We're between Pesach and Shavuot now, the time that we "count the omer". But do we really?
Let's look at the word "omer" עומר. It has clearly different meanings in its various appearances in the Tanach. In Devarim 24:19, Rut 2:7 it is usually translated as "sheaf" - a bundle of stalks of grain. However, in the story of the mahn (manna) מן - Shemot 16:16-36, it refers to a measure of volume, one tenth of an ephah.
However, the real question is what does it mean in Vayikra 23:10-16 - the section discussing the omer offering and the subsequent counting. The Septuagint translates the word here as "sheaf" and this is also the translation of the Vulgate and most non-Jewish translations and modern scholars. However, almost all Jewish sources say that the word omer in this section is referring to the measure of volume.
This brings up a number of questions. First of all - what is the source of the disagreement? And secondly, why hasn't this question received more attention? If we look at another verse in the same section - 23:11, it discusses how the omer was brought on ממחרת השבת - the day after "shabbat". Starting with the earliest mishnaic sources, we find countless discussions about the meaning of that phrase. Does it mean a "Sunday" or the 16th of Nissan (the day following the first day of Pesach)? However, in regards to the discussion about the meaning of omer, we find very few "proofs" in Talmudic literature. Even Rashi, who clearly states in his commentary on 23:11 that omer here means "measure", doesn't bring a proof, only quotes the verse in Shmot. Why?
When approaching this issue, it is important to note at the beginning that there is a significant lack of consistency in the translation of the word. The translation "sheaf" has become so popular, that even sources that openly take the view of the Rabbis occasionally use the other translation. For example, the Artscroll siddur describes omer as the "Omer meal offering" in the section "Counting the Omer". But in their commentary on Avot 5:7, they write that the omer was "the sheaf of barley offered in the Temple". This caution may serve us in understanding earlier sources as well.
Let's start by looking at the translation "sheaf". Actually, we should be discussing the Greek word dragma δράγματα, since that's what was used in the Septuagint. While most people translate this as "sheaf", that's not the only opinion. The literal meaning of dragma is "handful". The Greek-English Lexicon defines dragma as "handful; esp. as many stalks of corn as the reaper can grasp in his left hand." Milgrom, in his Anchor Bible (page 1983) says that "handful" is a good translation based on an Egyptian painting (unfortunately, no mention of what painting). He also mentions a theory mentioned by the scholar Gustaf Dalman, and promoted by H. L. Ginsberg in The Israelian Heritage of Judaism (page 73), that the translation should be "armful" - "whatever is swathed with a sickle and swooped under the arm". If we trace the word dragma, we find that it is the origin of dram, which interestingly is also a unit of measure. I don't think that this indicates that dragma in the Septuagint meant a measure - a handful of flour. It uses a related word - draka - for that (e.g. to translate קמץ in Vayikra 2:2). But this could have led to some confusion as to the meaning of the word later.
I think it is rather difficult to separate the terms handful and sheaf. The Latin Vulgate translates omer as manipulus (the root of the word "manipulation"), which also means "handful" and "sheaf". The Syriac Peshitta translates omer in Vayikra 23:10 as kafa, as does R' Saadia Gaon in his Arabic translation to Devarim 24:19 - and I assume there's a connection between kafa and kaf (hand). And even in Hebrew the two words are related, as in Tehilim 129:7 -
שֶׁלֹּא מִלֵּא כַפּוֹ קוֹצֵר; וְחִצְנוֹ מְעַמֵּר.
"It will never fill a reaper's hand, nor an yield an armful for the gatherer of sheaves (me'amer)"
So what are the arguments of those who claim that omer in Vayikra means sheaf (or handful/armful)? Well, they would probably say that the burden of proof lies on those who want to claim otherwise. If it means sheaf - then the meaning of Vayikra 23:10 is clear:
דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי-תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם, וּקְצַרְתֶּם אֶת-קְצִירָהּ--וַהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-עֹמֶר רֵאשִׁית קְצִירְכֶם, אֶל-הַכֹּהֵן.
"Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf [omer] of your harvest to the priest" (JPS translation)
But if omer is a unit of measure - then what exactly is being measured?
The Rabbis in their description of the omer service (Mishna Menachot chapter 10), complete the picture by integrating the offering described in Vayikra 2:14
וְאִם-תַּקְרִיב מִנְחַת בִּכּוּרִים, לַה'--אָבִיב קָלוּי בָּאֵשׁ, גֶּרֶשׂ כַּרְמֶל, תַּקְרִיב, אֵת מִנְחַת בִּכּוּרֶיךָ.
