וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת
“And you shall count for yourselves, from the day after the day of rest, from the day that you bring the Omer offering, seven complete weeks shall there be. Until the day after the seventh week you shall count 50 days, and you shall offer a new meal offering to Hashem. (23:15-16)
This text seems unclear. How many days are we required to count? Verse 15 says to count “sheva Shabbatot temimot,” seven full weeks, totalling 49 days. The next pasuk, though, says “tispiru chamishim yom,” that we are to count 50 days. Are we to count 49 or 50 days?
The Rosh near the end of arvei pesachim (Siman 40) answers that the Torah will often round up to the nearest 10 when the differential is only one. He gives two other examples of this phenomenon:
One example is found in Parshat Ki Teitzei. The Torah states that a punishment for certain sins is 40 lashes. In reality, however, only 39 lashes are administered.
The other example is found in Parshat Vayigash. We are told that 70 souls went down to Egypt. A count of the names of those who descended to Egypt, however, reveals that there were actually only 69 individuals.
Why doesn’t the Torah simply state the real number instead of rounding up? In all three cases, the stated number and the actual number have value. One number focuses on the ideal and the other number focuses on our reality.
The Ramban notes that the 40 lashes correspond to the 40 days that Moshe received the Torah. In other words, the goal of lashes, like any punishment, is purification. As in most forms of teshuva, we work to repent to the best of our ability. As humans, however, we never quite reach perfection. Even so, it is still important for us to have an awareness of what perfection looks like. This is why we receive 39 lashes while the Torah still says 40. We are reminded that even after receiving lashes, the sin has still had a negative effect on us, and the stain is not totally removed. Forty represents full purification, a level to which we should aspire. Thus both the number 39 and the number 40 hold meaning in relation to the punishment of lashes.
Why did the family of Yaakov go down to Egypt? Chazal tell us that the entire Egypt experience was a necessary preparation for them to become a nation. The Egypt experience purified them. This fact is represented in the number 70. Rashi says that the name not mentioned in the count of those who went down to Egypt was Yocheved, who was in her mother’s womb at the time. She was the mother of Moshe who would be the savior of the people. Pregnancy symbolizes latent potential, and Yocheved represented the future of the Jewish people at this time. The number 70, as a whole or full number, represented the fullness that would be required for them to leave Egypt and begin to head to Israel. The 70th person was the mother of Moshe. As such, Moshe was the missing link, always present in potential, so that the Jews could fully complete their purification process on their way to Israel.
This same concept applies to Sefirat HaOmer. In one sense there really are 50 days to count, since the count only starts from the day after we left Egypt. Had the count started from the day we left Egypt, the count would be 50. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that we start counting the day after we left Egypt so that we can give our full and exclusive attention on day one to the miracle of the Exodus. Another possible explanation is that in counting toward the end of Sefira we are counting toward 49, but still recognize that there is always more room for growth. While we only count to 49, the Torah states the number 50 to remind us of this concept.
This message teaches us an important life lesson. Our obligation is to strive for perfection, working to be the best people we can be. At the same time, we recognize our limited humanity, understanding that there is always more room for growth.
By Daniel Alter
Rabbi Daniel Alter is the head of school at The Moriah School.