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When Does 49 = 50? (Shavous)

Oct 21, 2009 by Rabbi Pesach Siegel

The sage Rav Yosef requested to be served a fat calf in honor of Shavuos. He said, "Were it not for this day, how many Yosefs there are in the market place!” He attributed his individuality to the day of Matan Torah. I always wondered why "the day" was credited with his unique status. Would it not make more sense to credit the actual Torah that he absorbed? An additional matter of concern, what is the connection between "the day" and a fat calf?

Let's try and answer these questions by raising another (and another) question. 

One is permitted to usher in Shabbos and Yom Tov prior to actual nightfall. From the time of Plag HaMinchah, Maariv prayers may be offered and Kiddush may be recited. On Shavuos this is not the case. Maariv and Kiddush must wait until after the stars come out.

The Magen Avrohom offers the following reason. We are commanded to count forty nine blemish free days. As the Torah says, "Sheva Shabbasos temimos" (Seven blemish free weeks). Maariv prayers offered before their time, on the 49th day of the Sefirah, create a blemish in the counting. The 49th day is flawed.

This position is challenged by the authorities, among them the Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin). He takes the view that as long as each and every day is counted that amounts to an unblemished counting. It makes no difference that a fraction of a day is "missing". In the times of the Beis HaMikdash the harvesting of the barley crop preceded the counting of the Omer. The harvesting took place on the second night of Pesach. Based on this system, the counting of the very first day took place, not at the beginning of the night, but somewhat later after the harvest. This attests to the view of the Netziv that the counting is considered flawless even though the initial fraction of the night wasn't counted. What is true for the beginning of the counting should apply to the last day as well.

Although the Netziv disagrees with the reason provided by the Magen Avrohom, he provides his own reason for the same halacha. The Torah tells us to proclaim and sanctify the holiday of Shavuos "bi'etzem hayom hazeh" - on the essence of this day. Whenever the Torah uses this expression, its intent is to convey that the day should stand on its own without any additions. Therefore one should not attempt to add to the day of Shavuos by praying or reciting Kiddush earlier.

The Netziv does not provide further insight why this should be the case. Why should Shavuos be different from Shabbos and other Yomim Tovim in this regard? 

What is clear, as of now, is that an inherent difference exists between Shavuos and the days of Sefirah preceding it. A difference in type and in nature. A time of a different sort. So much so that it cannot be mixed with any other time.

In a seemingly unrelated matter, the Rishonim pose a question. The Torah clearly states that we are to count fifty days - "tis'pru chamishim yom". We don't count fifty days. How did Chazal justify our counting of only forty nine days?  

There are a number of answers found among the words of the Rishonim. The Rokeach (Rav Elazar of Garmeiza) doesn't provide an answer. He eliminates the question. There is no need to count fifty days, he says, the blessings and the tefillos are in place of the counting. We DO count fifty days!!!  We count by way of our davening!

The question still remains, if it's supposed to be counted, why not just count it? Also, since when is davening a viable form of counting?

Let's explain something about numbers. It's no coincidence that the number seven figures prominent in our world. Some examples: Seven days of creation, and accordingly seven days of the week, seven notes in the musical scale, seven constellations that revolve across the heavens during the passage of a week, seven directions (center, right, left, back, forth, up, and down), seven seforim in a Sefer Torah (Sefer Bamidbar is considered three seforim), seven attributes displayed by Hashem that we are to emulate.

In fact, everything in Olam HaZeh can be broken down into seven components or is part of a greater seven.  All that exists within this world is limited. Nothing is infinite. All is limited by the seven dimensions of time and space.

This world is the antechamber to the World Without Limits. We are placed in a physical, finite world to toil amidst the limitations. We are to perfect ourselves and the world around us by performing physical acts directed lishem shamayim. When we succeed in perfecting the sevens of this world, this results in our reward. The limitations imposed on creation are removed and Olam HaZeh is transformed. It becomes Olam Haba - a limitless realm.

Perhaps this could be made clearer through a moshol (Heard in the name of Rav Mottel Katz,zt"l). 

