another application of this question is the case of one who counts in shorthand, for example, if on Lag Ba-omer one counts by saying the words, “Hayom lag ba-omer,” as opposed to the conventional “Hayom shalosh u-shloshim yom.” According to the Magen Avraham, the sefirat ha-omer obligation requires counting, and thus the person in this case fulfills his requirement, having counted that day. According to Rav Yaakov Emden’s approach, however, it would seem that one does not fuflill his obligation by counting in this fashion, as he does not recite the proper text. Indeed, as noted by Rav Akiva Kister in his Yekar Tiferet (Parashat Emor), the Sha’arei Teshuva (489) cites Rav Yaakov Emden as ruling that one does not fulfill his obligation by counting in shorthand.
It has been noted that this question may underlie the famous debate among the poskim as to the possibility of fulfilling the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer by listening to somebody else count. If the obligation is defined in terms of the recitation of a text, as indicated by Rav Yaakov Emden, then it stands to reason that one can – strictly speaking – fulfill the mitzva by hearing another person’s counting, just as with other mitzvot requiring a recitation (e.g. kiddush, havdala). If, however, the mitzva requires an act of counting, then one could argue that the counting must be done personally, and not by listening to somebody else.
The Rosh, at the end of Masekhet Pesachim, cites the famous view of the Behag (Ba’al Halakhot Gedolot) that one who does not count one of the days of the omer can no longer fulfill the mitzva on the subsequent days. Most Rishonim dispute this position, and maintain that missing one day has no effect on the obligation on the subsequent days. In light of this debate, the commonly-accepted Halakha is that one who misses a day must continue counting, but does not recite the berakha over the counting henceforth.
The Rosh (among others) questioned the Behag’s view on the basis of the fact that we recite a berakha each night before counting. This would seemingly signify that each night constitutes a separate mitzva, which bears no integral connection to the previous days’ counting. Accordong to the Behag, who viewed sefirat ha-omer as one protracted mitzva, such that a single missed day undermines the purpose of counting even on the other days, we should seemingly not recite a separate berakha each night of counting.
One answer that has been given to explain the Behag’s position is that he accepts the premise that each day’s counting constitutes an independent mitzva, but nevertheless maintains that one cannot fulfill the mitzva on any given night if a previous night’s counting was missed. It could be reasonably argued that counting, by definition, must be successive, and hence uninterrupted. Simply put, one cannot count four before counting three. In the Behag’s view, although the mitzva to count the fourth night stands independent of the obligation to count the third night, and constitutes a separate mitzva requiring a separate berakha, nevertheless, in practice, it cannot be fulfilled if the third day was missed. If one did not count the third day, then there is no meaning to counting the fourth day. This easily explains why, on the one hand, we recite a berakha each night, but after missing a day of counting one cannot – according to the Behag – fulfill the mitzva on the subsequent nights. Each night constitutes a separate mitzva, but as a practical matter, each night’s counting depends upon the previous nights’ counting.
This perspective on the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer likely hinges on the question noted yesterday as to whether the mitzva is defined as an obligation to count, or as an obligation to recite that day’s number. As we saw, the Devar Avraham (34) claimed that this question affects the issue of whether one must understand the words he recites to fulfill the obligation. If the mitzva requires a formal recitation, then it suffices to recite the words even without understanding them. If, however, one must “count,” then this requires a cognitive recognition of the progression of days. By the same token, the Behag maintains that one must have counted the previous days, as otherwise he cannot, technically speaking, “count” that day’s number.
The practical ramification of this analysis is a situation where one knows in advance that he will be unable to count the entire sefira period, such as if one will be undergoing surgery that will leave him incapacitated for a day or more. Instinctively, we might have assumed that according to the Behag, this person should not count the omer even before his surgery, as he knows for certain that he will be unable to complete the counting, and will thus be unable to fulfill the mitzva. In light of this discussion, however, even the Behag would require such a person to count as long as he can. According to the approach presented here, the Behag accepts the premise that each day’s counting constitutes a separate mitzva, and therefore, one fulfills the mitzva each night he counts until he is incapacitated and unable to count. The only reason why one who misses a day of counting can no longer count is because counting must be successive, and thus even according to the Behag, one must certainly count as long as he can, even if he knows in advance that he will be unable to count all forty-nine days.
