The basis of complete faith in the heart emanates from the depths of the soul of Israel. This is represented by the barley offering of the Omer. It is animal food, and animals are instinctive creatures. Beyond this comes the intellectual and acquired knowledge. (Orot, page 167) Between Pesach and Shavuot
Pesach is joined to Shavuot by the counting of the Omer, which connects the barley offering, animal food, emotional and instinctive behavior, to the wheat, human food, the level of the intellect. (ibid)
These two essential forces [the emotion and the intellect] reveal their total value and effect, in the depths of the soul and in the breadth of life, when each appears in its particular and independent form, undisturbed, and when they fuse together to form a unified unit. (ibid)
There are exactly fifty days from the second day of the festival of Pesach to the festival of Shavuot. We know this because we count each of these days. This counting is, in fact, a commandment from the Torah: "You shall count from the day after the Shabbat [referring here to the festival of Pesach] from the day that you brought the Omer offering seven complete weeks. Until the day after the completion of the seventh week count fifty days, and offer a new sacrifice to God. You shall bring from your places two loaves of leavened bread made from flour, as a first harvest offering for God" (VaYikra 23:15-17).
On the second day of Pesach, the 16th of Nisan, we are commanded to bring an Omer offering. The omer is a measure of volume equivalent to about 2.5 liters in current measurements.
The verse states, "When you harvest you shall bring an omer from your first harvest to the cohen" (ibid., :10). From here we learn the obligation to bring the first of the barley harvest to the Beit HaMikdash. There it was offered as a special sacrifice on the second day of Pesach. (See VaYikra 23:10 and Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Temidim U’Musafim, Chapter 7.)
From that day on we count seven complete weeks, meaning that we count at night-time. This is true for the last night of the counting as well, and so we pray on Shavuot night only when night falls (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 494:1 and Mishnah Berurah, ibid., note 1).
As the festival occurs at the beginning of the summer, nightfall be at a late hour. On ordinary Friday nights in the summer, it is customary, in many communities throughout the world, to hold the Friday night service earlier, before nightfall, so that Shabbat will not begin too late. This is especially important for families with young children. However, one cannot count the Omer at such an early service. Therefore, in order to fulfill the Torah obligation of counting seven complete weeks on Shavuot, it is preferable to begin the prayers after nightfall.
Every night we count the appropriate day after making the following berachah: "Blessed are You... Who has sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer." We then declare: "Today is one day to the Omer"1; "Today is two days to the Omer"; "Today is eight days, which are one week and one day to the Omer"; and so on. This is referred to as the counting of the Omer, or Sefirat Ha’Omer, sometimes just called Sefirah, literally, counting.
The count continues night after night until we reach the forty-ninth night. The following day is Shavuot, the festival that celebrates receiving the Torah. Thus the counting of the Omer links Pesach with Shavuot.
Is there some intrinsic reason why we count the Omer and fuse these two holidays of Pesach and Shavuot? Is it just an interesting quirk of fate that Pesach and Shavuot are separated by exactly seven weeks that we count nightly? Or is there some deeper message in this counting? Two Different Offerings
The period of the Omer commences with the Omer sacrifice, the barley sacrifice, offered on the second day of Pesach. The barley was brought to the Temple after having been cut on the night of the 16th of Nisan, even if that night was Shabbat. It was cut in the presence of many people, and both the cutting and the offering became important ceremonies.
The barley was then ground into flour and sifted to prepare it for offering. The flour was mixed with oil and the mixture was waved: forward, backward, up, and down. A handful was offered as a sacrifice and the remainder was consumed by the cohanim (See Rambam, Hilchot Temidim U’Musafim, Chapter 7, for a complete account of the preparation and sacrifice and of all the relevant laws).
Thus the Omer was a meal sacrifice that inaugurated the period that we call "the Omer." This period also ended with another vegetarian sacrifice. The fiftieth day of the Omer was the festival of Shavuot. On that day a special offering was sacrificed in the Beit HaMikdash: the two loaves of bread.
