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Sefirat HaOmer at Night

Text file
Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass
            Not only is it common knowledge that the omer should be counted at night, but, it might even be explicitly mentioned in the mishna.  The text of the mishna in Megilla 20b, according to the Rosh, Ritva, and others reads, "All night is the proper time for the cutting of the [barley for the] omer sacrifice and for counting the omer."  Even though the prevalent text of our editions does not include sefirat ha-omer among the mitzvot to be performed at night, it is universally accepted that it should be counted at night.
            Two sources are quoted as the basis for this law:
1. "TEMIMOT" - that sefirat ha-omer must be "complete;" and
2. The CUTTING of the omer must be done at night and therefore, by analogy, the COUNTING must too.
I. "TEMIMOT" - Completeness
            The following beraita appears on Menachot 66a, as well as in the Sifrei and Torat Kohanim: "Perhaps the omer should be cut and counted during the day?  We are taught [by the wording of the Torah in Vayikra 23:15] 'They should be seven complete ("temimot") weeks.'  When can one attain seven complete weeks?  When one starts to count at night."
            Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot Megilla 20b s.v. Kol) rules that counting should be done at night even according to the opinion that considers the omer sacrifice valid if cut during the day.  The Torah employs the seemingly redundant term "temimot" to indicate the importance of counting at night.
            This approach to the requirement of counting at night views the nocturnal element as essential in that it alone can endow the counting with "completeness."  Sefirat ha-omer does not just involve noting how many days have elapsed since the beginning of the barley harvest, or how many are left till Shavuot.  Were that the case, counting any time during the day would enable one to count complete days.  One must not only count each day; one must count each part of the day.  A count performed in the morning would not relate to the beginning of the twenty-four-hour period - the nighttime.  [An analogy for the difference between these two types of counting:  A teacher counting textbooks differs from an office worker counting files of the students, first checking that each includes within it all of the proper forms.  A count of a file is not meaningful unless the file is complete.]
            Both Rabbeinu Yerucham (Netiv 5, part 4) and the Rosh (Tosafot Ha-rosh, Megilla 20b s.v. Kol) explain that the reason that we count the omer at night is that the grain for the omer must be cut at night.  "Just like 'If the omer was not cut at night it is not valid', so too the blessing (i.e., counting) of the omer must be done at night," says the Rosh.
            The source for doing sefirat ha-omer while standing is also based on the connection between counting the omer and cutting the grain for the omer.  When the Torah indicates (Devarim 16:9) that the omer should be brought at the beginning of the harvest it uses the word "kama," standing grain.  The need to stand during the counting of the omer is connected to these words.  [The Rosh quotes this "derasha" (teaching); the Sefer Yere'im (261) states that he does not know its original source, but the Tosafot Re'em (note 9) brings several sources.]
            This derivation is connected to two assumptions:
a. that cutting the omer is a SEPARATE MITZVA, and not just a preparation for the offering of the omer; and
b. that counting the omer is intimately related to cutting the omer.
a. We may view cutting the omer as a separate mitzva, not just as the preliminary action ("hekhsher mitzva") of obtaining the barley that will be ground, sifted, and offered as a sacrifice.
            The Acharonim bring various sources which relate to this issue either directly (See Korban Ha-eida, Shi'arei Korban, and Mar'eh Ha-panim's comments on Reish Lakish's question in Yerushalmi Rosh Hashana 1:8, the footnotes on the Shita Mekubetzet Menachot 72a, and Mishnat Ya'avetz OC 25) or tangentially (Even Ha-ezel Hilkhot Temidim U-musafim 7, Avnei Nezer OC 385, and Oneg Yom Tov 43).  Four of their major proofs for our thesis are:
            1. On the verse, "Rest from plowing and harvesting" (Shemot 34:21), Rabbi Yishmael comments, "This excludes cutting the omer, for it is a MITZVA."  (Shevi'it 1:4, Rashi Mo'ed Katan 4a, s.v. Ketzir Ha-omer)
            2. The Rambam (Temidim U-musafim 7:13) rules that when the omer is cut it becomes permissible to cut other grain in the Land of Israel (according to the Mishkenot Yaakov YD 67 it is also prohibited nowadays also to harvest before the time of the cutting of the omer; the Reshash Menachot 70a disagrees).  Because the Torah (Vayikra 23:10) calls the omer, "The first of your harvest," nothing can be harvested before it.  This assigns an independent function to the cutting of the omer, which signals the presence of a distinct mitzva.