The JPS translates this as, "If you bring a meal offering of first fruits to the Lord, you shall bring new ears parched with fire, grits of the fresh grain, as your meal offering of first fruits". Levine in his JPS commentary points out that some of the same words appear in Vayikra 23:14 (קלוי, כרמל) and continues:
The similarity of our text to 23:14-17 has raised the question as to whether both texts are speaking of the same offerings. Both are called bikkurim, "first fruits", and most traditional commentators, including Rashi and Ramban, have argued for the identity of the two laws.
Rashi writes that the word "ki" should be read as "when", not as "if", making it the mandatory offering we find in chapter 23.
However, a number of challenges can be brought to show why these are two different offerings:
1) This article notes that in Vayikra 2, all the other offerings are voluntary, and none are calendar based. That makes it less likely that this one offering would be mandatory and brought at a specific time.
2) This article (page 374 in the original pagination) points out that in Vayikra 23:10, we find the phrase "omer reishit". The author points out that like all first fruits, they should be viewed not as a mincha (meal offering), but rather as a korban (sacrifice). However, Milgrom (quoted above) says that reishit actually refers to processed fruits:
The priestly texts distinguish very clearly between bikkurim and reshit (Num 18:12-13; cf. Ezek 44:30; Neh 10:36,38). The former is designated as first-ripened fruits; the latter as first-processed fruits. Thus the first of the grain kernels, wine and oil (Num 18:12) as well as fruit syrup (Lev 2:11-12; 2 Chr 31:5), leaven (Lev 2:11-12) and dough (Num 15:20-21; Neh 10:38) are termed reshit. Hence this term could not be applied to standing grain. Since it also cannot denote first ripe fruits, a meaning reserved for bikkurim, it takes on the connotation "first" in a temporal sense - the very first 'omer to be harvested.
While Milgrom clearly believes that the offering was a sheaf, I think that his arguments could actually be used to prove that the offering was processed grain - flour - as the rabbis claim.
3) Rav David Tzvi Hoffman writes that many of the menachot (meal offerings) were one tenth of an ephah - why weren't they called omer? And even in the section dealing with the omer offering, we find the mention of two tenths of an ephah (23:13) - וּמִנְחָתוֹ שְׁנֵי עֶשְׂרֹנִים - why isn't it called here "two omers" שְׁנֵי הָעֹמֶר as in Shmot 16:22?
In fact, even some of the Jewish commentaries such as Ibn Ezra and Shadal say that the plain meaning of Vayikra 2:14 is referring to a voluntary offering.
One interesting "proof" is brought by the Academy of the Hebrew Language in their pamphlet about the three festivals. They point out a comparison between the omer offering, and the Shavuot offering 50 days later. If we explain the word according to the understanding of the rabbis, we see a nice parallel between the two first fruit offerings:
So if we view the omer offering as the beginning of a process, and the Shavuot offering as its culmination, then it makes sense that the omer would be a measure of flour - not a sheaf.
One other potential proof of the omer meaning here a tenth of an ephah comes from a comparison between the mahn and the omer offering. But we'll discuss that later.
An interesting third option is presented by Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman in his commentary on Vayikra 23:10 (quoted partially here by Nechama Leibowitz, and the full original German is here). He has difficulty accepting either the explanation of omer as "sheaf" or "measure" in this verse. He then quotes the Sifra on Emor (156):
והניף את העומר לפני ה' (ויקרא כג, יא) – ג' שמות יש לו: "עומר שבלים", "עומר תנופה", "עומר" שמו
The omer has three names: omer of the ears of grain, omer that is waved and omer as such.
R' Hoffman explains (based on the Raavad, and a similar view found in the Vilna Gaon's commentary) the Sifra as saying that in addition to the understanding of omer as sheaf ("ears of grain") in Devarim and Rut, and omer as a measure ("omer as such") in Shmot - the verses in Vayikra are talking about an independent third meaning - "omer that is waved". He writes that omer he should be translated as "gift" or "levy". He quotes Fleischer as saying that the Hebrew word meches מכס, meaning "tax, levy" has an Arabic cognate meaning "oppress", and so omer as "levy" could be cognate with the Hebrew verb עמר, which is also explained as meaning "oppress" (Devarim 21:14, 24:7).
While this theory helps avoid the conflict between the two prominent explanations of "omer", there are some serious issues. First of all, the Malbim in his commentary shows how all three names for omer mentioned in the Sifra are referring to Vayikra: "Omer as such" refers to the volume of the offering, "omer of the ears of grain" relates to how the grain was cut for the offering, and "omer that is waved" refers to the special requirement of waving that is only found with the omer meal offering (and that of the sotah).
However, there's even a bigger issue regarding R' Hoffman's interpretation - what was actually brought as the offering? His commentary seems to indicate that he follows the mishna, and that it was a meal offering, not a sheaf. So in the end, he too ends up on one side of the debate.
