The Misva of Sefirat Ha’omer requires us to count the days from the second day of Pesah until Shabuot, a period that spans seven weeks. Why does the Torah obligate us to count these forty-nine days?
The answer lies in the seemingly peculiar name given to the holiday celebrated at the culmination of this period – Shabuot. The word “Shabuot” means “weeks.” The festival of Shabuot celebrates the most important event that ever occurred in world history since creation – our receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Is “weeks” really the most appropriate name for this holiday? Indeed, in our prayer services on Shabuot, we refer to the occasion with the title “Zeman Matan Toratenu” – “The Day our Torah was Given.” The Torah, however, calls this day “Shabuot.” Why?
The holidays on the Jewish calendar are not just commemorative. We do not simply celebrate events that occurred in the distant past. Rather, the spiritual forces generated by those events are reawakened each year when these occasions are observed. For example, on Pesah, we do not simply celebrate our ancestors’ Exodus from Egypt some three millennia ago. Rather, we are under the spiritual forces which allow us to break free from the constraints of our physical drives. On Sukkot, there is a special quality that allows us to experience the special joy of living in God’s service. And on Shabuot, we once again accept upon ourselves the Torah as our ancestors did when they stood at Sinai. We do not simply commemorate the receiving of the Torah, we experience Matan Torah anew, and reaffirm our commitment to God’s laws.
This explains the reason behind Sefirat Ha’omer. We can’t just wake up one morning and accept the Torah. This requires a rigorous process of preparation. Just as a team can’t play the World Series without first getting through the regular season, we cannot properly experience Shabuot without going through the period of Sefirat Ha’omer. Shabuot is so named because it can only observed after the “weeks,” after a period of preparation. It is the culmination of a seven-week process of growing and preparing ourselves to accept the Torah.
This also explains why we count upwards, rather than downwards. Usually, when we count in anticipation of an event, we count down the number of days of remaining. During Sefirat Ha’omer, however, we count upward, from one to forty-nine. This is because in this period we are building, developing ourselves and advancing one step at a time in preparation for Kabbalat Ha’Torah.
The Mishnayot in Pirkeh Abot (chapter 6) list the forty-eight “Kinyaneh Torah” – the means whereby one “acquires” Torah. “Acquiring” Torah is different from learning Torah. A housekeeper very likely knows every room, closet, cabinet and drawer of the mansion where she is employed – perhaps even better than her boss who lives there – but she is not the owner. A person can know Torah without “possessing” Torah, without it becoming part of his being and essence. The Mishnayot list for us the forty-eight ways in which we take possession of the Torah, making it part of our beings. These forty-eight “Kinyaneh Torah” correspond to the days of Sefirat Ha’omer. On each day during the Omer, we are to focus on the corresponding means of acquiring Torah, and then review all of them on the forty-ninth day, the final day before Shabuot. By devoting ourselves to these qualities, we ensure that we come to Shabuot prepared to not just commit ourselves to the Torah, but to take possession of Torah, and make it our own.
Quite obviously, space does not allow us to go through all forty-eight “Kinyaneh Torah” in this context. But it is worth presenting a brief sample. The first quality is “Talmud” (“study”), which might seem obvious, but conveys a critical lesson: there are no shortcuts. Somebody who is serious about “acquiring” Torah must put in the time and effort diligently studying. It is not enough to read a few easy books and articles; he must rack his brain delving into the complexities and intricacies of Torah law. The second item on the Mishna’s list is “Shemi’at Ha’ozen” – “listening with the ear” – which refers to comprehension. If we hear something in a Shiur that is not entirely clear to us, we have to ask the Rabbi for clarification. If we read a passage that we do not fully understand, we need to think it through patiently until it becomes clear. We must treat Torah classes the way we would treat somebody who came to inform us of the lotto numbers for that week – being attentive and ensuring to clearly understand every word.
Another item on the list is “Mi’ut Shena” – diminishing from sleep. One cannot hope to accomplish in Torah without diminishing from his relaxation time. A man who works all day has no choice but to either wake up early for a predawn Shiur, stay up late after work to learn, use his lunch break for learning, or all of the above. Likewise, the Mishna lists “Mi’ut Ta’anug” – diminishing from our physical pleasures. Acquiring Torah demands sacrificing comforts and pleasures, diligently exerting ourselves at the expense of worldly delights.
As mentioned, this is but a small sample of the forty-eight measures that must be taken to “acquire” the Torah. It is recommended that everybody study through this list in the final chapter of Pirkeh Abot. By taking the time during Sefirat Ha’omer to work on these qualities, we will be prepared to fully accept and commit ourselves to the Torah, to take full possession of it and make it an inherent part of our lives and our beings.