This morning’s Torah portion includes one of the Torah’s sacred calendars. After introducing Shabbat, it then describes the biblical holidays beginning with Passover. In the process, it describes the period of time in which we currently find ourselves, the omer.
An omer is a sheaf of grain. Imagine a field full of stalks of grain. To get an omer, one would tie a bunch of them together and then chop the stalks off at the base.
The Torah commands Israelite farmers to bring the first omer of the new harvest to the Priest in the Temple so that he can make a special wave offering to God. After that, Israelite farmers are allowed to consume grain from the new crop. The omer offering took place on the second night of Passover.
After describing this ritual, the Torah then tells us to start counting.
You will count for yourselves on the day after the sabbath – from the day on which you bring the omer for waving – seven sabbaths, complete they shall be. Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count fifty days… (Lev. 23:15-16)
The Torah’s language is somewhat unusual: Sheva shabatot t’mimot ti-h’yenah – “seven sabbaths, complete they shall be.” What does the Torah mean by saying t’mimot – “complete?”
The medieval commentator Rashi emphasizes the numerical aspect of “complete,” and cites the halakhic, or Jewish legal, interpretation. “The counting must begin in the evening, for otherwise the weeks would not be complete.” (Rashi on Lev. 23:15) The Torah is very precise. If it tells us to count seven complete weeks, then we have got to make sure to acknowledge every single day.
In Judaism, the day begins at night. Therefore, the mitzvah of counting the omer is at nighttime, that is to say, as early as possible once the new day begins.
The ritual begins with a b’rakhah, a blessing acknowledging that the action we are about to perform is a mitzvah, a commandment. Then, we count the new day, using the particular “omer counting formula.”
What happens if I forget to count at night? Jewish law is very precise. If I remember the next day, I should count during the day day without reciting the b’rakhah, since I missed the opportunity to do it at the proper time. Then, that night, I can resume by reciting the b’rakhah and continuing the count.
If I forget entirely for a full 24 hour period, I can no longer count the omer with the b’rakhah, even at night. Since the Torah says to count “seven complete sabbaths,” the opportunity has been lost. There are no do-overs. I am out of the omer game.
Every year, it is a challenge to stay in the omer game. It is surprisingly difficult to remember every single day. And the stakes are high, because if I miss even once, I’m out. So far this year, thank God, I’m still in.
So, it is daytime – not the time to count with a b’rakhah. This will be a repetition for those who remembered to count last night. Please repeat after me:
Hayom shmonah v’esrim yom, she’hem arba’ah shavuot la-omer.
Today is the eight and twentieth day, being four weeks of the omer.
Is the omer just a game of memory and persistence? If it is a game, there must be a prize. It’s a good one. At the end of seven complete weeks, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot when we re-enact the revelation at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah.
With such a holy and ancient prize, we would expect there to be a little more to the omer game than simply trying not to get kicked out of it.
A midrash notes something peculiar about the way that the Torah describes the requirement to count the omer. It does not use the typical Hebrew word for “complete.” Normally, if I wanted to say seven whole weeks, I would say sheva shabatot sheleimot. The word shalem means “whole” or “complete.” It is related to the word shalom for “peace.”
The word in our verse is t’mimot, or tamim in the singular. This word adds an additional dimension.
In an ancient midrash, “Rabbi Hiyya taught: seven sabbaths, complete they shall be – when are they complete?” he asks. “When Israel fulfills God’s will.” (Leviticus Rabbah 28:3)
The word tamim has two typical uses in the Torah. One is to describe animals without blemishes which are brought as sacrifices to God in the Temple. The other is to describe people, who themselves have no moral defects. They are blameless, or complete in their character.
The Torah says about Noah: tamim hayah b’dorotav – “Blameless he was in his generation.” (Gen. 5:9) God instructs Abraham: hit’halekh l’fanai ve’h’yeh tamim – “walk before Me and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1)
Thus, tamim implies complete in quality rather than in quantity. Given this additional aspect, what does it mean to count seven “complete” weeks – or rather, seven “blameless” weeks?
One commentator suggests that the period of the omer, that is to say, the period between our freedom from Egypt and our receiving the Torah, offers us a unique spiritual opportunity.
“And you shall count for yourselves” implies introspection and stock-taking in order to choose the true good… just as one carefully examines the amount and integrity of the money he receives so as to avoid deficient or counterfeit coins, thus also when counting the seven weeks he must make sure to complete the number, and preserve the quality of each day, that they may not detract from spiritual integrity… Hence the expression t’mimut which refers to spiritual integrity. (HaKtav VeHaKabbalah, citing Rabbi Shelomo Pappenheim)
I had a low quality day this week, a day on which I felt completely unproductive. I just couldn’t get focused, couldn’t accomplish anything. It was not a day on which I felt that I had fulfilled God’s will – despite the fact that I had recited the blessing and counted the omer the night before.
I imagine we all have days like this from time to time. The period of the omer, as we prepare ourselves spiritually to receive the Torah, offers us a special opportunity and a challenge to, as Rabbi Hiyya puts it, fulfill God’s will.
How does one count each day? By making each day count.
Today is the twenty eighth day of the omer. For the remaining days – I’ll let you do the math to figure out how many there are – let’s commit to making each day count. Every day, let’s commit ourselves to perform one quality action that will be a fulfillment of God’s will.
Give to tzedakha. Study the Torah portion for the upcoming Shabbat. Invite someone to Shabbat dinner. Reach out to a person whom you know is going through a difficult time. Volunteer.
Each day offers us a new opportunity to be tamim, to be complete.
Bibliography: Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Vaykira, Vol. 2