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The Book of Bamidbar (Numbers) and our portion this week which begins the book starts with :

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying:
ב שְׂאוּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם, לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם--בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת, כָּל-זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם. 2 'Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls;

So it is about numbers and counting (– Rashi says “God loves us, so he counts us often” ).

At this time of year some of us are fulfilling the Mitzvah of “Sefirat Ha-Omer” – the command to count the 49 days (or 7 weeks) between Pesach and Shavuot. It is a seemingly very boring mitzvah, hard to see as meaningful and exceedingly difficult to do without missing a day and messing up somewhere along the line. [Some people inject meaning by connecting each day/week to a Kabbalistic “Sephira” or sphere – hmm.. [Sphere though similar in sound is probably an unrelated Greek word - my OED suggested that it comes from a word meaning the sphere of the heavens. Leo pointed out that the Kabbalists (who may have got it from the Greeks) thought of there being a series of concentric spheres - the 7 heavens. But I suspect the idea and connection to the Omer came later.]
In itself, “counting” appears at first sight mechanical and rather meaningless. Stories on the other hand can be very meaningful to us.

So my starter question is: What is the connection between counting “Lispor” and telling a story: “Le Saper” since both have the same root letters סְפַּר (S P R)?

It is interesting that the same co-incidence of meaning occurs in English. The verb “to tell” meaning to tell a story has the older meaning “to tell” ie to count or tally. Then there is the English verb “to recount” which also means to tell a story and is connected with “to count” and “to account”. What is going on here?
(…and why are we specifically commanded to count the days between Pesach and Shavuot?)

One answer is that in all story-telling there is a sequence: “I went to the shop and I bought: some cream cheese, a bottle of vanilla essence, a bag of sugar, a pint of sour cream, and a packet of graham’s crackers….” (You can see where I am going with this…it all leads to cheese cake, of course!  ). At Pesach we tell the story of our liberation from slavery in Egypt – and perhaps it is no co-incidence that this service is called a “Seder” (an order, a sequence) – indeed I speculate S P R (Saper) and S D R (Seder) may perhaps be connected.

One aspect of counting is also sequence – we align the items being counted to a meaningless ordered list of words “One, Two, Three…etc”. So there is a connection between counting and story-telling.

However there is another aspect to counting which is one-to-one correspondence. I imaging the first counting being done by shepherds as their flock passed through a gate into a paddock. They might have moved pebbles from one pile to another as a way of checking they still had the right number of sheep. [Indeed this most basic of counting methods is used to this day by Cricket umpires who move 6 stones from one pocket to the other as they count the balls bowled in an “over”]. Afterwards you can do things like arranging the pebbles into patterns – e.g. rows of ten, or of seven – or you can assign word rhymes to them like “one two three..” or “yan tyan tethera methera pimp…”. In England, perhaps, after every twenty our shepherd would probably “score” a mark on a stick – hence the old term “a score” for twenty.

The days and weeks between Pesach and Shavuot can be counted by a similar method. I move 49 pegs from one peg-board to another.

Counting people, in ancient Israel was a bit different – unlike with sheep you can ask everyone to be counted to bring a coin, a half-shekel. Then count or weight the result. And we are thus elevating the people at the same time.
There is a negative view in Jewish tradition of counting people (King David counted the people and a plague ensued) Perhaps this was because by counting them he was assessing his own power as king (maybe for military or tax purposes) and that showed a power-hungry attitude or a lack of trust in God – Or are we reducing human beings to “a number” as was done in the concentration camps – stripping them of their humanity and personhood? In traditional Jewish circles counting people is done indirectly and to count 10 for a Minyan one is meant to use a ten word Torah verse - The verse usually used is from Psalm 28 : "Hoshiah et amecha u'varech et nachalatecha ur'em venas'em ad ha'olam." "Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever." This is maybe better than using “meaningless” numbers or words – we are connecting ourselves to something Holy.

It is worth noticing that in the verse “Take ye the sum…” at the start of Bamidbar (above), the literal wording is “Lift up the heads of the Children of Israel” – Moses was commanded to elevate them as he counted them. I imagine him lifting each person’s head by the chin and looking into their eye and somehow (maybe with a well-chosen word or two) raising each of them to a higher purpose.

We are not merely to count each person, we are to make “each person count”.

Turning now to the counting of the days between Pesach and Shavuot, there is a similar idea that can be extracted, I think.
Counting the days has a second significance beyond the aspects of counting (sequencing and quantifying) seen so far. It connects the two festivals and it gives added significance to the start and end points of our counting. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin writing from Efrat in Eretz Yisrael (inside the separation barrier but in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967) writes interestingly about this in “The Omer Count a purely agricultural festival” .
He says we make the important link of freedom (Pesach - liberation from Egypt) to responsibility (Shavuot - receiving the Torah)
But also that in ancient times this count linked and spanned the very start of the Harvest season (bringing an Omer of Barley at the start of the Barley Harvest) with the end of the harvest (end of the wheat harvest) – something Jewish people living and farming in the land of Israel are again conscious of. This means that it was a time when people in Israel were receiving Blessings in the form of Barley Wheat Oats Rye Spelt Dates, Olives, Grapes, Figs and Pomegranates (the produce for which the land of Israel was famous) – which on Shavuot they would then put in a basket and bring “to God” (to the temple in Jerusalem).

I imagine they would have been “working their socks off” (ok I know they didn’t wear socks!) over this period – so I think that the counting is saying to them/ to us…to count the days of our blessings – as well as thanking God for them. (ie to value them).

Also, as with people, to make every one of those days count:

“So, teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” - from Psalm 90
(appropriately described as – “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God”)
Shabbat shalom,


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February 2017

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