            3. In his Commentary on the Mishna (Menachot 10:1), the Rambam writes that the omer is cut even on Shabbat because "It is like all communal [sacrificial] obligations that are done regardless of Shabbat or tum'a (impurity)."  Equating cutting the omer with sacrifices indicates that it has an independent status.  [This approach to the Rambam can help answer the Shakh's (YD 262:3) and the Lechem Mishneh's (Temidim U-musafim 7:7) questions on the Rambam.  See also the Chakham Tzvi 166 and the Even Ha-ezel and other Acharonim on the Rambam.]
            4.  According to the Avnei Nezer (OC 385:19), if one cut grain for the omer sacrifice which then became tamei (impure), one still offers that grain.  Using grain that was cut as part of the mitzva of "ketzirat ha-omer," even if it is tamei, is preferable to grain that is tahor (pure) but was not cut for the sake of the mitzva.
            All of the above sources seem to regard cutting the omer as a mitzva distinct from the offering of the omer sacrifice.  There is one source, though, which points in the opposite direction, indicating that the cutting is only a preparation for the sacrifice and not a separate mitzva.  The gemara in Shabbat 131a draws a parallel between cutting the omer and PREPARATIONS for the "shtei ha-lechem" (two loaves of bread brought on Shavuot).  Just like the omer can be cut on Shabbat, even though it involves harvesting which is normally forbidden on Shabbat, so can the shtei ha-lechem be prepared on Shabbat, despite the "melakhot" (39 types of work forbidden on Shabbat) involved.  Here, by analogy, cutting the omer is viewed merely as a preparation for the omer sacrifice, not as an independent mitzva.  (This requires further examination, but here is not the place for it.)
            Our law that requires sefirat ha-omer, like ketzirat ha-omer, to be done at night, assumes that cutting the omer is a mitzva with independent importance.  It is hard to imagine that we would derive halakhot from an activity that is merely a preparation for another mitzva.
b. Cutting and counting are essentially linked:
            The Ramban, in his commentary to the Torah (Vayikra 23:15), ties counting the omer to CUTTING the omer.  He explains that the mitzva of sefirat ha-omer is to count from the beginning of the barley harvest (whose first reapings are brought as a sacrifice) until the beginning of the wheat harvest.  The count serves as a link between the two harvests.
            The Rambam (Temidim U-musafim 7:22), on the other hand, views counting the omer as related to the SACRIFICE of the omer:  "There is a positive commandment to count seven complete weeks from the day the omer is BROUGHT."
            The Keren Ora (Menachot 76a) believes that one who counts the omer before it has been cut has not fulfilled the mitzva.  He finds the Rambam's position, that counting the omer nowadays is a biblical mitzva very difficult.  How can counting the omer exist on a biblical level if the grain for the omer sacrifice is not cut?  [See the Griz on Menachot 76a, who quotes R. Chayim's resolution of the Rambam's approach.]  He takes the position of the Ramban, that counting is connected to cutting, to its logical conclusion: without cutting the omer there is no mitzva of counting it.
            The Tosafot (Menachot 72a s.v. Af) also assume a connection between counting and cutting.  They rule that the omer cannot be cut BEFORE the night of the sixteenth because the count has not yet begun.
            The two possible sources for requiring sefirat ha-omer to be at night ("temimot;" and the analogy between cutting and counting) carry with them two different conceptual understandings of this law.  Practical halakhic differences ensue.
            As indicated above, if one must count at night in order to count complete days - "temimot" - counting during the day is not valid at all, as it is missing an essential ingredient.
