By: Karen Miller Jackson
As we approach Shavuot, we end the period of Sefirat HaOmer, the formal counting of the days from Pesach to Shavuot. The Torah source for Sefirat HaOmer is found in Parshat Emor וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת מיום הביאכם את עמר התנופה שבע שבתות תמימת תהיינה (ויקרא כג: טו) “And You shall count for yourselves from the day after the Shabbat, from the day when you brought in the sheaf of the wave offering; there should be seven complete Sabbaths. (Leviticus 23:15)” Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch explains that we are enjoined to actively count the time from Pesach to Shavuot because they are intricately connected. By counting we connect the physical freedom of Yitziyat Mitzrayim with the full spiritual and religious freedom we received upon entering a covenant with Hashem at Matan Torah.
The commentators pick up on the phrasing of וספרתם לכם – you should count for yourselves – to raise a number of questions. Chief among them is what does it mean to count for oneself?
The midrash Sifra comments that this language highlights the fact that each individual takes part in the mitzvah”כל אחד ואחד” , each and every one is a part of this obligation. The Sefer HaChinuch offers a different interpretation. He explains that וספרתם לכם means that we have to count the Omer verbally. This is done in order to reawaken within ourselves the desire to receive the Torah on Shavuot. As we count, we actively move ourselves toward the day in a way that helps us to appreciate that at Shavuot the Jewish people entered Brit Sinai. We received the Torah and made an everlasting covenant with God – a covenant that created a unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. This is something we must actively remind ourselves of and commemorate. Both of these interpretations relate to the active nature of the counting, emphasizing that it empowers us by way of the process and helps prepare us for experiencing Shavuot and accepting the Torah anew.
There is another pasuk in the Torah with similar language to that of וספרתם לכם. Leviticus Chapter 15 discusses various kinds of discharges that cause impurity (Tumah). With regard to a woman who has a discharge, the Torah states “ואם טהרה מזובה וספרה לה שבעת ימים ואחר תטהר, When a woman is cleansed of her discharge she should count for herself seven days and after that she will be clean.” The language here mandates that a woman must count seven clean days as part of the process of purification from impurity. In the Torah this applied to a woman in the category of Zava. In the Rabbinic period the counting of seven clean days was instituted for women after menstruation (who are in the category of Nida). Thus, in halachic practice, when a woman’s monthly period finishes, she counts seven clean days before she can immerse in the mikvah. What does וספרה לה mean in this context?
Like with the active counting of Sefira, there are commentators who say that a woman must verbally count the 7 clean days, actively enumerating the days as part of the process leading up to immersion. This emphasizes a woman’s active role in carrying out the halakha, and effectively empowers her halakhically in the process (which also serves as preparation for reuniting with one’s partner and entering the relationship anew).
The Talmud teaches that וספרה לה means that she counts on behalf of herself – literally לעצמה”” for herself, implying that she is given authority to count. In the realm of hilchot niddah this becomes the source for the Jewish legal concept of נאמנות האישה, the idea of reliance on and the empowerment of women in halachic knowledge and practice. In hilchot niddah this expresses itself in that she is reliable to carry out all the particulars of the halakha, that she is believed when she states that she has become a niddah or gone to the mikveh, and that she is trusted and empowered in all matters relating to this realm. Today this takes on new meaning as women are reaching new heights of proficiency and empowerment in all areas – learning, teaching, advising and more.
The strong connection between the counting ofוספרתם לכם and וספרה לה provides an inspiring model for each individual to empower ourselves, find our own voice, and make a personal connection to Torah. Whether it is by learning and speaking up for own needs in mikvah and in hilchot niddah observance, whether it is by learning daf yomi, whether it is by learning and becoming a yoetzet or morat halacha, whether it is by promoting these opportunities within our communities – all of these are ways for women to be enriched and to enrich the Jewish world as a whole.
Karen Miller Jackson is a Jewish educator living in Ra’anana, Israel. She studies in The Morot Halakha program, teaches at Matan HaSharon, and is a board member of Kolech – Religious Women’s Forum. Karen runs Kivun L’sherut, a guidance program for girls before sherut leumi/army service.