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Doubts in Counting the Omer

Though this week’s parashah in Israel is Behar, outside Israel the weekly reading is Parashas Emor, which includes the mitzvah of counting the Omer. Because we continue this week, both in Israel and out, to count the Omer, we dedicate the present article to laws of the Omer count, and in particular to various doubts and mistakes that are liable to arise.

Many doubts can arise concerning the count of the Omer. There are doubts concerning the count itself; doubts concerning the number of days; doubts over having written the number of days; doubts that arise when one responds to a question about the number of days – and so on. We will discuss some of the doubts and their relevant halachos below.

Introduction: The Mitzvah of Counting the Omer

In discussing various doubts concerning the count of the Omer, it is important to introduce some halachic foundations of the count, which have broad ramifications. Two important issues must be raised: whether the mitzvah is a Torah or rabbinic obligation, and whether all the days of the sefirah are considered one long mitzvah, or if the count on each day is considered an independent mitzvah.

In the Temple Era, while the Beis Ha-Mikdash stood and the Omer offering was brought, there was a Torah mitzvah to count the Omer Count, which spans from the bringing of the Omer offering until the festival of Shavuos, as the verse states: “You shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Sabbath, from the day on which you brought the Omer offering—seven complete weeks they shall be—until the morrow of the seventh week, you shall count fifty days.”

Today, in the absence of the Temple the Omer offering is not brought, and rishonim dispute whether the Torah mitzvah of counting the Omer still applies or the obligation is rabbinic. According to the Ba’al Ha-Meor (end of Pesachim), the Rosh (Pesachim 10:40), the Ran (Pesachim 28b), and others, the obligation today is rabbinic in nature, and the Torah mitzvah is to count specifically from the Omer offering. Yet, the Rambam (Temidim U-Musafim 7:22), and a number of other rishonim (as listed by the Biur Halachah, 489:1), maintain that the Torah mitzvah applies even today.

The Shulchan Aruch appears to side with the opinion that the mitzvah is rabbinic today, and therefore rules (489:2) that in principle, one can count even during the period of bein ha-shemashos (between sunset and nightfall), which is the general rule for rabbinic mitzvos that apply at night. However, the Shulchan Aruch adds that “those who are scrupulous in their mitzvah observance” do not count before nightfall, and that this is the proper practice.

Rishonim also dispute whether a distinct mitzvah of counting the Omer applies each day or if the entire counting is one continuous mitzvah. According to the Behag, the combined counting of all the days is considered one long mitzvah. According to the Rosh (Pesachim 10:41), however, each day is considered an independent mitzvah.

The Mekor Chaim mentions that the opinion that the combined counting of all the day is one mitzvah raises the difficulty of how forty-nine berachos can be recited over a single mitzvah. A similar point is raised by the Peri Megadim (Eishel Avraham 489:2), and see also Shut Maharalbach (62), who writes at length on this question.

As noted, both these issues have wide-ranging ramifications for doubts that arise over the Omer count.

Counting the Day After

Authorities dispute whether sefiras ha-omer must be counted in the night, or if one may count even on the following day. On account of this dispute, the Shulchan Aruch (489:6) rules: “Somebody who forgot to count during the entire night must count in the [following] day without a berachah.”

Having counted in the day (after forgetting to count the night before), a person can continue to count with a berachah on subsequent days. The reason for this, as given by the Mishnah Berurah (38), is that there are two sefeikos (doubts) involved. On the one hand, it is possible that no day of counting was missed, based on the opinion that one may count even by day. On the other hand, even if we assume that a day was missed, viewing each day as a separate mitzvah permits one to continue counting.

Because a double-safek is involved, it is permitted to continue counting with a berachah. Only if a he entirely forgets to count on one of the days of the Omer, both at night and during the following day, can one no longer continue to count with a berachah. If he certainly skipped a day, there is only one safek involved (whether each day is independent or not), and therefore he cannot continue to count with a berachah.  Preferably, in this case, a person should hear the berachah from somebody else, and have intention to fulfill the obligation of a berachah with his fellow.

Doubt over Counting

Somebody who does not remember if he counted or not on a specific night, and his doubt is raised while it is still night (before dawn), must count without a berachah (Shulchan Aruch 489:8 and Biur Halachah s.v. shachach). Like all mitzvos, somebody who has a safek concerning a mitzvah must perform the mitzvah again, but out of doubt, a berachah should not be recited.

If a person was in doubt yet failed to count again, and his doubt continued until the next night, he can continue to count with a berachah on following nights. The reason for this is because, like the case discussed above, there are two sefeikos involved: One doubt over whether he counted, and another doubt concerning the independent count of each day. Therefore, one should continue counting with a berachah.

Even if this happens several times over the Omer count (a person is in doubt if he counted or not), a person can continue counting with a berachah.

Doubt over Number of Days

Today, it is unlikely that a person will be in doubt over the number of days of the Omer, without having a relatively easy way of resolving his doubt. If he doesn’t remember what day it is, and he isn’t in shul, he can always call a friend, check on a calendar, or find some other means of finding out.

However, in the not-too-distant past, it was certainly possible for somebody who was hospitalized, or isolated, to have no reasonable way of finding out what day it is. Under these circumstances, if a person doesn’t know what day of the sefirah it is, what should he do?

