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The Reasons and the Scope of Mitzvat Sefirat Ha-Omer

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The Torah commands in two places that each person should count the days and weeks from the second day of Pesach until the holiday of Shavuot: 


And you shall count unto you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; even unto the morrow after the seventh week shall you number fifty days; and you shall present a new meal-offering unto the Lord.  (Vayikra 23:15-16)


Seven weeks you shall number unto you; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn you should begin to number seven weeks.  And you shall keep the Feast of Weeks unto the Lord your God after the measure of the freewill-offering of your hand, which you shall give, according as the Lord your God blessed you.  (Devarim 16:9-10)


We are to count from the day upon which the korban ha-omer (a sacrifice consisting of an “omer” of barley) was offered. The offering of this korban signals the permissibility of the consumption of chadash (new grains from the new harvest, which were forbidden until this offering). The count continues until the holiday of Shavuot, upon which the shetei ha-lechem, two loaves made from wheat, are brought. 


            In this shiur, we will discuss the reasons behind this mitzva, its source, and the manner in which it is performed. 


Reasons for Sefirat Ha-Omer


            The Rishonim offer different reasons for the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer and disagree as whether to view this mitzva within its historical/agricultural context or within the context of the period between the Exodus from Egypt and the impending giving of the Torah.


R. David ben R. Yosef Abudraham (Spain, thirteenth century), in his Sefer Adudraham (Tefillot Pesach), offers the simplest explanation of this mitzva:


The reason for which the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded to count the omer was because each Israelite was involved in his own harvest and each one was dispersed in his own threshing floor, and He commanded to count in order that they should not forget the time of their ascent for the festival (aliyah la-regel). 


The Abudraham explains that the farmer, who spends the time after Pesach occupied with the wheat harvest, may lose track of time and forget to come to Jerusalem for the celebration of Shavuot. Therefore, he is commanded to count forty-nine days, after which he celebrates Shavuot in Jerusalem.  Rabbeinu Yerucham (Toldat Adam Va-Chava, netiv 5, part 4) explains the mitzva in this manner as well, and he therefore suggests that one counts at night because one is less burdened by the harvest at night.


In the continuation of the passage cited above, the Abudraham offers another reason for the mitzva:


Because the word is in distress between Pesach and Shavuot over [the pending judgment of] the wheat and trees, as the Talmud describes in the beginning of Tractate Rosh Ha-Shana… Therefore, He commanded to count the days, in order that we should remember the world’s distress and return to Him with a full heart and plead before Him to have mercy on us and the creatures and the world, and that the wheat should be as it should be, as it is the source of our existence, and “if there is no flour, there is no Torah.” 


According this view, the counting of the omer does not serve to remind the farmer of the upcoming festival, but rather to remind us of the precarious situation of the world during this time, so that we should pray that the wheat harvest, upon which the world’s sustenance depends, will be sufficient. 


In his Moreh Nevuchim (3:43), the Rambam extends the import of this mitzva beyond the practical significance for the ancient farmer: 


The days are counted from the first of the festivals, up to it, as is done by one who waits for the coming of the human being he loves the best and counts the days and hours. This is the reason for the counting of the omer from the day when they left Egypt till the day of the giving of the Torah, which was the purpose and the end of their leaving.


According to the Rambam, one counts the days from leaving Egypt until the receiving of the Torah because the entire purpose of the Exodus was to receive the Torah. The Sefer Ha-Chinukh (306) agrees with this reason, but explains that although it might make more sense to count down the days until Shavuot, the Torah wants us to express our strong desire to reach the time; one does not want to begin with the impression of so many days ahead of him. 


            Interestingly, while the Rambam and Sefer Chinukh explain that one counts in order to express his yearning for the Torah, the Ran (Pesachim 28a) suggests that one counts in order to reenact the Jewish People’s count from their freedom from Egypt until they received the Torah. 


            Whether one focuses upon the count between the korban ha-omer until the shetei ha-lechem or the time period between the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah may impact upon whether the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer is considered binding mi-de’oraita or mi-derabbanan after the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, as we will see below. 


