The Significance of the Counting
The date of the Shavuot Festival is unlike the dates of the other Jewish Festivals – unlike Passover, which falls on the fifteenth of Nissan, and unlike Succoth, which falls on the fifteenth of Tishrei. Rather, the date of the Shavuot is reckoned according to that of Passover. The procedure for this reckoning is as follows: On the evening after the first day of Passover – the sixteenth of Nissan – the “Counting of the Omer” begins, continuing for forty-nine days. The fiftieth day is marked by the Festival of Shavuot. It is called Shavuot because of the seven weeks [or “Shavuot”] of counting which precede it.
The reason behind this commandment – the Counting of the Omer – goes back to the very genesis of the Jewish nation. According to the major classic of Kabbalah, the “Zohar,” the enslavement of the Children of Israel in Egypt and their descent to the forty-ninth level of impurity rendered them unfit to receive the Torah immediately upon attaining freedom. It was necessary for them to first purge themselves of the impurity of Egypt. God therefore waited fifty days before giving them the Torah. Rabbi Tzidkiyah HaRofei, the author of “Shibolei HaLeket,” explains that when Moses informed the Israelites that after leaving Egypt they would worship God at Mount Sinai, they asked him, “When will this worship take place?” He answered, “At the end of fifty days.” In their great desire and longing, each person counted- off the days to himself until the fiftieth day finally arrived, and with it, the giving of the Torah.
The Torah established this as an eternal commandment – the counting of forty-nine days from the evening after the first day of Passover until the fiftieth day, the Festival of Shavuot. And this commandment is binding not only upon Torah courts; each and every Jew is obligated to count these forty-nine days. There are even authorities who claim that the law of the Counting of the Omer is unique in that, unlike other mitzvoth, one may not fulfill his personal obligation by hearing and answering “Amen” to the counting of the congregation leader. Each individual must himself count aloud.
Our preparation, expectation, and longing for the glorious day of the giving of the Torah all find expression in the Counting of the Omer, and each year we merit preparing ourselves once again for the “Festival of the Giving of the Torah.” As a result, we become worthy on Shavuot of absorbing even more of the Torah’s light.
The Counting of the Omer
Through the Counting of the Omer we sketch a line, as it were, which ascends steadily from Passover to Shavuot. The Festival of Passover represents the national aspect of Israel for it was at that time in history that the Jews became an independent nation. What’s more, Israel’s preciousness in God’s eyes was revealed to the world through the exodus from Egypt, for the Almighty chose us from among all the other nations despite the fact that we had become submerged in forty-nine levels of impurity. The Festival of Shavuot, on the other hand, represents the spiritual side of Israel, for at that time we reached that great zenith – the receiving the Torah. The Counting of the Omer, therefore, finds us rising up from the national level of Passover to the spiritual level of Shavuot.
This idea is hinted at by the fact that the Torah commands us to begin our counting from the time of the harvesting of the Omer, “from the day of your bringing the Omer as a wave offering.” (Leviticus 23:15). The Omer is a unique sacrifice which consists of barley, a food fed to animals – an expression of the physical, national side of Israel. For, so long as we have not reached the stage of receiving the Torah and attaining knowledge of God, we resemble an animal, devoid of wisdom. Yet, when the counting of these fifty days is complete, and we merit receiving of the Torah with all its lofty spiritual level, it is then that we “bring new grain as a meal offering to God” (Ibid. 17).
It is impossible to omit or forgo the national stage. We must therefore return each year to Passover, the expression of national independence and of Israel’s unique gift – a contribution which is discernible in the unassuming faith of each Jew, as well as in those praiseworthy attributes which characterize the Jewish people – compassion, humility, and benevolence. By virtue of these traits it is possible to ascend to the lofty height of “Matan Torah,” the giving of the Torah. This is precisely what we say when reciting the blessing over the Torah, “who chose us from among all the nations and gave us the Torah.” Through Israel’s choseness, which was revealed in the exodus from Egypt, we arrive at the giving of the Torah.