(Based on Rav Akiva Kister’s Yekar Tiferet, Parashat Emor)
The sefirat ha-omer period is “bracketed” by two special sacrifices. It begins with the offering of the korban ha-omer on the 16th of Nissan, which consisted of the first portion of harvested barley, and it concludes with the offering of wheat in the form of the shetei ha-lechem sacrifice on Shavuot. Many have noted that Chazal speak of barley as having been used primarily as animal fodder, whereas wheat was used to produce bread for human consumption. Symbolically, then, the transition from the korban ha-omer to the korban shetei ha-lechem represents the process of advancement from the status of “animal” to that of refined human beings. On Pesach we celebrate our attainment of political freedom, but we must then begin to grow, advance and progress before we are then able to reaffirm our commitment to Torah on Shavuot.
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Oznayim Le-Torah (Vayikra 23:15), formulates the precise role of the korban ha-omer in light of this symbolism: “The concept of purification via sefira is that after Benei Yisrael recognize their ‘animalistic’ condition through the offering of the omer, they will then begin to prepare themselves for accepting the Torah through contemplation of their inner selves and improving their conduct.” The first step of, and indeed the prerequisite to, self-improvement is recognizing that it is necessary. The fuction of the korban ha-omer is to remind us that we are all – each and every one of us – saddled by human frailties and negative tendencies that can be overcome only through sefira – through an extended period of hard work and concentrated effort. This sacrifice is necessary for beginning the omer period because it reminds us that this period is vital and indispensable. It alerts us to what Rav Sorotzkin calls “matzavam ha-behemi” – our inherently “animalistic” condition, our innate faults and flaws with which we need to struggle. It reminds us that the experience of kabbalat ha-Torah, of affirming our commitment to Torah and acting upon that commitment, can never be robotic. This can be achieved only through the “sefira” process, once we’ve recognized our faults and have undertaken efforts to overcome them.
The first step of kabbalat ha-Torah is the korban ha-omer – being mindful of our shortcomings and honestly acknowledging the need to work to correct them.
The Gemara in Masekhet Megila (10b) famously relates that after the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the heavenly angels wanted to sing praise to God for this remarkable event. God, however, did not allow the angels to sing, rhetorically asking, “My creatures are drowning in the sea – and you wish to sing praise?” The angels were barred from singing joyous praise because the miracle involved the tragic loss of life with the drowning of the Egyptians.
Many commentators have addressed the question of why the angels were prevented from singing praise, but Benei Yisrael sang the “Az Yashir” song of praise, which was incorporated into our morning prayer service. Why did God deem it inappropriate for the angels to sing praise, but Benei Yisrael were allowed to sing?
Rav Elya Meir Bloch answered this question by citing Rashi’s comments in Sefer Bereishit (18:5). Citing the Midrash, Rashi notes that in describing the angels’ eating at Avraham’s tent, the Torah employs the term levav to refer to the angels’ “heart.” But in the context of human beings eating (Shoftim 19:5), the term lev is used. Rashi ambiguously explains the reason for this distinction: “This teaches that the evil inclination has no control over angels.” Rav Bloch interprets this to mean that angels have only a single “heart”; they are not beset by inner tension and conflict. The difference between lev and levav, Rav Bloch explains, is the difference between the experience of a single emotion and that of several conflicting emotions. The human being’s heart is called levav because we have a yetzer ha-ra – we need to struggle to overcome negative tendencies and undergo the emotional turmoil of inner conflict. Angels, by contrast, have a lev. Just as Chazal teach that no angel is assigned more than a single mission, similarly, an angel cannot experience more than a single emotion. Its entire being is naturally devoted toward the purpose for which it was created, and it feels no conflicting pressures whatsoever.