If R' Hoffman tried to split the word omer into three meanings, Abarbanel does the opposite. He writes that the verse in Vayikra is probably talking about a sheaf, but the yield of one sheaf of barley is approximately one tenth of an ephah. So by saying that the two meanings share a common etymology, he defuses the controversy - omer means both. This suggestion is also offered by Bechor Shor, Shadal on Shmot 16:36, and Mandelkern in his concordance.
I'm not sure whether or not the two meanings of omer have an etymological connection. Klein seems to indicate they don't. For omer as sheaf, he says it is "a metathesized form of ערם" - a verb meaning "to heap, pile". Gesenius writes that "heap" is the "primary sense of the Hebrew word", and HALOT goes so far as to say that sheaf should not be used for omer at all, but is reserved for aluma אלומה. (Mandelkern disagrees and writes that omer is connected to the Arabic word for coerce – so one forces all the stalks together and binds them in to a sheaf.)
As far as omer as a measure, Klein connects it to the Arabic ghumr - a small bowl (perhaps based on Driver). However, this site quotes the Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic as having the entry "غمر (ghumr) which means armful". We've seen before that armful is nearly identical with "sheaf", so this might mean the meanings have a common origin. And Steinberg writes that omer as measure might also derive from the root ערם - a "piled up measure".
Whether or not omer as sheaf and measure derive from a common root, I don't think it's as reasonable to say that they share a common meaning in the Torah. Omer as sheaf is measured, but not by the yield. In Masechet Peah, we find the laws of shichecha שכחה - the forgotten sheaves that are left for the poor (mentioned in Devarim 24:19 that we've quoted above). Mishna 6:6 says:
The Yerushalmi explains:
העומר שיש בו סאתיים, ושכחו--אינו שכחה
A sheaf which contains two se'ahs and was forgotten is not [considered to be] shichecha
I think this law is very much in tune with the association we have seen between sheaf and handful that we have seen in many languages, including Hebrew. So if an omer meant any kind of measurement, it meant "a handful" (according to the mishna, not more than two se'ahs, and see this article as to why this is a question of volume, not weight).
א"ר אלעזר כתיב (דברים כב) כי תקצור קצירך בשדך ושכחת עומר בשדה עומר שאתה יכול לפשוט ידך וליטלו
Said Rabbi Elazar, "It is written (Devarim 24:19), 'When you reap the harvest in your field, and overlook a sheaf (omer) in the field [do not turn back to get it]' [This law refers to] a sheaf that you can reach back with your hand and take [but a sheaf too large for you to take your hand is not included in this law]
So how do we resolve this issue? I think the answer lies in the fact that omer always appears in the Torah in an unusual manner. Why not just say isaron עשרון or tenth of an ephah when describing the mahn? Why not call it an aluma in Devarim? And most importantly, why use an ambiguous word in Vayikra?
I believe the Torah is trying to give us a message by using words this way. Had the word aluma been used in Vayikra, we would never have made any association between this offering and the mahn. But as these articles by Rabbi Frand, Rabbi Tzvi Shalva, and particularly by Erel Sharf (mentioned here, with a link to the ZIP file here) there is a very deep connection between the two.
They note that the mahn stopped the day they were obligated to bring the omer (Yehoshua 5:11-12). And Sharf writes that the purpose of the mahn was to help us realize that everything is from God – in the desert that meant all food was from Him. In the Land of Israel, there was human involvement via agriculture, but we still need to remember our dependence on God. So the word omer was used (according to Sharf an actual measure, but the message would still work if it meant sheaf but brought up the memory of the mahn.)
Similarly, immediately following the description of the omer offering are the mitzvot of peah and leket (already mentioned in chapter 19), which bring up the association of the mitzva forgetting the omer in the field (shichecha), which all emphasize passivity–and remind of the same educational message –that the land belongs to God. So with the use of one word, we are taught deep lessons about a number of commandments.
Now we can return to our second question - why did the issue of the meaning of omer receive less attention than the issue of the when the omer was brought? I think this is because the question of what omer meant was an issue of peshat vs derash (literal meaning vs exegisis) - but not a question of what was actually done. The Oral Law determined that a barley flour was offered as the omer, and that seems to have been widely accepted.
I have seen here and there sources that say that the Sadducees or other groups claimed that a sheaf should be brought. But I haven't found them very convincing. They are primarily based on the writings of Philo, does not describe the offering in detail - only calling it "the offering of the first ears, the sacred sheaf (dragma)" (2.11.41). But what did Philo base this on? Was it his understanding of the Torah or was he simply influenced by the Septuagint? Did he witness the sheaf being offered or have testimony as such, or was this a kind of misreading as we saw with Artscroll above?
