In our previous article, we began exploring the depth of S’firas HaOmer. Based on the Maharal and Ramban, we explained that we are not counting down to Matan Torah, but rather we are building up towards it, ascending one day at a time. We do not wait for Shavuos to arrive; we actively bring it ourselves through the time and effort we invest as we count the Omer. After developing a general understanding of S’firas HaOmer, let us focus on a few specifics of the count itself. The 49 days of S’firas HaOmer parallels the 49-day process that the Jewish People went through upon leaving Egypt, before receiving the Torah. What is the meaning behind this process, and why is it specifically 49 days long?
While we likely take it for granted that the Omer is 49 days long, the Torah explicitly commands us: “Tisperu chamishim yom – You shall count 50 days” (Vayikra 23:16). Why then do we only count 49 days, omitting the 50th day completely? This seems to be in direct contradiction to the Torah’s command! Additionally, we seem to skip the first day of the counting, only beginning the count on the second day of Pesach. What is the meaning behind this?
Rebuilding the First Night of Pesach
The Arizal, the Ramchal, the Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers explain the deep meaning behind the 49-day process of s’firah based on a principle we have previously developed. Every process contains three stages. The first stage is the high, a spark of inspiration, an experience of perfection and clarity. However, this first stage is fleeting, and is immediately followed by a dramatic fall – a complete loss of everything experienced in the first stage. The second stage is a process of rebuilding what was originally experienced, working and building toward perfection. There is then a third stage – a return to the original perfection of the first stage. However, this third stage is fundamentally different from the first. It is the same perfection, the same clarity, but this time it’s a perfection and clarity that you have earned. The first time it was given to you, but now you have worked to build it for yourself.
The first night of Pesach was a gift, an experience of infinite transcendence. This night was characterized by the miracles of Makas B’choros – performed by Hashem Himself – and Y’tzias Mitzrayim, as well as the mitzvos of Korban Pesach and bris milah, mitzvos that connected the Jewish People to a higher dimension of existence. However, immediately following this night was a complete fall from this exalted level of transcendence. The Jewish People faced 49 days in the desert, a place of spiritual emptiness. It was during these 49 days of counting and of building that the Jewish People were able to rebuild and earn that initial transcendent gift. What resulted from those 49 days of building was Shavuos, Matan Torah, an experience of transcendence, of infinity, and of the World to Come.
This is why the Korban Omer is a sacrifice of barley, a food described by the sages as animal fodder (P’sachim 3b). The Shavuos sacrifice is Sh’tei HaLechem, a sacrifice of bread made of wheat, a food characterized by the sages as human food (Aruch HaShulchan 489:3). Prior to the process of S’firas HaOmer, we are on a low spiritual level, the level of animals. After spending the 49 days of the Omer counting and building ourselves, we rise to a transcendent spiritual level, tapping into our true nature as tzelem Elokim, now worthy and ready to experience Matan Torah. Perhaps this is why there were two loaves of bread – one representing the original gift on the first night of Pesach, and the second representing what we earned after 49 days of building.
We don’t count the first night of Pesach, because this night is a gift of inspiration, intangible and unearned. We cannot pin a number down to it, as it is fleeting and elusive. S’firas HaOmer is a process of building, and the building process only begins on the second day of Pesach once the gift has been taken away; it is at this point that we must start the work of truly earning it.
Forty-Nine Days of Building
Let us now turn to our next question: Why is the counting of the Omer specifically 49 days long? Nothing in Torah is arbitrary; there must be a reason why we count exactly 49 days before receiving the Torah on Shavuos; there must be a significance to this specific number.
In order to understand the number 49, we must recall a principle we have developed previously, based on the ideas of the Maharal. We live in a three-dimensional world, which includes the six directions of space: right-left, up-down, and forward-backward. These are the six sides of a three-dimensional cube. However, the six sides don’t automatically result in a three-dimensional cube; the six sides can be lying face down on the floor, amounting to nothing. The concept of “seven” refers to that which connects all the pieces together into a single unit. This is the unifying center, the unifying force that creates a physical form and vessel from the six disparate parts.
As we have discussed previously, the Maharal explains that seven is the number of the natural (Tiferes Yisrael, chaps. 1-2, 25). This is why all physical and natural components of this world are comprised of sevens: There are seven days in the week, seven notes in the musical scale, seven colors in the spectrum of light, and many other examples. “Six” represents the physical pieces, such as the days of the week. “Seven” represents that which connects the physical pieces together, connecting the physical to the spiritual, like the day of Shabbos. The “eighth” refers to that which transcends the sum of the pieces; it is the transcendent element that emanates from the level of seven, transcending the physical. This is why bris milah is performed on the eighth day; we transform the most physical and potentially animalistic organ into a vehicle of holiness and transcendence. This same theme is why the miracle of Chanukah lasted eight days, and why the miracle occurred through shemen, a word with the same root and concept as sh’moneh.