Who is Obligated to Count Sefirat Ha-Omer




The Talmud (Kiddushin 33b) rules in numerous places that women are exempt from “time-bound commandments,” “mitzvot asei she-ha-zeman graman.” Women are therefore exempt from certain mitzvot, such as tefillin, tzizit, sukka, arba minim, shofar, and keri’at shema.  Seemingly, sefirat ha-omer, which is performed between Pesach and Shavuot (and preferably at night), should be considered such a mitzva.


            Indeed, the Rambam (Hilkhot Temidin U-Mussafin 7:20), as well as the Sefer Ha-Chinukh (306), exempts women from the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer. The Ramban (Kiddushin 33b), however, enumerates mitzvot that are not time bound and which women are therefore obligated to perform.  He includes respecting and honoring  parents, bikkurim, challa, kisui ha-dam, reishit ha-gez, matanot kehuna, perika u-te’ina, and pidyon peter chamor - as he summarizes, “most of the mitzvot.” The mitzva of sefirat ha-omer is included in this short list of examples of mitzvot that are not time-bound. R. Malkiel Zvi b. R. Yonah Tannenbaum (1847-1910), in his Divrei Malkiel (3:5), as well as R. Soloveitchik (Nefesh Ha-Rav p. 191), were apparently so shocked by this opinion that they suggested that this must be a scribal error!


Is it possible to view sefirat ha-omer as a commandment that is not time-bound and therefore one which women would be obligated to perform? Indeed, sefirat ha-omer is performed only between Pesach and Shavuot and at night!


Must the count, in fact, be performed at night? The mishna (Megilla 20a) teaches that one may perform the ketzirat ha-omer, the cutting of the barley for the korban ha-omer, during the entire night of the 16th of Nissan. The gemara rules that the counting may also be performed during the entire night. Elsewhere (Menachot 71a), the gemara rules that although the omer should preferably be cut at night (mitzvato li-ketzor ba-layla), if it was cut during the day, it is still valid for use. Can we conclude that the same would be true regarding sefirat ha-omer, that be-diavad, one may count even during the day?


            Many Rishonim (R. Hai Gaon; Rambam, Temidim U-Mussafim 7:23; Me’iri, Megilla 20b; Behag, as cited by Ran, Megilla 7a) rule that one who forgets to count at night should count the next day with a blessing. Some explain that one may count with a blessing during the day only after the destruction of the Temple, when sefirat ha-omer is only of rabbinic origin and the requirement that the count be of seven “temimot” (full, perfect weeks) does not apply. The Rambam, however, who maintains that sefirat ha-omer is mi-de’oraita even after the destruction of the Temple, clearly does not accept this distinction. He views the entire day, beginning the night before, as the time during which this mitzva can be performed.


Others (Rabbeinu Tam, Tosafot, Megilla 20b; Semag, positive mitzva 199) rule that one should not count during the day at all, even without a berakha. Tosafot suggest that the halakha is in accordance with the gemara in Megilla (20a). Therefore, the counting and cutting of the omer must be done during the evening.  Furthermore, even if the halakha would be in accordance with the gemara in Menachot regarding the cutting of the omer, the counting of the omer must still be performed at night, as the verse states that the counting must be of “temimot” - complete or perfect - and must therefore be performed at night, the beginning of each “day.” 


Finally, other Rishonim (Ra’avia, 2:526; Mordekhai, Megilla 803; Rabbeinu Yerucham, netiv 5, part 4; Rosh, cited by Tur, Orach Chaim 489) write that one should count the following day, but without a berakha. Although some imply that this may be due to the doubt regarding whether one should count during the day, others (Mordekhai, citing R. Ya’akov ben Yakar) explain that although the full mitzva of counting during the proper time has not been fulfilled, the mitzva of counting has still been performed.  One who counts during the day fulfills a lower level of the mitzva, however, upon which a blessing is not recited.


            Let’s return to our question: do we view sefirat ha-omer as a time-bound mitzva? One who permits counting during the day, and even one who doesn’t, but only due to the technicality of “temimot,” may view sefirat ha-omer as a mitzva that is not bound by time. However, one who maintains that the mitzva may only be performed at night, similar to the ketzirat ha-omer, may therefore view sefirat ha-omer as a mitzvat asei she-ha-zeman gerama. 


