As we count the Omer, many of us will encounter some of the doubts typical of the Omer count. This week we wish to discuss these doubts.
There is no shortage of doubts that can arise in counting the Omer. They can involve the number of days that are counted. There are questions in how the Omer is counted – verbally or by writing. And they can arise when somebody responds to a question about the number of days. We will discuss these and their relevant halachos.
Introduction: The Mitzvah of Counting the Omer
It is important to introduce some halachic foundations of the count, which have broad ramifications.
In principle, two important issues must be raised: Is the mitzvah a Torah or a rabbinic obligation, and, is counting all the days of the sefirah considered one long mitzvah or is counting each day a separate mitzvah.
While the Beis HaMikdash stood and the Omer offering was brought, there was certainly a Torah mitzvah to count the Omer Count, from the bringing of the offering until 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, without the Temple, the Omer offering is not brought. Rishonim dispute whether the Torah mitzvah of counting the Omer still applies or the obligation is rabbinic. According to the Ba’al HaMeor (end of Pesachim), the Rosh (Pesachim 10:40), the Ran (Pesachim 28b), and others, the obligation today is rabbinic. The Torah mitzvah is to count specifically from the Omer offering.
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 implies (489:2) that in principle, one can count even during the period of bein hashemashos (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 particular” do not count before nightfall, and that this is the proper practice.
Rishonim also dispute whether or not a distinct mitzvah of counting the Omer applies to each day, or whether the entire counting period is one continuousmitzvah. According to the Behag, counting of all the days is one long mitzvah. According to the Rosh (Pesachim 10:41), each day is an independent mitzvah.
The Mekor Chaim (489:1) mentions that the opinion that counting all the days is one long mitzvah, raises the difficulty of how forty-nine berachos can be recited over a single mitzvah. He concludes that the counting of each day must be an independent 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 it may be counted even on the following day. On account of this dispute, the Shulchan Aruch (489:7) rules: “Somebody who forgot to count during the entire night, must count the [following] day without a berachah.”
Having counted in the day (after forgetting to count the night before), a person may 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. Furthermore, even if a day was missed because one who counts in the day does not fulfill the mitzvah, those who maintain that each day is a separate mitzvah permit one to count the subsequent days.
Because a double-safek is involved, it is permitted to continue counting with a berachah. Only if a one forgets to count one of the days of the Omer both at night and during the following day, he can no longer continue to count with a berachah. Because in that case 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, such a person should hear the berachah from somebody else, and have intention to fulfill thus the possible obligation of a berachah.
Doubt over Counting
Somebody who does not remember if he counted or not on a specific night, and 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 until the next night, he may continue to count with a berachah. The reason is because, like the case discussed above, there are two sefeikos involved: One doubt over whether he counted or not, and another doubtconcerning the independent count of each day. Therefore, one should continue counting with a berachah.
Even if several times over the Omer count a person is in doubt if he counted or not, he may 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 the Internet, 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 out of town, to have no reasonable way of finding out what day it is. 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 counting out of 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, since the mitzvah is not to recite the words but to actually count which requires conscious awareness. Thus, only a definite count, wherein one specific day is mentioned, is valid. (On this subject, see Devar Avraham 1:34; Har Zvi 1:36; Arugas HaBosem 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 berachah. When he finds out the correct day, he can continue to count as usual, with a berachah.
One of the most common ways of getting into doubts is by answering the question: “What day of the Omer is it?” before one’s own counting.
Somebody who is asked the day of the Omer count on a given night (after sunset), 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 after sunset, “Today is such and such,” he will no longer be able to count that day 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 about fulfilling the mitzvah.
The reason why a person who answers may no longer count with a berachah, even though he had no intent to fulfill the mitzvah, is because with regard to reciting the berachah we allow for 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. This 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, “today is” (Mishnah Berurah 20).
Likewise, if a person answers, “Today is such and such,” and it is past the seventh day of the sefirah, he can count again that day with a berachah because he did not mention the number of weeks (see Mishnah Berurah 21).
When a person has intent to fulfill the mitzvah, yet omits the number of weeks and mentions days alone, there is doubt over his fulfillment of the mitzvah, if it is a day when the week is completed. On days of incomplete weeks (days other than 7, 14, 21, and so on), the mention of weeks is only a custom and not essential.
Nonetheless, the Mishnah Berurah (see Shaar HaZion 28) writes that from the seventh day onward, one who answered the question “What is today’s count?” by saying “Today is such and such” must nonetheless count again (his leaning is to do so even with a berachah), because when a person fails to mention the weeks this indicates that he did not have intention to actually count.
However, this applies only from the second week of the count and onwards. Someone who replies with the number of the day during 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 still count with a berachah. The form of the question implies a clear intention not to fulfill the mitzvah, and with such negative intent a person certainly does not fulfill the mitzvah. The person who answered “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 (6), citing Maharash Ha-Levi, this fulfills one’s obligation. But he also cites others to the effect 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 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, the person can still count again with a berachah, because the expression indicates negative intention that is, to not fulfill the mitzvah (Be’er Moshe 3:82).
Counting by Writing
Another debate among authorities is 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. May somebody who writes this expression at night still count the Omer that night with a berachah?
The Sha’arei Teshuvah (6), citing 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 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 means of his 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.
Rabbi Who Forgot to Count
What happens if a community rabbi forgot to count the Omer one day? While halachah dictates that he should refrain from counting with a berachah, doing so will cause him great shame, for the Rabbi is expected to count out loud when davening with the community. What should he do?
This question was raised concerning the Beis HaLevi. His advice, as cited by Mikraei Kodesh (2:66) and Har Tzvi (2:75) was to ask one of the congregants to refrain from reciting his own berachah over the counting, and to rather rely on the berachah recited by the rabbi. This will allow the rabbi to recite a berachah –if not for his own counting (for which he cannot recite a berachah because of a doubt whether the entire forty nine days are one mitzva), but for the congregant who will not be reciting a berachah of his own.
However, this advice runs into a dispute among authorities over whether a person who can no longer count the Omer is permitted to recite the blessing on behalf of somebody who has a full obligation to count. According to the Peri Chadash (489:8) this is not a valid option, and many agree with his ruling (see Peri Megadim, M.Z. 2). Although others dispute this opinion (see Shut Ba’ei Chayei 2:29 who brings different opinions, but is ultimately stringent), many write that one should refrain from this (see Kaf HaChaim 489:99).
At the same time, there is room to suggest that by following the advice, the rabbi will have two halachic doubts (a safek sefeika): One concerning whether he can continue counting himself, and another concerning whether he can recite the blessing on behalf of others – so that it remains a valid option.
At the same time, the suggestion of asking a congregant to refrain from reciting his own berachah is not always practical, and because of the shame involved we find in Shut Shevet HaLevi (3:96) that it is permitted for the rabbi to recite the berachah on his own counting even though he missed a day, relying on the lenient opinion because of the embarrassment that would be caused. He bases this ruling on a Biur Halachah (92), even though the discussion there relates to a different subject where there is no full concern of a berachah levatalah.
Certainly, the best advice for rabbis and cantors is to be extra careful not to miss a day!