Authorities write at length on this case, which raises a number of interesting points concerning the nature of counting. The main issue is the question of whether when one counts in doubt, whereby both possible days are mentioned, can be considered a valid count. It is possible that a doubtful counting is not considered counting at all, and only a definite count, wherein one specific day is mentioned, is valid for counting (on this subject, see Devar Avraham 1:34; Har Zvi 1:36; Arugas Ha-Bosem 168:4; Shaarei Yosher, Sefeikos 5; the Minchas Yitzchak 8:48 rules that bedieved, a person who counts two days out of doubt fulfills the obligation).

Out of doubt, a person counting in this way should not recite a beracah. When he finds out the true day, he can continue to count properly and with a berachah.

Answering Friends

One of the most common ways of getting into doubt is by answering the question: “What day of the Omer is it?” before one’s own counting.

Somebody who is asked the Omer count at night before he himself has counted, should not reply, “Today is such and such,” but should rather say, “Yesterday was such and such.” This halachah is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (4), who explains that if he should say, “Today is such and such,” he will no longer be able to count with a berachah. The Shulchan Aruch adds that if a person is asked this question before sunset (shkiyah), he can give a straight answer, because there is no concern that he may have fulfilled the mitzvah.

The reason why a person who answers can no longer count, even though he had no intention of fulfilling the mitzvah, is because we are concerned (with regard to reciting the berachah) about the halachic opinion that mitzvos do not require positive intent (Mishnah Berurah 22).

Which Answer: Days and Weeks

Not every answer will prevent one from counting again with a berachah. It depends on the precise wording one uses. If a person replies, “Such and such is the count,” he can still count with a berachah, because he did not say the words “today is” (Mishnah Berurah 20).

Likewise, if a person answers, “Today is such and such,” and it is already past the seventh day of the sefirah, he can count again with a berachah because he did not mention the number of weeks.

When a person has proper intention to fulfill the mitzvah, yet omits the number of weeks and mentions days alone, there is doubt over his fulfillment of the mitzvah, and he must count again (without a berachah; see Mishnah Berurah 7, who cites a dispute over this matter, but see Sha’ar Ha-Zion 9, where he writes that the principle ruling is that one must certainly count again).

If a person is only answering a question, and does not have intent to fulfill the mitzvah, he can therefore count again with a berachah, because of the double-doubt involved (1. Perhaps one needs to mention weeks, as the Mishnah Berurah decides; 2. Perhaps the mitzvah is not fulfilled without proper intent).

However, this applies only from the second week of the count and onward. Someone who replies with the number of day in the first week of the count, cannot count again with a berachah, because in the first week the number of days is the complete count.

If a person is asked whether today is “such and such a day,” and he answers, “yes,” both of them can count with a berachah. The form of a question implies a clear intention not to fulfill the mitzvah, and assuming such “negative intent,” a person certainly does not fulfill the mitzvah. The person answering “yes” can certainly count again, because he didn’t count at all.

Counting in Acronyms

Authorities dispute the status of somebody who counts by means of an acronym, for instance by stating “today is lag ba-omer which is four weeks and five days.” According to the Be’er Heitev (2), citing Maharash Ha-Levi, this fulfills one’s obligation – but others cite in his name that the obligation is not fulfilled by this means. Therefore, somebody who counts by this method must count again, without reciting a berachah.

However, somebody who answers his friend by means of an acronym, without having intent to fulfill the mitzvah, can count again with a berachah.

Stating for day thirty-nine that “today is forty days minus one” fulfills the mitzvah (Mishnah Berurah 11), and this expression should therefore not be used in answering others.

However, some write that if this expression is used in answering another, the person can still count again with a berachah because the choice of expression implies evident intention to not fulfill the mitzvah (Be’er Moshe 3:82).

Counting by Writing

Another debate among authorities is the question of counting by writing the days of the Omer. It is common practice to begin letters and communications during the Omer period with the expression “Twelve days of the Omer,” or something to that effect. Can somebody who writes this expression at night later count the Omer with a berachah?

The Sha’arei Teshuvah (6), citing from the Birchei Yosef, writes that a written count does not fulfill the mitzvah, and having written the count one can still count again with a berachah.

However, the Birchei Yosef himself addresses a case in which a person wrote a shortened version of the count (an acronym), and several authorities state that if a person writes out the count in full, and has proper intention, he fulfills his mitzvah by writing. This matter is debated at length by authorities, who broaden the discussion to include a number of dilemmas that the halachic status of writing raises (see Chasam Sofer 6:19; Shut Rabbi Avika Eiger 29-32; Minchas Chinuch 306).

Therefore, somebody who writes out the count of the Omer in full should not count again with a berachah on the same night.

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  1. In chutz l’aretz, there is a safek on the first day of Pesach, so we hold two days on yontif. Given the safek, why don’t we count two different days each night starting from the 2nd night because it could be the 2nd night or it could be the 1st? This leads to the next question which is: why is Shavuos two days in chutz l’aretz if Shavuos doesn’t have a defined date? It is the 50th day. Why isn’t it the same reasoning as Yom Kippur being one day since it is counted from Rosh Hashannah? Thank you for taking the time to answer this.

    1. We only keep two days Yom Tov because Chazal enacted it. For Sefiras Ha-Omer, there is no such enactment, and because we don’t have any doubt as to which is the first day of Pesach, there is no need to count two days. [There is also a doubt as to whether counting two days is at all possible.] Acharonim discuss why we have two days of Shavuos (surely one day, the fiftieth day, is enought), and the Chasam Sofer explains that Chazal did not differentiate in their enactment of Yom Tov Sheini.]

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