            Alternatively, we might suggest other reasons that sefirat ha-omer is not a time-bound mitzva. For example, some suggest that sefirat ha-omer is not bound by time, per se, but rather by the bringing of the korban ha-omer and the shetei ha-lechem. 


R. Yerucham Fishel Perlow (1846-1934), in his monumental commentary to R. Saadia Gaon’s list of the 613 mitzvot (end of the introduction), suggests that only a mitzva regarding which time determines whether or not the mitzva can be performed is considered to be a mitzvat asei she-ha-zeman gerama. However, if a mitzva can theoretically be performed any time, but other factors determine that it can only be performed on certain days, it is not considered to be a time-bound mitzva.  Therefore, sefirat ha-omer, which is dependent not upon specific days, but rather upon the bringing of the korban ha-omer on Pesach and the shetei ha-lechem on Shavuot, is not considered a time-bound mitzva (see Turei Even, Megilla 20b). Furthermore, he suggests that all Rishonim who maintain that sefirat ha-omer is dependent upon these sacrificial offerings, and that therefore nowadays, after the destruction of the Temple and the abolishment of these offerings, sefirat ha-omer is only of rabbinic obligation, would obligate women in sefirat ha-omer.   


Alternatively, R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1885–1966) offers a different explanation:


In my humble opinion, the answer is simple.  A mitzvat asei she-ha-zeman gerama is a mitzva which has a set time; the time is the frame within which the mitzva is fulfilled, such as matza, lulav and sukka… which is not the case regarding sefirat ha-omer.  [Sefirat ha-omer] is not a mitzva to count days, but rather to count the specific days between Pesach and Shavuot, and it is not proper to say that the time has “caused" this mitzva.


In other words, the time between Pesach and Shavuot is not the timeframe within one may fulfill this mitzva. Rather, these are the days that one must count in order to fulfill the mitzva. The time does not obligate or generate the mitzva, but rather, it is the mitzva itself!


            Finally, R. Avraham Bornstein (1839–1910), in his Avnei Nezer (Orach Chaim 384), discusses this question as well. He suggests that just as women are obligated in all mitzvot related to the night of Pesach, such as the prohibition to eat chametz, the mitzva to eat matza, and the mitzva of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim, women are naturally obligated to count the omer, which begins “on the morrow after that day.” Although this interpretation is intriguing and raises the question as to the relationship between sefirat ha-omer and Pesach, it is doubtful that this is the Ramban’s intention. He labels sefirat ha-omer as a mitzva that is not time-bound, not one which is time-bound but that women must still fulfill. 


            The Magen Avraham (486:1) writes that although women are exempt from sefirat ha-omer, as it is a time-bound mitzva, “they have accepted it upon themselves as an obligation.” The Minchat Chinukh (306) disagrees, and the Mishna Berura (3) records that not only is this not the custom, but some even discourage women from recited the blessing over sefirat ha-omer, lest they forget to count on subsequent days. It seems, however, that the custom nowadays is for women to count sefirat ha-omer with a blessing (see Arukh Ha-Shulchan 489:4). 


Beit Din


            The Sifri (Devarim, piska 136) notes one of the differences between the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer as it appears in Vayikra and as it appears in Devarim:


“Seven weeks you shall number unto you” (Devarim 16:9-10) – in beit din.  And how do we know that each and every individual must [also] count? It says, “And you shall count unto yourselves” (Vayikra 23:15-16) - each and every person. 


This Sifri apparently maintains that the Beit Din Ha-Gadol must count each day of the omer leading up to Shavuot. We find a similar phenomenon, according to some opinions, regarding the years of the shemita cycles. The Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, 140; Hilkhot Shemita Ve-Yovel 10:1) rules that the Beit Din Ha-Gadol must count each year of the shemita cycle just as it must count the years of shemitta leading up to the yovel.  (See Ramban, Vayikra 23:15-16, who questions whether the Beit Din Ha-Gadol must actually count each year leading up the yovel with a blessing, or merely keep track of the years.) The Chizkuni (Vayikra 23:15) also clearly states that the Torah relates in the two different sources to two separate counts, one which is entrusted to the Beit Din Ha-Gadol and the other which is entrusted to the community (that is, the individuals).  R. Yerucham Fishel Perlow (in the commentary mentioned above, end of mitzva 51), vehemently rejects this possibility. 


