A Day Without Counting

A similar pattern of interruption and transition to a different time continuum is found in connection with counting of the omer (Sefirat HaOmer), which concludes with the festival of the Giving of the Torah.

The Torah commands, “You shall count to yourselves seven complete weeks after the day following the [Pesaḥ] holiday… Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days …”1 However, in spite of the Torah’s commandment to count fifty days, we do not fulfill it that way; we count seven weeks — forty-nine days. The fiftieth day is the festival of Shavuot itself, and it is not counted in Sefirat HaOmer.

The transition from the days of Sefirat HaOmer to Shavuot is a leap from one level to another. The Maharal, in discussing this transition, focuses on the number forty-nine versus fifty.2

Although the distance between these two numbers is slight, they actually represent two different kinds of numbers. The number forty-nine is composed of a system based on multiples of seven, whereas the number fifty cannot be arrived at through that system, but rather through a system based on the number ten. Thus, between the two consecutive numbers, there is a transition from one numerical system to another. In the terminology of the Maharal, it is a transition from numbers patterned on nature to numbers of an entirely different kind.

The unnatural and unsuccessive transition from forty-nine to fifty signifies that even after all the counting, day after day and week after week, the counting does not reach completion. It reaches the number closest to fifty, but the fiftieth day itself is not counted. This day does not follow from those that precede it, but rather arrives as a gift from above. The final, culminating point of the counting depends not on us but on God; only He can bring us to the fiftieth day.

A person can reach the point where he stands ready, but he cannot reach beyond that point. The giving of the gift, the execution of the leap, is a point that lies beyond us. Forty-nine is the limit that can be reached, but the culminating point itself, the final day, does not pertain to the counting from below.

God’s decision to skip generations and the commandment of counting the omer represent two sides of the same coin. Time, whether shrunken or leaped over, is under the exclusive and absolute control of the Holy One, blessed be He. He determines it, He counts it, and He brings us to the Giving of the Torah.

1 Leviticus 23:15.
2 Tiferet Yisrael 25

This essay appears in Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s book Change and Renewal.