Wheat was brought from the new harvest, it was made into flour, kneaded, and baked into two loaves of bread. They had to be chametz, leavened bread, and so yeast was added. These loaves were also waved and the Cohen Gadol took one and ate it, while the other loaf was divided among the regular cohanim. (See Rambam, ibid., Chapter 8, for a full description.)
We see that the counting of the Omer was bounded on either side by a vegetarian sacrifice. Both of these sacrifices have a number of common elements: both were brought from the first harvest, barley in the case of the Omer offering, and wheat in the case of the two breads; both were waved and then consumed by the cohanim.
However, there was one significant difference between these two offerings. The Omer was brought from barley, whereas the two breads came from wheat. The Omer period started with a barley sacrifice and ended with one of wheat. The Tree of Knowledge
There is an interesting Gemara that discusses the fruit of the Eitz HaDa’at, the Tree of Knowledge, that Adam and Chavah ate from and because of which were consequently expelled from the Garden of Eden. The Gemara asks what the fruit was and presents a number of answers. Interestingly, none of the answers is "apple" even though there is a common misconception that the fruit was an apple.2
"Rabbi Meir said that the tree from which Adam ate was a vine, as nothing brings pain to man like wine. Rabbi Yehudah says that it was wheat, as a child is incapable of calling "Daddy, Mommy" until he tastes wheat. Rabbi Nechemiah said that it was dates, as the rectification came through the item that caused their downfall, and it says ‘and they sewed date leaves [to make clothing] (BeReishit 3:7)’" (Sanhedrin 70a-70b).
Rashi comments on Rabbi Yehudah’s statement, "As it was called the Tree of Knowledge we can deduce that it was wheat" (Rashi, ad loc.). Wheat is connected to wisdom; it is a food consumed by man the thinker, man the possessor of knowledge.
Barley, on the other hand, is the food of animals as in the verse, "The barley and straw for the horses and steeds" (Melachim I 5:8). The first offering comes from barley, from animal food, whereas the second comes from wheat, from human food.
There appears to be a progression from the Omer sacrifice to the sacrifice of the two loaves. There is an ascent from animal food to human food. Maybe there is an aspect of Pesach that has some connection to animal-type behavior, and an element of Shavuot that is more reminiscent of human qualities. Coming Out of Egypt
The Midrash describes the state of the nation of Israel during the exodus from Egypt. There are many midrashim and Talmudic statements that present a positive picture of the Jews during this period. However, there are also conflicting opinions and remarks.
"When Israel left Egypt the evil angel Samael rose to act as a prosecutor against them. He said to God, ‘Master of the Universe, up till now these were idol worshipers and You are going to split the sea before them?’" (Shemot Rabbah 21:7).
God’s answer is recorded in the Midrash as well, but we need to concentrate on the question. Samael, the accusing angel, claimed that Am Yisrael were not worthy of salvation or of miracles because they were idolaters. They were no more worthy of this miracle of splitting of the sea than their Egyptian pursuers. It was therefore unfair to split the sea for the Jews and to drown the Egyptians. What merit had Israel shown, what great character trait had they exhibited, that "forced" God to save them?
The truth is that God did not take us out of Egypt because we deserved it. Rather, God took us out of Egypt because He had promised to do so several hundred years previously.
"He said to Avram, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land and they will enslave them and oppress them for four hundred years. I will also judge that nation who enslaves them and after that they will leave with great wealth’" (BeReishit 15:13-14).
God had already promised Avraham that He would send the Jews into servitude. In the same breath He promised that they would eventually leave and return to Israel bearing wealth. When the time would come God had to take us out of Egypt. After all, a promise is a promise.
We do not find that God assessed the situation of the Jewish people to ascertain whether they were ready and worthy of redemption or not. Rather, God appeared to Moshe and informed him, "I have seen My people’s suffering in Egypt. I will go down to save them from the hand of Egypt, and to take them from that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Shemot 3:7-8). The time had come to take them out and to fulfill the promise to Avraham.