On this basis, Rav Bloch insightfully commented, we can easily understand why the angels were barred from singing afer the miracle of the sea, while Benei Yisrael were allowed to sing. Benei Yisrael, as human beings, could experience the tension between the euphoria of salvation and the distress over witnessing widespread death. They were capable of singing joyous praise to God while still experiencing pain over the death of so many people. Human emotion is complex, and it is precisely this complexity which allows us to celebrate even when the cause of celebration also entailed a degree of misfortune. The angels, however, are incapable of this complexity. If they joyfully sing to celebrate a miracle, then they feel only jubilation, and cannot feel the conflicting emotion of pain. And therefore they were not allowed to sing. God accepted only the song of Benei Yisrael, the complex, conflicting emotions of a newly-freed nation celebrating its freedom while lamenting the gruesome fate of their oppressors, recognizing that they, too, were God’s creatures.
The Noda Bi-yehuda (Mahadura Kama, O.C. 20) addresses the case of a wealthy, non-observant Jew who died over the course of Pesach, leaving behind a large estate that included large quantities of chametz. The well-known halakha of “chametz she-avar alav ha-pesach” forbids eating or benefitting from chametz that had been in a Jew’s possession during Pesach. According to one view in the Gemara (Pesachim 28a), such chametz is forbidden by Torah law, though Halakha follows the view of Rabbi Shimon, that this prohibition was enacted by the Sages as a “penalty” for leaving chametz in one’s possession durin Pesach. In any event, it would appear, at first glance, that if a person dies during Pesach, his inheritors cannot claim rights to the chametz in his estate. Since the chametz was owned by a Jew during Pesach, it has the status of “chametz she-avar alav ha-pesach” and should thus remain forbidden after the holiday.
The Noda Bi-yehuda, however, permitted the inheritors to take possession of the chametz along with the rest of the deceased’s estate. His ruling is based upon two bold assumptions: 1) the deceased’s chametz is not considered “chametz she-avar alav ha-pesach” by virtue of its having been owned by the inheritors during Pesach after the deceased’s death; 2) the deceased’s chametz is not considered “chametz she-avar alav ha-pesach” by virtue of its having been owned by the deceased himself during Pesach before his death.
As for the first assumption, the Noda Bi-yehuda explains that the prohibition of owning chametz on Pesach applies only to chametz which one owned at the onset of Pesach, or that he knowingly acquires during Pesach, which must be promptly destroyed. In the case of inheritance, however, the inheritors are not considered the de facto owners over the deceased’s chametz the moment he passes away. The chametz is considered ownerless until after Pesach, at which point it becomes permissible for consumption and enters into the inheritors’ possession. At no point, then, was the chametz owned by the inheritors during Pesach. Regarding the second assumption, the Noda Bi-yehuda advances the surprising claim that as the prohibition of “chametz she-avar alav ha-pesach” takes effect at the conclusion of Pesach, it applies only to chametz owned by a Jew at that point. If chametz was owned by a Jew at the beginning of Pesach, but it then left his possession in the middle of Pesach (such as if he sold it to a non-Jew), then it does not have the status of “chametz she-avar alav ha-pesach” after Pesach, and thus becomes permissible once the holiday ends. Therefore, although the deceased owned the chametz at the beginning of Pesach, when the holiday ended it was ownerless, and thus became permissible.
Later Acharonim, however, dispute the Noda Bi-yehuda’s ruling, and rule that the chametz in this case is indeed forbidden. The Mekor Chayim (448:9) challenges the Noda Bi-yehuda’s first assumption, and claims that if a person who has chametz in his possession dies during Pesach, his inheritors must, indeed, destroy the chametz in the estate. Thus, if they failed to do so, then the chametz remains forbidden for use after Pesach, by force of the law of “chametz she-avar alav ha-pesach.” Others, including the Chazon Ish (O.C. 118), reject the Noda Bi-yehuda’s second assumption, and maintain that the prohibition of “chametz she-avar alav he-pesach” applies to chametz that was owned at any point during Pesach in violation of the Torah law forbidding ownership over chametz, regardless of when during Pesach the chametz was owned. This indeed appears to be the more compelling view. Since Chazal enacted this prohibition as a penalty against those who violated the prohibition, it should not matter whether the prohibition was violated toward the beginning of Pesach or at the end. Thus, if a person who owned chametz dies during Pesach, the chametz in the estate remains forbidden after Pesach, since it had been owned by a Jew during Pesach.
(Based on a shiur by Rav Asher Weiss)
We will return to a daily presentation of SALT shortly after Pesach. Kol tuv.
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