            The Mordechai (Megilla 803) cites a question received by Rav Yaakov ben Yakar whether someone who did not count at night should count during the day with a berakha.  His answer: "He is awarded merit for counting, but not for counting at the proper time."  The simplest reading of the Mordechai is that night is not an essential element of the counting, but is simply the proper time in which to count.  Such a position is much more plausible if the law of counting at night is related to the nocturnal cutting of the omer.  [Otherwise we must explain that the whole issue of "temimot" is only an ideal, the highest level of counting, but the basic level of the mitzva can be fulfilled during the day.]
            However, according to the opinion that counting the omer at night is derived from cutting it at night, the question of how essential it is to count at night is dependent on how essential it is to cut the omer at night.  There are two contradictory mishnayot (see Menachot 72a) whose respective positions correspond to the disagreement between Rebbi and R. Shimon ben Elazar in the Tosefta in the third chapter of Yoma.  The mishna in Menachot (71a) states: "It is preferable to cut the omer at night, but if it was cut during the day it is valid."  The mishna in Megilla mentioned above, on the other hand, states: "All night is proper for cutting the omer...  The rule is: Any mitzva which must be done at night may be done all night."  The gemara takes this mishna at face value as implying that cutting is invalid during the day.
            Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot Megilla 20b Tosafot s.v. Kol; see also Tosafot Menachot 66a s.v. Zekher)and the Tosafot Ha-rosh rule like the mishna in Megilla, that cutting during the day is invalid.  Therefore, if one forgot to count during the night and counted during the day he has not fulfilled his obligation.
            The Ba'al Halakhot Gedolot (quoted in Tosafot 66a and in other Rishonim) rules like the mishna in Menachot, that "if it was cut during the day it is valid," and therefore rules that one who counted during the day fulfills his obligation.  The Halakhot Gedolot goes along with the Rosh and Rabbeinu Yerucham that the source for counting at night is cutting at night.  The Rambam, who rules that counting during the day is valid but not ideal, might also follow this opinion.  This would fit well with his opinion that if one cut during the day, the cutting is valid (Temidim U-musafim 7:7).
            [A short summary of the opinions of the Rishonim on this issue can be found in the Tur OC 489.  The Shulchan Arukh (OC 489:7) rules that if one forgot to count at night one should count during the day without a berakha, and on the following nights he may resume making a berakha.]
            It is possible that the reason for the requirement to count at night changes during different times of the omer.  There are two ways this possibility may manifest itself:
1. THE FIRST NIGHT vs. the rest of the omer.
            It is possible to understand the requirement of "temimot" as referring to the period of sefira as a whole, rather than to each day of sefira.  Only on the first night, then, would "temimot" determine when to count.  The analogy to cutting the omer would still apply, though, to all the nights of counting, for each of the forty nine days hark back to the cutting of the omer done on the first night.
            Rav Yehudai Gaon (in his Hilkhot Menachot quoted in the Rosh Megilla) apparently holds that "temimot" is a requirement on the first night alone.  He writes: "If one did not count on the first night of the sefira he should not count on the rest of the nights at all.  Why?  Because it says, 'temimot,' and since he forgot to count [on the first day] it is no longer complete."
            This approach probably has its roots in a close reading of the beraita (Menachot 66a) quoted above.  The language of the beraita, "One STARTS ("matchil") to count at night" indicates that only on the first day of sefira must one count at night.  [The Shita Mekubetzet's text, however, reads, "When one counts at night," and leaves out the word "starts."]
            The gemara (Menachot 66a) reads: "Abbaye said: 'There is a mitzva to count days and a mitzva to count weeks...  Ameimar counted days and not weeks, saying, that [counting nowadays] is a remembrance to the days of the Temple ("zekher la-mikdash")."
            Rabbeinu Yerucham's well-known and unique approach is that there are two separate mitzvot involved in sefirat ha-omer, counting the days and counting the weeks.  Each of these is a separate mitzva requiring its own berakha.  Counting the weeks is tied to the mitzva and cutting of the omer, as it is written (Devarim 16:9), "Count seven weeks from the beginning of the harvest of the standing grain."  Counting the days, on the other hand, is not dependent on the omer and the Temple.  Today, when because of our sins we do not have a mikdash and do not bring the omer, we are left with a biblical ("de-oraita") mitzva of counting days and a rabbinic mitzva to count weeks.  [The Sefat Emet arrived at a conclusion opposite to that of Rabbeinu Yerucham and believes that days are connected to the omer and weeks are tied to the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot.]  This is why Ameimar only counted days, not weeks.
