And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Sabbath, from the day on which you bring the omer offering, seven complete weeks shall there be; until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count fifty days…
The teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidism describe seven basic character traits in the heart of man: chessed (love, benevolence); gevurah (restraint, awe, fear); tiferet (harmony, synthesis); netzach (competitiveness); hod (devotion); yesod (communicativity) and malchut (regality, receptiveness). Each of these traits includes nuances of all seven, making a total of forty-nine aspects of human character.
This is the deeper significance of the “counting of the omer,” the mitzvah to count forty-nine days from Passover to Shavuot. As the above-quoted verse specifies, the mitzvah is to count both the days and the weeks. (Thus, on the seventh day we say, “Today is seven days, which are one week, to the omer”; on the eighth day we say, “Today is eight days, which are one week and one day, to the omer”; and so on). For the count corresponds to the forty-nine elements of the heart, which consist of seven “weeks” each comprised of seven “days.”
The counting of the omer is our annual re-experience of our ancestors’ forty-nine-day count from their Exodus from Egypt to the revelation at Mount Sinai. Four generations of subjection to the most depraved society on earth had caused them to sink into the “forty-nine gates of profanity,” contaminating every trait and sub-trait in their character. Following their liberation from Egypt, they embarked on a process of purification, in order that they be worthy to receive the Torah from G-d at Sinai. Each day, they grappled with another corner of their heart, cleansing it and refining it; each week, they completed the perfection of another of the seven basic components of their character. Forty-nine days after the Exodus, they presented their perfected selves to G-d, who chose them as His “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” 1 and communicated to them their charter as His people—the Torah.
Each year, we repeat the process. On Passover, we are granted the potential to liberate ourselves from the profanities in which we have become enmeshed as a result of our servitude to material life. But this is only an “arousal from Above,” a flash of freedom which must now be internalized through painstaking self-refinement. We count the days and the weeks to Shavuot, focusing on our corresponding minor traits and basic characteristics in the quest for a perfected self.
Counting in the Night
When the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) stood in Jerusalem, an offering of a measure (omer2) of barley, brought on the second day of Passover, marked the commencement of the seven-week count. Barley serves mainly as animal feed; the omer offering thus represented a state of man in which his “animal soul” (his physical drives and desires) requires refinement and rectification. On the fiftieth day—Shavuot—an offering of two loaves made of wheat was brought, signifying that we have graduated to human food—that we have attained the true potential of man as a creature who transcends the merely animal.
Today, we lack the opportunity to bring the omer offering on Passover and the “two loaves” on Shavuot. This, because we are in a state of galut (“exile”), deprived of the Beit HaMikdash and the divine presence it introduced into our lives. In galut, the mitzvot we perform are but faint echoes of those performed in the Temple era. 3 Daily we pray for the restoration of a relationship with G-d uninhibited by the distortions of the spiritual darkness we inhabit today.
If we cannot offer the omer or the “two loaves,” at least we can count the days. But even the mitzvah of counting the omer has been diminished by the galut. According to most halachic authorities, 4 the count has true significance only when it follows the offering of the omer; thus, our counting today is not a full-fledged biblical commandment (mitzvah d’oraita), but a rabbinical ordinance that merely commemorates the mitzvah fulfilled in the times of the Beit HaMikdash.
Maimonides, however, is of the opinion that even today, counting the omer is a biblical precept. 5 A third opinion is an interesting combination of the first two: according to Rabbeinu Yerucham, 6 it is a biblical mitzvah to count the days also when the Beit HaMikdash is not extant, but the mitzvah to count the weeks applies only when the omer is offered, and is thus today only a rabbinical commandment. 7
What does this mean in terms of our internal “counting of the omer”? That while we are able today to refine specific elements of our character—perhaps even all forty-nine of them—we lack the capacity to piece these together into a perfect self.
The quest for perfection proceeds at all times and under all conditions, even in the darkest hours of galut. Advances are made in this quest, pinpoints of perfection achieved within an imperfect self and world. But actual perfection—including the actual perfection of a complete portion of the soul—can only be attained when the divine home is restored in our midst. Today, we might hold all the pieces of the puzzle in our hands, yet the complete picture eludes us. Only upon our emergence from galut will the forty-nine days of our soul amount to seven complete weeks.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Lag B’Omer 5711 (May 24, 1951) 8
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
- Exodus 19:6. ↩
- An omer is the equivalent of 43.2 eggs. ↩
- See Sifri on Deuteronomy 11:18. ↩
- See Talmud, Menachot 66a; Tosafot, ibid.; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 489:2, 17; et al. ↩
- Mishneh Torah, Laws of Regular and Additional Offerings, 7:22. ↩
- Circa 1334. ↩
- Toledot Adam VeChavvah, Sefer Adam, path 5, section 4. ↩
- Torat Menachem—Hitvaaduyot 5711, vol. II, pp. 65-66. ↩