Sefiyrath Ha`Omer – A Relatively Simple Misswah
The Torah, in Wayyiqra 23:15, commands us as follows:
וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה
“And you shall count for yourselves, [beginning] from the day after the [festival] sabbath, from the day that you bring the `omer-offering of waving – there shall be seven complete weeks.”
From this pasuq, Hazal taught – among other things – that each male of Kelal Yisra’el, beginning with the second night of Pesah, needs to begin counting (vocally, and with a berakhah) seven weeks (49 days), after which would be the festival of Shavu`oth. Although we cannot currently offer the `omer, we nevertheless count the days and weeks as was done in the days of the Beth HaMiqdash.
What Does It All Mean?
Usually around the time of sefiyrath ha-`omer we begin hearing the kabbalistic buzz of latter-day interpretations of these 49 days, seven weeks. Everything from combining supposed “sefiros” to “tikkun ha-middos” is mentioned in Jewish books and religious newspapers. Some even relate it to the “49 levels of tumah” that are mentioned in the Tiqquney Zohar.
The truth, however, is that the Gemara merely states that it is “zekher le-miqdash – a remembrance of the Temple” (b.Menahoth 66a) and nothing further. The Rambam in the Moreh HaNavokhiym (III:43) expands on this idea and tells us that it is a “countdown” to the anniversary of the Matan Torah (“the Giving of the Torah”) and that, just as one counts the weeks, days, and hours before the arrival of a dear friend, so also does the Jewish nation build anticipation toward Shavu`oth by counting these seven weeks of days.
Traditionally, the anticipation of receiving the Torah “anew” – as it were – has generated a focus on teshuvah and the improvement of the miyddoth (character traits). This is an excellent idea, but unfortunately it has taken on a flaky mystical focus and any real personal growth is usually overshadowed if not forgotten. Le-`aniyuth da’ati (in my humble opinion), I think that the best and most productive tradition in this vein in that of learning a chapter a week of Pirqey Avoth. I also would HIGHLY recommend learning a chapter each day of Hilkhoth De`oth (laws of character development) from the Mishneh Torah, and I consider it no accident that it too contains exactly seven chapters.
Focusing on one’s miyddoth before receiving the Torah is completely appropriate since thehalakhah states that Torah is only to be taught to a student whose character is refined and whose deeds are good (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Talmudh Torah 4:1).