            The possibility that the Beit Din Ha-Gadol must also count the days of the omer may be a minority opinion, but is intriguing nonetheless. Why would the Beit Din Ha-Gadol be commanded to count the days of the omer?


R. Soloveitchik (Kovetz Chiddushei Torah, p. 47-66) explains that the Beit Din Ha-Gadol, as the representatives of the Jewish People, is entrusted with the sanctification of the festivals. In fact, the Talmud (Beitza 17a) distinguishes between Shabbat, whose sanctity is “fixed” (by God), and upon which we therefore recite the blessing “mekadesh ha-Shabbat” (“He who sanctifies the Shabbat”), and Yom Tov, which is sanctified by the Jewish People, who set the months and years, and upon which we recite the berakhamekadesh Yisrael ve-ha-zemanim” (“He who sanctifies Israel and the festivals”). R. Soloveitchik developed this idea further, claiming that the Rambam maintains that the Beit Din Ha-Gadol sanctifies the Jubilee year by counting each and every year of the shemita cycles. Regarding sefirat ha-omer, he adds (Mesorah 1:1; Eretz Ha-Tzvi, p. 11) that the Beit Din Ha-Gadol, through their counting of the omer, may also sanctify the festival of Shavuot, especially since it is not identified by specific date, but rather by its relationship to Pesach. Indeed, the Torah says, “You should begin to number seven weeks, and you shall keep the Feast of Weeks” (Devarim 16:9-10). The counting of the weeks establishes the “Feast of Weeks” – Shavuot. 


While the individual counts each day between the korban ha-omer and the shetei ha-lechem, the Beit Din Ha-Gadol counts each day leading up to Shavuot, sanctifying it thereby. 


This intriguing idea may also explain the difference between the count of days that appears in Vayikra and the count of weeks that appears in Devarim.  The counting of the weeks relates to the festival of Shavuot, while the counting of the days relates to the korban ha-omer and the shetei ha-lechem.  We will return to this distinction shortly.


Finally, R. Soloveitchik suggests that sefirat ha-omer may not be considered a mitzvat asei she-hazeman gerama according to the Ramban because women are certainly including in the communal sanctification of the holiday of Shavuot. 


The Source of the Obligation of Sefirat Ha-Omer


            The Talmud (Menachot 66a) states regarding the counting of the omer:


Abaye said: It is the mitzva to count the days and also to count the weeks. The Rabbis of the school of R. Ashi used to count the days as well as the weeks.  Ameimar used to count the days but not the weeks, saying, “It is only in commemoration of Temple times (zekher la-mikdash)." 


According to this passage, Ameimar believed that the counting of the omer is only zekher la-mikdash, and therefore one should only count the weeks, not the days. It remains unclear whether Abaye and R. Ashi agreed that sefirat ha-omer is only zekher la-mikdash nowadays, but maintain that one should still count both the days and the weeks, or whether they disagree with Ameimar’s premise entirely, assuming that sefirat ha-omer is still a biblical law even after the destruction of the Temple and the abolishment of the korban ha-omer and the shetei ha-lechem.


            Furthermore, the Rishonim debate whether sefirat ha-omer is mi-de’oraita or mi-derabbanan nowadays and whether there is still a distinction between the counting of the days and the weeks.


            Some Rishonim believe that sefirat ha-omer is mi-de’oraita. The Rambam (Hilkhot Temidin U-usafin 7:22-4), for example, writes:


There is a mitzvat asei [positive obligation] to count seven complete weeks from the day of the bringing of the omer [on the sixteenth of Nissan], as it says, “You shall count for yourselves, from the day following the Shabbat, seven weeks.” There is a mitzva to count the days together with the weeks, as it says, “You shall count fifty days”… This mitzva applies to all males among Yisrael, in every place and at every time. 