In any case, Philo's contemporary, Josephus, also uses the term dragma to describe the offering, but then goes on to follow the opinion of the Rabbis:
So while the peshat of the verse in Vayikra may be talking about offering a sheaf, I think the halacha should clearly be a measure of volume.
They take a handful / sheaf (dragma) of the ears, and dry them, then beat them small, and purge the barley from the bran; they then bring one tenth deal to the altar, to God; and, casting one handful (draka) of it upon the fire, they leave the rest for the use of the priest.
Now that we know what the omer is (I hope!), it should be clear that there was only one omer offered, on the 16th of Nisan. The truth is that before I started researching this, I might have thought that an omer was offered each of the 49 days (and I've found a number of publications - 1, 2, 3 - who've made that mistake.) But aside from the verses themselves, the midrash in Vayikra Rabba 28 emphasizes how only one omer was brought:
So if there is only one omer (per year), how do we "count the omer"? That should be a pretty short count - one!
R. Berachyah taught: The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moshe: "Go and remind Israel that when I gave them the manna, I gave each and every one of them the measure of an omer, as the verse (Shemot 16:16) states: An omer for each person. But now that you offer the omer, I receive only one omer from all of you together!"
The confusion is due to the unusual phrase "sefirat haomer" ספירת העומר that we find in the blessing recited before counting. I did a search of all Talmudic literature in the database of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, and only found it once - in Yerushalmi Megillah 2:6 -73c (the Bar-Ilan database also has it in Midrash Tanaim Devarim 16, but R' Hoffman corrects it to read "k'tzirat haomer" קצירת העומר). I then found a fascinating article by Prof. David Henshke called - מניין לספירת העומר מן התורה? (printed in the Sefer Hayovel for Rabbi Mordechai Breuer). He discusses when the practice of counting the omer verbally began. And discusses there how that source in the Yerushalmi should be viewed as being edited in much later. So the phrase was probably coined at the time of the Geonim.
If sefirat haomer doesn't mean "counting the omer" - what does it mean? I looked for other constructs with "sefirat" followed by a noun. One of the only ones I found was in Mishna Zavim 1:2, where it says l'sefirat zovo לספירת זובו, which means "counting after his flux". This seems like a very reasonable way to understand sefirat haomer as well, and in fact, we see that R' Louis Jacobs made that correction:
(Noting that we count from the omer helps us to understand the disagreement between those who end their counting with la'omer לעומר vs those who end with ba'omer בעומר. The Taz 489 explains the Rama's position for saying ba'omer by saying that we count "in" the first day. But the Chok Yaakov says that only applies to the first day, not the entire counting period. The Shaarei Teshuva adds that the prefix lamed can indicate "from", as in Bamidbar 1.1 - בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם - "in the first day of the second month in the second year after they came out of the land of Egypt".)
This practice is known as "counting the Omer," although, as we have seen, it is actually counting from the Omer.
I have found the form "to count the omer" לספור העומר in a number of Rishonim (Abudraham, Sefer HaAgur, Sefer HaIttur, the Ran and the Tur) and it is codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 489:1 - interestingly the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch corrects it to לספור ספירת העומר.)
Why is it so common (and so comfortable) to make this error? I think it is due to the mulitple uses of the semichut (construct) form in Hebrew. I've recently heard a number of people say in Hebrew (or in English translation) that they blessed the trees (בירכתי את האילנות) or that they blessed the sun (בירכתי את החמה). This is based on a misunderstanding of the phrases birkat ha'ilanot ברכת האילנות and birkat hachama ברכת החמה - they blessed God, not the trees or the sun. However, not all is lost, as few people would say that the were going to bless the food (לברך את המזון) when they are going to say birkat hamazon ברכת המזון.
The different uses of semichut led to this cute joke in Hebrew (sorry, but really won't work in translation):
ב"הפסקת אוכל"- כולם אוכלים.
ב"הפסקת קפה"- כולם שותים.
אחר כך מתפלאים ש...
ב"הפסקת אש"-כולם יורים.
To conclude, I'd like to mention Henshke's interesting idea that there was no verbal sefirat haomer in the times of the Temple (and even after - he writes that it only began when the calendar was made static). He brings a popular question as to why sefirat haomer is followed by a prayer for the rebuilding of the temple, when other mitzvot that are also in memory of the Temple (like lulav on the last 6 days of sukkot) do not have such a prayer. He writes that perhaps sefirat haomer is unique because the entire practice was initiated in memory of the Temple; it wasn't performed at that time at all.
Today we have no omer offering - only the counting. But we can at least study what was done, and try to be as familiar with the omer offering as if we were living in those times...