I have been doing a lot of research on when to begin counting the Omer.

I have noticed there are two schools of thought here:

1) According to the Jewish tradition, the counting of the Omer should begin after the first day of Passover.

2) In the opinion of the (basically no longer extant) Karaites, the counting of the Omer should begin after the first Sabbath during Passover.

The verse (Leviticus 23:15) seems to refer to the Sabbath: “And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day . . .”

Since the verse clearly says “the rest day,” can you explain why the traditional Jewish view is to start the counting the Omer after the first day of Passover?


Intro to Jewish Traditions

When G‑d gave the Jewish nation the Torah on Mount Sinai, it was given together with the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah comprises traditions and extrapolations based on the inscribed Torah, the Bible.

The traditions of the Oral Torah were passed down from generation to generation, from Moses to Joshua, and from there down to the leaders and sages of each generation.1

The Bible itself (Deuteronomy 17:10–11) commands us to keep the Oral Torah:

You shall do according to the word they tell you, from the place the L‑rd will choose, and you shall observe to do according to all they instruct you. According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not diverge from the word they tell you, either right or left.

I am sure you have seen for yourself when learning the Bible that there are certain verses where there is no way of knowing what it refers to by just looking at the verse—for example, the commandment to circumcise oneself, or to put tefillin on the hand and head, or to take the Four Species on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

There is no way of knowing from the text alone what exactly we are supposed to cut when we make a circumcision, nor is there any way to really know how to put on tefillin, or even what it is. The same holds true for almost all other commandments. More details are given in the Written Torah for some commandments than for others, but at the end of the day, there is a glaring lack of details and information.

Imagine someone reading George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm without knowing the context. One would think it’s simply a strange fable about animals on a farm. Knowing the context, one realizes that it’s about the Bolshevik revolution, and that each character represents a different political figure, and that each event represents a stage in the revolution.

This is where the Oral Torah comes in. It is an “owner’s manual” and “companion guide” (so to speak) to the Torah. With it we can understand what the Torah means, and determine the details of the various commandments. Furthermore, we have rules of extrapolation so that we can determine the Torah’s view on various issues that are not directly addressed.

While those who dismiss the Oral Torah may claim to be purists, in truth they are following neither the Written Torah nor the Oral Torah. For in the end, they only substitute explanations of their own for those of the Oral Torah.

We can see this inconsistency in the various customs of Karaite sects that have evolved over the ages; if they were truly only following one clear meaning, the customs would not change.

What Is the “Day of Rest” Here?

According to the Oral Torah, the Hebrew word for Sabbath, the “day of rest,” refers to the holiday of Passover, which is also a day of physical rest.

The Talmud discusses2 how there is no way to see the “day of rest” as referring to the Sabbath. Here is one of those proofs.

Let us examine the verse in its context (Leviticus 23:10–16):

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the Land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, you shall bring to the priest an omer of the beginning of your reaping. And he shall wave the omer before the L‑rd so that it will be acceptable for you; the priest shall wave it on the day after the rest day. And on the day of your waving the omer, you shall offer up an unblemished lamb in its [first] year as a burnt offering to the L‑rd . . . [The verse further discusses the omer offering, and then continues:] You shall not eat bread, or [flour made from] parched grain or fresh grain, until this very day, until you bring your G‑d’s sacrifice. [This is an] eternal statute throughout your generations, in all your dwelling places. And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day, from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering, seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the L‑rd.

You will notice that one of the verses explicitly prohibits eating from the new grain until the day the omer sacrifice was brought. And the day3 after that is when we start counting the Omer.

Now, we find that the verse (Joshua 5:11) states explicitly, “And they ate of the grain of the land on the morrow of the [first day of] Passover, unleavened cakes and parched grain on this very day.”

In this verse the prophet stresses that they ate from the new grain on the day after Passover, meaning that this is the day they brought the omer offering, which is what permits one to eat from the new grain.

If we were to simply presume that in that year Passover fell on the Sabbath (as some claim), why would Scripture connect their eating new grain to a factor (Passover) that is not intrinsically related, but merely coincidental? Rather, since the verse makes the matter of eating new grain dependent on “the day after Passover,” it is clear that “the day after Passover” is the cause for permitting new grain to be eaten, and no attention is paid to the day of the week on which it falls. Therefore, that is the day that we start the count of the Omer.4

As for why the Torah specifically wrote the verse in a way that one might mistake its meaning, there is a fascinating teaching by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.

The crux of it is that when the Jews left Egypt, they were sunken in very low levels of spiritual impurity. Therefore they needed to be taken out “by G‑d himself.” They needed the greatest revelations of G‑dliness so that they could emerge from these low levels.

Sabbath is the most elevated level of time; however, it is still confined and limited within time, the seven days of the week. When it says in the verse, “the morrow of the rest day,” it is referring to levels beyond even the most elevated kind of time.

Today we count the 49 days of the Omer, and refine and elevate our passions and the spiritual makeup of our animal soul, which requires deep spiritual energy. This is made possible, like during the time of going out of Egypt, through intervention and empowerment from above. That is “the morrow,” or levels beyond “the day of rest.”5

See an extensive adaptation of this talk by the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, The Morrow of the Shabbat.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin,
for Ask the Rabbi @ The Judaism Website