In fact, God prefaced His remarks to Moshe with the introduction, "I am the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Ya’akov." This could be taken to imply to Moshe the basis for this revelation. God is telling Moshe that the reason that He has seen the Jews’ suffering and heard their cries is because He is the God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov. There is a historical link between the Jews and their forefathers. Therefore, due to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, God is now going to take them out of Egypt. Ready for Receiving the Torah
When it came to accepting the Torah, the rabbis had a very different approach. There is a very famous Midrash that describes the events prior to the giving of the Torah.
Initially He [God] went to the descendants of Esav.
"Will you accept the Torah?" He asked.
"Master of the Universe, what is written in it?" they asked.
He said, "You shall not kill."
"These people have been promised by You to live by the sword, as it says, ‘You shall live by the sword’ (BeReishit 27:40). We cannot accept the Torah."
God went to Amon.
"Will you accept the Torah?"
"Master of the Universe, what is written in it?"
"You shall not commit adultery."
"These people come from adultery, as it is written, ‘Lot’s daughters became pregnant from their father (and one of the children was Amon)’ (BeReishit 19:36). We cannot accept the Torah."
God went to the children of Yishmael.
"Will you accept the Torah?"
"Master of the Universe, what is written in it?"
"You shall not steal."
"These people live through stealing, as it says, ‘He will be wild, his hand will be in others’ [possessions] and others’ in his’ (BeReishit 16:12). We cannot accept the Torah."
Afterwards, He came to Israel.
They said, "We will do and we will hear" (Shemot 24:7) (Pesikta Rabbati 21:3).
This famous Midrash has become the basis for numerous stories and songs. It deserves deeper analysis. What did the Sages want to teach through this tale?
There seem to be two messages. The first is that the Torah is relevant to the entire world. It is not the exclusive property of the Jewish people, but contains a way of life and morals for all of humanity.3
The second message is relevant to us here. The Midrash relates that before God was ready and willing to give the Torah to any nation, He had to ask them whether they wanted it. This includes Am Yisrael! Even the Jewish people had to "prove" their worthiness and connection to Torah before they merited receiving it.
When God asked all the other nations if they were willing to accept the Torah, they all inquired as to its contents. They wanted to weigh up the pros and cons to determine whether it was worth accepting or not.
On the other hand, the Jews unconditionally accepted the Torah. "We will do and we will hear," they said. First, we will do, unconditionally, without even investigating the exact details of the Torah. Only afterwards, we will hear. Only afterwards do we feel the necessity to discover the exact contents of the Torah.
When the Jews uttered these words they showed their willingness to accept the Torah, they proved that they were ready. At that point God gave them the Torah. (Compare with Rashi on Devarim 29:3.)
The contrast to the Exodus is striking. At no time did God check to see that the Jews were ready to leave Egypt; He simply took them out. Only when it came to giving the Torah was there a need to ensure that they were ready. Feeling and Fearing
Due to the events of Pesach and the Exodus, the Jews felt a love of God. Instinctively they were grateful to the One who saved them from Egypt. However, this was an entirely emotional attachment and was not based on any intellectual understanding. At that point the Jews acted instinctively in the same way that animals act only according to their instincts.
Fifty days later the Jews had matured. Their relationship with God and His laws had developed. They no longer just loved Him and appreciated His taking them out of Egypt. By the time they received the Torah they feared God, not in a negative sense but due to a comprehension of who He was and His power. At that point they were ready to receive the Torah. They no longer acted instinctively, but intellectually. They utilized their human intelligence to make the right decisions.
The counting of the Omer starts with a barley offering, with animal food representing the initial state of the Jewish people. It ends with a wheat offering, human food, representing the change that had occurred during that period.
We link the barley with the wheat; we fuse the emotions with the intellect. In order to serve God truly we need to love Him and to devote ourselves to Him without any sort of intellectual calculation. However, we also need to understand and perceive God totally through an intellectual investigation.
Only when we fuse the two, only when we both love God and fear Him, are we ready to accept the Torah. Only after counting for fifty days, night after night, are we prepared to receive the Torah on the fiftieth day. This is the period of counting the Omer: an opportunity to combine love and fear, emotions and intellect, into one unified force that drives us to worship our Maker and to serve Him.