The Omer offering and the Holiness of Eretz Yisrael

Rabbi Alon Friedman

Yeshiva College Shul

The air of Eretz Yisrael makes one wise. (Talmud, Bava Batra 158b)

אוירא דארץ ישראל מחכים. (בבא בתרא קנח:)

The omer offering is a mitzvah that many of us battle with. What is it for? How do we perform it? Is it applicable today? I would like to explore a few elements of this important mitzvah, focusing on the centrality of our Holy Land.

The number of mitzvot found in Parshat Emor is startling, 63 positive mitzvot! Many of these mitzvot only apply in Eretz Yisrael. Let us focus on three of these Mitzvot which are relevant to this time of year. I am referring to the mitzvot connected to the Omer.

Three separate mitzvot are enumerated:1 Korban Haomer (the omer offering), as it states, “When you come to the Land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, you shall bring to the kohen an omer of the beginning of your reaping”; Sefirat Haomer (the counting of the Omer), as it states, “You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day”; and Shtei Halechem (the two loaves brought on the holiday of Shavuot), as it states, “From your dwelling places, you shall bring bread, set aside, two [loaves]”. The first and third apply only in the Land (and only when the Beit Hamikdash is standing), as the Torah states clearly, ”When you enter the Land that I give you” and “from your dwelling places.” In fact, Chazal use these two mitzvot as paradigmatic examples of the holiness of Eretz Yisrael.

“There are ten (levels of) holiness (with regard to location): Eretz Yisrael is holier than all other lands. And what is its holiness? The fact that we bring the Omer, Bikurim (first fruits), and Shtei Halechem from it, not from any other land.2

Concerning the second mitzvah, however, there is a major dispute as to whether it applies today, in the absence of the Beit Hamikdash. The Rambam and others hold that Sefirat Haomer is independent of the other two mitzvot. Even when there is no Korban Haomer or Shtei Halechem, we are biblically obligated to count the 49 days. In contrast, the majority of poskim, including the Tur and Shulchan Aruch, hold that the counting is inextricably bound to the offerings, therefore our obligation to count the Omer nowadays is only Rabbinic, to commemorate what was done in the Mishkan.

This explains two anomalies about Sefirat Haomer: 1) The fact that we do not recite the Shehechiyanu blessing. 2) The addition of the Harachaman prayer every night after the counting. The Rashba explains that Shehechiyanu is only recited on mitzvot that give us joy and pleasure. Nowadays, Sefirat Haomer gives us (at least it should give us) grief, for it reminds us that the main component is missing: the Divine service in the Beit Hamikdash. This also explains why we say: “May the Merciful one (Harachaman) restore for us the Temple service to its place, speedily in our days.” Since our counting is only rabbinically mandated nowadays, we turn to Hashem each night with a heartfelt plea to give us the opportunity to fulfil the mitzvah in its entirety in the very near future.

Like so many aspects of the Shalosh Regalim (three festivals), the mitzvot surrounding the Omer underscore the importance of Jewish agriculture in the Land of Israel. The harvesting of the Omer is so important that it even supersedes the Sabbath.3 Rav Kook explains: “This is a great sign that Jewish agriculture in Eretz Yisrael emanates from the Holy source of this Holy nation”.4

There is one more aspect of the Omer that we have not yet touched upon. The Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 306) describes Sefirat Haomer as a countdown to the festival of Shavuot, the day of Matan Torah (receiving of the Torah). It is our way of preparing ourselves to receive the Torah anew. This aspect, as well, is deeply connected to the Holy Land. We mentioned above that the Shtei Halechem brought on Shavuot could only be made from grains harvested in Eretz Yisrael. Why is this? Surely any grain could be used to bring the Shtei Halechem? I believe the reason for this is that the two loaves symbolise the Torah and one cannot attain a full understanding of the Torah outside of the Land of Israel.

Chazal elaborate on the supremacy of Torat Eretz Yisrael in numerous places. When Rebbe Zeira moved to Eretz Yisrael, he changed his ruling on a certain halachic issue, attributing his newfound insight to the special atmosphere of the Holy Land, saying: “The air of Eretz Yisrael makes one wise”.5

One can learn great amounts of Torah outside of Eretz Yisrael, and become a tremendous Talmid Chacham (Torah scholar). However, one can attain the ultimate level of closeness to Hashem – experiencing the Divine Presence which intrinsically comes along with Torah study-only in G-d’s chosen Land. And this spiritual benefit is what enlightens a person to better understand Hashem’s Torah in Eretz Yisrael.

May we all merit to offer the Shtei Halechem this year in the newly rebuilt Beit Hamikdash.

  1. Vayikra 23:10-11, 15-17

  2. Mishna, Keilim 1:6

  3. Rambam, Temidim U’musafim 7:3-4

  4. Ma’amarei Ra’ayah Vol 1 pg 179

  5. Talmud, Bava Batra 158b

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