            Based on Rabbeinu Yerucham's distinction (though he does not say this explicitly), it follows that counting weeks, not days, is tied to the cutting of the omer.  If cutting during the day invalidates the omer, counting the weeks would be invalid during the day also.  Counting the days, though, is independent of the cutting of the omer, and could be done during the day.  [One could deduce the exact opposite from the Sefat Emet, and arrive at the conclusion that only the days need be counted at night.]
            It is possible to say, conversely, that "temimot" applies to weeks, not days, based on the verse: "They should be seven complete ("temimot") weeks."  Perhaps the requirement of counting the weeks at night is based on "temimot," while the requirement of counting the days at night is learned from the cutting of the omer.  The Rambam (Temidim U-musafim 7:22) might be alluding to this when he writes: "It is a mitzva to count seven complete weeks ("temimot") from the day of the bringing of the omer,... and it is a mitzva to count the days WITH the weeks."  "Temimot" refers to weeks and not days.  If we understand, like Rabbeinu Tam, that "temimot" is an essential element of sefira but the analogy to cutting the omer at night is only ideal, not essential (because the omer is valid if cut during the day), we arrive at an innovative ruling: If at night one forgets to count the day of the omer, it can be said during the following day, but if the week was not mentioned at night, there is no remedy.
            The Tur (OC 489) writes: "The time for sefira is the beginning of the night.  If one forgot to count at the beginning of the night, one can count all night."  The Shulchan Arukh (OC 489:1) rules that way also [see Tosafot Menachot 66a s.v. Zekher, and the Rishonim's reaction, specifically the Ran's comments on the Rif at the end of Pesachim].  The Rambam (Commentary on the Mishna Menachot 10:1) also writes that it is not considered "temimot" unless one counts at the beginning of the night.  The beraita quoted above seems to point in that direction as well: "When you count in the evening ('mi-ba'erev')."  This is an expression that usually refers to the beginning of the night.
            However, in the Mishneh Torah (Temidim U-musafim 7:22) the Rambam leaves out the need for counting at the beginning of the night: "One should count at the beginning of the day, and therefore should count at night."  He does not mention that it must be done at the beginning of the night.  [See, in contrast, the Rambam in Hilkhot Chametz U-matza 2:3: "It is a rabbinic law to check and get rid of the chametz at the beginning of the night of the fourteenth by the light of a candle."]
            Based on the above, it seems clear that if the need for counting at night is based on "temimot" it must be done at the beginning of the night.  This is what the Rambam in his commentary on the Mishna says, and it fits with a careful reading of the beraita.  However, if the need to count at night is based on cutting of the omer at night, it need not be done specifically at the beginning of the night.  It is possible that the Rambam is consistent with what we wrote earlier, that the time of sefirat ha-omer is dependent on the time of the cutting of the omer.
            If what we said above, contrasting the first night of the omer with the others, is correct, we could conclude that on the first night of the omer, when there is a requirement for "temimot," one must count at the beginning of the night.  On the rest of the nights, when only the analogy to cutting the omer applies, it could be done any time of the night.  [See Rabbi Y. M. Tukatzinski zt"l's Luach Eretz Yisrael, and the Birkei Yosef 489:5]  Similarly, if "temimot" applies only to weeks, not days, then only weeks would have to be counted at the beginning of the night, but days would not.
            Rabbeinu Yerucham writes that sefira is to be done at night because "it is the harvest time and people are busy, but at night they are at home."  Accordingly, he rules that one can certainly count in the day if he forgot at night.  This reason is very puzzling, especially relating to a law that is biblical in origin.  Perhaps, biblically, counting may be done during the day, but the Sages mandated counting at night to make the mitzva easier to fulfill (but tzarikh iyun - further study is required).
("Sefirat Ha-omer at Night" - the original article appeared in Daf Kesher #183, vol. 2, pp. 268-272.)
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