The Rambam clearly believes that the obligation is mi-de’oraita nowadays. The Shibbolei Ha-Leket (234) and the Ra’avya (cited in the Or Zarua 329) concur.  These Rishonim clearly believe that Abaye and R. Ashi argue with Ameimar and maintain that sefirat ha-omer remains a biblical obligation.


Others disagree.  Tosafot (Menachot 66a), for example, argue:


It appears that when one is in doubt as to whether or not night has fallen one, may recite the berakha [over sefirat ha-omer] and need not wait until the time when night has definitely fallen, since this constitutes a situation of doubt concerning a rabbinic law [regarding which we rule leniently].


Tosafot, who question whether one may count the omer during the period of bein ha-shemashot, when one is in doubt whether it is day or night, applies the principle of safek derabbanan le-kula to sefirat ha-omer, clearly indicating its rabbinic origin in their opinion.  The Ba'al Ha-Ma'or (Pesachim 28a, Rif) agrees, applying this principle to explain why we do not count twice out of doubt regarding the proper date, similar to our observance of Yom Tov Sheini.   


Some have asked why we do not recite “zeman” [the berakha of “she-hecheyanu”] for sefirat ha-omer… Furthermore, why don't we count twice out of doubt, just as we observe two days of Yom Tov out of doubt? The governing principle is that we need not conduct ourselves stringently regarding sefirat ha-omer, for it constitutes but a commemoration.


The Rosh (Pesachim 10:40), Ran (Pesachim 28a, Rif) and most other Rishonim agree.  These Rishonim clearly believe that since nowadays we do not bring the korban omer, sefirat ha-omer must only be a rabbinic obligation. Does this mean that these Rishonim distinguish between counting the days and the weeks, as Ameimar did, and count only the days? The Ba’al Ha-Ma’or (ibid.) addresses this issue.  He writes:


It is only a commemoration, and this is the conclusion there in Menachot, that Ameimar counted days and not weeks, claiming that the mitzva is but a commemoration of the Temple.  Although we count both days and weeks, this is a custom we have adopted.


The Ba'al Ha-ma'or fundamentally agrees that those who maintain that sefirat ha-omer is only mi-derabbanan nowadays should distinguish between the counting of the days and the weeks, and he therefore concludes that the counting of weeks is only a “custom we have adopted."  Most Rishonim disagree, however. The Ran (ibid.), for example, writes:


Since Abaye and the school of R. Ashi counted both days and weeks, we follow their position, even though Ameimar argues with them… Most commentators agree that nowadays, when we do not bring [the omer offering] nor offer the sacrifice, sefirat ha-omer is only a rabbinic obligation, in commemoration of the Mikdash.


Apparently, even Abaye and the school of R. Ashi maintained that sefirat ha-omer is a rabbinic obligation nowadays; they only argue with Ameimar regarding whether it should be observed differently than it was in the Mikdash. In other words, they argue as to whether a mitzva which is instituted as a zekher la-Mikdash should be modeled exactly after the original mitzva. 


How are we to understand this debate between Amemar and Abaye and the school of R. Ashi? R. Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik (1886-1959), known as the Brisker Rav, discusses this issue (Menachot 66a). He distinguishes between two different types of enactments intended to serve as a zekher la-Mikdash.  At times, the rabbis instituted that one should continue fulfilling a mitzva just as it was fulfilled in the Beit Ha-Mikdash, in order to ensure that the particulars of that mitzva are not forgotten. However, the rabbis also instituted certain practices which are intended to remind the Jewish People of the loss of the Temple and the lost opportunity to fulfill the mitzva. In other words, sometimes the enactment focuses upon the performance of the mitzva, while at others it focuses upon the mourning over the destruction of the Temple. 


Abaye and the school of R. Ashi apparently maintained that the rabbis instituted that one should continue to count the omer just as it was done in the Beit Ha-Mikdash.  Ameimar, however, believed that the enactment intended only to remind us of the loss of the Temple, and it is therefore sufficient to count the days.


While some Rishonim view sefirat ha-omer as mi-de’oraita and some understand that it is mi-derabbanan, others offer a third, middle position.


