Certain Countings

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Avram Schwartz

During the omer, we are keenly aware of each passing day and week, much more so than during the rest of the year. Doubtless, various daily requirements that are constantly in place, such as tefillah, mark each day as separate from one another. What sets these days apart is that they are also marked as unique – numbered and identified as soon as they begin.

The Torah commands some such awareness for other days as well – the zav and the zavah are also commanded to count seven days before they can again become pure (Vayikra 15:13, 28).

Beyond this, we find that years are to be counted as well:You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven years seven times – and the seven weeks ofyears will come to forty-nine years. (Vayikra 25:8).  Rambam and those following him understand this to be a positive commandment for the court (ספר המצוות קמ, הל’ שמיטה ויובל י:א, ספר החינוך בהר ש”ל).

In Tishre of every year (or every seventh year), the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem would count the year, much as we count each day of the omer. The high court numbers the years in a cycle of shemitot and yovelot,irrespective, it would seem, of any other count, such as the reign of the king.

Many other rishonim appear to agree with this understanding of the verse and its interpretation in the Sifra (בהר פרשתא ב, ראב”ד שם, תוספות כתובות עב. ד”ה וספרה, תוספות מנחות סה: ד”ה וספרתם)  But it is precisely this that Rav Yerucham Fischel Perlow questions. (ביאור לספר המצוות רס”ג, עשה נא, ד”ה ולהרמב”ם).

He points out that various other rishonim use language that is less than absolute in referring to this legal concept. Raavad, for example, begins his cited comment on the Sifra with “it appears to me.” Neither Rav Saadia Gaon nor the Halakhot Gedolot, Rambam”s major precursors in the numbering of the mitzvot, count this as a mitzvah, and it is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud. It merits discussion only in the Sifra, and even that, says Rav Perlow, is not entirely determinative with regard to the nature of this halakhah.

He suggests that the verses of the Torah put in place a less formal requirement than that codified by Rambam, namely that instead of counting, the high court must merely remain aware of the point in the yovel cycle in which they find themselves, such that they  can sanctify the yovel year at its proper time. Yovel would then be put in a class of mitzvot with the seven days of the zav and zavah in which awareness, but not counting, are required.

Rav Yechezkel Landau (נודע ביהודה תניינא יו”ד קכג) pointed to a fundamental differencebetween zav and zavah on the one hand and omer and, following Rambam, the years of the yovelon the other. He suggests that we count the omer and the year aloud with a beracha because time passes consistently, and there is no question as to the next day or year arriving at its expected time. The zav and the zavah, on the other hand, might experience an additional discharge, which would set their count back to zero.

But if Rav Perlow is right, and there is no requirement to count the years, then what are we to make of Rav Landau’s point?

It seems to me that this problem can be resolved by observing a further distinction along the same lines as that made by the Noda Biyehudah. There is a real difference between years and decades – and the yovel cycle is one of multiple decades – which is not the case between days.

The expectation we have is that just as today was basically the same as yesterday, so will tomorrow be as well. We cannot be at all sure of that with years. Major changes can take place from year to year, especially the political ones that are essential to the yovel. Counting years is actually, upon reflection, rather more akin to a zav or zavah counting clean days. We are aware of where we stand, and we certainly hope for a certain outcome tomorrow or next year, but to count would express a certainty that cannot be had.

Avram Schwartz (SBM 2015) is a Semikhah student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

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