A king was searching for a worthy suitor for his daughter. He erected a tower of challenging height. Whoever reached the top would receive the hand of the princess in matrimony. One suitor after another failed to reach the top. It was beyond human capability. One persistent young man said to himself, "The king is not a fool. If he said so, then it can be done". He made the firm decision to continue climbing up the tower until his strength failed him. He reached the point of exhaustion, having the strength for one solitary step. What is the point of continuing? The tower reaches upward seemingly forever. What good will one step do? But the king is not a fool. He takes his last step and to his surprise a great magnet appears and pulls him up to the top of the tower.

We don't possess the capability to attain Olam Haba. Our koach (power) is solely within the confines of this world. When our avoda (task) is complete in this world, Hashem raises us and our world to a level totally beyond our ability to reach on our own.

The forty nine days of Sefiras HaOmer are a miniature of the days of Olam HaZeh. It is placed upon us the task to perfect ourselves and our seven faceted environment. A week's time is dedicated for each facet. Each facet is broken down into seven smaller components, one day being dedicated for each one. After successfully completing our labor, we are lifted up to a level which transcends the natural world. This happens on the fiftieth day, on Shavuos.

It now becomes clear why we do count fifty days, but we count them in two separate segments. First, forty nine days by way of normal counting. Then the fiftieth day which is when we rise up from the constraints of our world, we count in a special manner, by way of raising ourselves through brachos and tefilla. The fiftieth day is invested with the properties appropriate to the levels that are to be reached on that day. It is a time beyond time, a day on which the shining light of Olam HaBa penetrates our lowly world. In a certain sense, when one enters the day of Shavuos, he enters into an otherworldly existence. 

The Netziv says that one should not add on to the day of Shavuos by praying or making kiddush earlier in the day. He derives this from the wording of the posuk, “bi'etzem hayom hazeh” - on the essence of this day. It is the essence of the day, inherent within, that prevents us from making any additions or joining it to the days prior. Those days are days of this world and are set apart from the day of Olam Haba. 

One might possibly explain the words of the Magen Avrohom along the same vein. There is no problem with counting only a fraction of a day. That is also considered a blemish free counting, as was done in the times of the Beis HaMikdash on the first night. Davening early on Shavuos night is an entirely different affair. By doing so one is attempting to transform a segment of the seven weeks into the day of Shavuos. The avoda of the seven weeks must be complete in order for the world to be brought by Hashem to the level beyond the confines of the sevens of this world. If part of the seven is turned into the day beyond seven, then the process is short- changed. Our avoda of this world must be tamim (complete) in order to bring about the next step. 

(There is another mystery which can be understood in light of the above. Our sages disagree as to the date when Matan Torah took place. The Rabbonon are of the opinion that the Torah was given on the sixth day of Sivan. According to Rav Yosi it was on the seventh of  Sivan. Rav Yosi bases his view on the amount of time it took for the womenfolk to purify themselves in preparation for Kabbalas HaTorah. While the halacha follows Rav Yosi in regards to the laws of purity, we celebrate Shavuos on the sixth of Sivan according to the Rabbonon. This is an open contradiction. A possible solution to the problem might be that in the time of Matan Torah the seventh of Sivan was fifty days away from the second day of Pesach. According to our reckoning (Rosh Chodesh Iyar is always two days) the seventh of Sivan is 51 days from the beginning of Sefiras HaOmer. Even according to Rav Yosi's view, the correct day to celebrate Shavuos is immediately upon finishing the counting of forty nine days rather than the historical date of the seventh of Sivan).

The word in Lashon Kodesh for the number seven is sheva. Sheva shares a common root with the word savei'ah - satisfaction. When one is satisfied, he has remained within the boundaries and limits. The word for eight is shmona, shmona is similar to the word shimeina - fat. Fat denotes going beyond the limits, passed the drawn lines and barriers.

Rav Yosef exclaimed, "Were it not for this day how many Yosefs there are in the market place!". It was the special properties of the day, its connection to Olam Haba, that enabled him to reach his towering level. Rashi comments on the gemora, "Were it not for the Torah that I learned which raised me up, how many Yosefs ..." 

Of course the meal of choice to celebrate the uplifting qualities of the day, the exit from the world of seven to the world of eight which follows it, is a choice calf praised for it's expansiveness.

May this Shavuos be the day when we are released of our binding shackles.

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