Rabbeinu Yerucham (Toldot Adam Ve-Chavah, netiv 5: part 4) offers such an approach. He maintains that during the time of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, there are actually two separate mitzvot: the counting of the weeks and the counting of the days. The counting of the weeks is linked to the cutting of the omer, as it says, "Count seven weeks from the beginning of the harvest of the standing grain" (Devarim 16:9). The counting of the days, however, is not dependent on the omer.  He therefore argues that nowadays, since we no longer offer the korban ha-omer in the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the counting of the days remains mi-de’oraita, but the counting of the weeks is only mi-derabbanan – zekher la-Mikdash.  Furthermore, he explains that since the counting of the weeks is only mi-derabbanan, it does not merit a separate berakha. 


R. Yerucham Fishel Perlow (mitzva 51) discusses these two points. He challenges and strongly disagrees with Rabbenu Yerucham’s assumption that a mitzva instituted zekher la-Mikdash does not warrant a blessing before its performance.  Regarding the possible difference between the counting of the days and the weeks, he demonstrates that while many Rishonim actually view the counting of the weeks as the central mitzva and the counting of the days as secondary, others view the counting of the days as the primary mitzva and the counting of the weeks as secondary. R. Soloveitchik (see Mi-Peninei Ha-Rav, p. 230) discusses this issue as well. 


Interestingly, R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847–1905), author of the Sefat Emet, suggests a similar, yet opposite theory.  He claims that the counting of the weeks mentioned in Devarim relates to the holiday of Shavuot, while the counting of the days mentioned in Vayikra appears in the context of the korban ha-omer and the shetei ha-lechem.  He proposes that although these two mitzvot, the mentioning of the days and the weeks, are no longer applicable after the destruction for the Temple, Ameimar maintained that the counting that was relevant to the Beit Ha-Mkdash, the counting of the days, should be observed zekher la-Mikdash. He concludes that after formulating this theory, he was shown the Rabbeinu Yerucham, “whose words are not understood, and they are partially the opposite of what I wrote.”


The Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot 161) explicitly rejects the possibility that the counting of the days and the weeks constitute two separate mitzvot.  He writes:


Do not be misled to consider [the counting of days and weeks as] two commandments because of the statement of our Sages, "It is a mitzva to count the days and it is a mitzva to count the weeks." [They use the expression, "It is a mitzva"] because for any mitzva that has many parts, it is a "mitzva" [i.e., we are commanded] to do each part.  If the Sages would have said, however, "Counting the days is a mitzva, and counting the weeks is a mitzva," they would be considered two separate commandments. This is clear to anyone who thinks carefully about the wording; because when it is said that there is an "obligation" to do a certain act, that expression does not necessarily indicate that it is a separate commandment. The clear proof of this [i.e. that counting the days and weeks are not separate commandments] is that we count the weeks every single night by saying, "It is this number of weeks and this number of days." If [counting] the weeks would be a separate commandment, [the Sages] would have established them to be counted only on those nights which [complete] the weeks.  They also would have established two blessings: "[Blessed are You God, King of the universe,] Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the days of the Omer," and, "to count the weeks of the omer." This is not the case; rather the mitzva is to count the days and weeks of the omer as was commanded.


According to the Rambam, the counting of the weeks and of the days together comprise one single mitzva.


The Bi’ur Halakha (489:1) writes that although the position of the Shulkhan Arukh is that sefirat ha-omer is a rabbinic mitzva, one should be careful to count the omer after tzeit ha-kokhavim, in deference to those opinions which hold that sefirat ha-omer, even nowadays, is a mitzva mi-de’oraita.


Interestingly, the "hineni mukhan u-mezuman" paragraph customarily recited before counting the omer reads: "I am hereby prepared and ready to fulfill the positive commandment of sefirat ha-omer, as it is written in the Torah…” This declaration, which expresses one’s intention to fulfill the commandment, implies that the obligation of sefirat ha-omer is mi-de’oraita.  Not only is this point debatable, as demonstrated above, but it also seemingly contradicts the passage that is customarily said after counting the omer (see Tosafot, Megilla 20b): “O Compassionate One! May He return for us the Service of the Temple to its Place speedily and in our time, amen selah,” which implies that sefirat ha-omer is performed zekher la-Mikdash! While some Acharonim object to reciting either passage, others attempt to justify this common custom. 



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