This is why S’firas HaOmer is a seven-week process of seven days each. S’firas HaOmer is a process of building from the physical to the spiritual, from the finite to the infinite. This is the journey from six to seven to eight. We build level-by-level toward transcendence, toward the infinite, and toward the eighth week – Matan Torah. We therefore count seven weeks of seven days for a total of 49 days, the ultimate expression of seven. This completes the physical building process, resulting in the 50th – the first day of the eighth week, the ultimate transcendence of the eighth level, Shavuos.
Two Types of Order
Another interesting feature of the Omer is the emphasis on counting each day. This suggests that S’firas HaOmer is one long mitzvah, complete only if each of the 49 days are counted. However, l’halachah, we make a brachah on each individual day of the Omer, suggesting that each one is a mitzvah in its own right. How can we reconcile this apparent inconsistency?
Rav Dessler describes two different types of order. The first is a practical one, an order that facilitates access and usability. For example, a library is organized according to a system that allows one to access each piece of information efficiently. Without an ordered system, it would be hard to benefit from a huge collection of books. The order therefore provides access and usability.
There is a second type of order of a fundamentally different quality from the first. In this second type of order, the pieces of a structure come together in such a way that it results in a whole that transcends the sum of its parts. For example, a radio is composed of a bunch of pieces, none of which is especially valuable on its own. However, when these pieces are assembled in just the right way, something incredible emanates from the pieces – a radio signal.
This level of order is fundamentally different from the first form of order. Regardless of their organization, each book in a library maintains its individual worth; nothing greater results from their order. However, in a system of the second type of order, it is only when the pieces come together that something truly valuable results.
This second level of order explains the dichotomy between each day of the Omer containing its own significance and the fact that it is one long mitzvah; whereby, if you miss a single day you can no longer count with a brachah. Each piece is omni-significant, but only inasmuch as each day is built correctly, building off the previous structure and preparing for what is yet to come. Only when each and every one of the 49 pieces is built correctly can the 50th emanate from the pieces and can Matan Torah occur.
Why Don’t We Count the 50th?
This second type of order is also the secret behind why we do not count the 50th day of the Omer. While six represents the pieces, and seven represents that which connects the pieces together, the eighth represents that which transcends the pieces, and which emanates from the pieces. The level of “eight” after the seven weeks of counting is the 50th – the eighth week, the day of Matan Torah. We don’t count the 50th because we cannot build the 50th; the 50th is the transcendent level that results and emanates from everything we have built during our 49 days of counting. The 50th day, Shavuos, is the result of all the pieces coming together – of all of klal Yisrael bonding into a oneness. The result is Matan Torah, a transcendent experience of connection with Hashem, the infinite, and the World to Come (Maharal, Nesivos Olam, Nesiv HaTorah 1).
As we alluded to earlier, this is also why we do not count the first day of Pesach. The first day is the gift – fleeting and unearned, and therefore unreal. The next 49 days are the days of building, working, and creating it for ourselves. The 50th day is the same as the first day – transcendent, ethereal, and uncountable – but this time, we have earned it; it’s real, and it’s ours. In truth, even the 50th has a dimension of “gift” to it, but it is only given once we have created the vessel to receive it after 49 days of building. As the Ramchal explains, “T’chilaso avodah v’sofo g’mul – The beginning is toil, but the end is a gift [from Hashem]” (M’silas Y’sharim, chap. 26). Although we have worked toward the 50th day for 49 days, the transcendence we experience on that day is infinitely more than anything we could have expected or imagined.
This is why we only count 49 days, and this is why the chag is called “Shavuos” (weeks), the same root as sheva (seven). We are building seven weeks, and the transcendent 50th – Matan Torah – is what manifests from that which we create. This is also why the Maharal refers to Torah as the “eighth,” as it is Hashem’s transcendent wisdom and will that He bestowed upon us on the 50th day.
Why We Count from the Omer
This unique approach to S’firas HaOmer brings us back to our first point, deepening our understanding of why we count up from the Omer instead of down toward Shavuos. Even if we are building, why don’t we build toward Shavuos, mentioning our destination of Shavuos and Matan Torah every time we count? At least let us count toward the Korban Sh’tei HaLechem, the sacrifice we bring on Shavuos, instead of the Omer, the barley sacrifice we brought back on Pesach. Why do we count from our point of departure, rather than toward our destination?
The answer is that we are counting toward the infinite, toward the transcendent. When building upwards, you begin by building a foundation and then ascend from there. The same is true for S’firas HaOmer. We are counting toward infinity, toward the 50th. While we do keep this lofty end-goal in mind, the mechanics of actually building toward the 50th require us to first construct a foundation – the first day of the Omer – and then build our way up from there. May we be inspired to create something extraordinary as we build toward Matan Torah, one day at a time.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.