Sefirat Haomer and Rabbinic Authority

Should a rabbi who omits the recitation of the Omer for an entire twenty-four hour period be treated differently than a layperson who forgets a day?

This surprising distinction is adopted by some halakhic decisors. To better understand the basis for the ruling, as well as why others disagree, some background is in order.

Rishonim debate whether one who omits a complete day of Sefira is able to continue the count. Tosafot (Menachot 66a s.v. zecher) cites the Behag who maintains that such an individual can no longer count. The Baalei HaTosafot themselves disagree. As a matter of practical halakha, Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 489:8) adopts a compromise: one may continue to count but, in deference to the view of the Behag, one should do so without a beracha. The reasoning for this ruling is not entirely clear and permits two explanations: either we are truly in doubt as to whether Tosafot or the Behag is correct, or the essential halakha follows Tosafot, but due to the stringency associated with a blessing recited in vain, we opt not to say the beracha.

Acharonim further consider whether one who omitted a day, and therefore can no longer count with a beracha, may recite the blessing on behalf of another individual who is still counting with a beracha. (That individual would be yotzei the beracha by listening to his friend.) Without citing all the arguments back and forth, it is sufficient to note that most acharonim dispute such a possibility (Pri Chadash 489:8, Kneset Hagedolah O.C. 29, Shevet HaLevi 4:157), while a prominent minority, including the Beit HaLevi (cited by R. Tzvi Pesach Frank in Har Tzvi O.C. 2:75), are reported to have permitted such a practice.

In light of this background, at first glance we would assume that a rabbi ought to be held to the same standard as others, and should not be able to continue reciting the beracha if he omitted a day.

Rav Wosner ZT"L (Shevet HaLevi 3:96), however, maintains that a rabbi is exceptional, because one who publicly recites the Omer in his shul on a nightly basis will likely experience significant embarrassment if he is not able to continue counting out loud with a blessing. Rav Wosner further asserts that the latter of the two possibilities we outlined above is correct: namely, the strict halakha follows Tosafot, and our practice to omit the blessing is a mere stringency. Alternatively, some (Divrei Moshe 1:30; see Piskei Teshuvot O.C. 489 footnote 94), following the practice of the Beit HaLevi, recommend that the rabbi rely on the minority view that permits one to recite the blessing on behalf of another member of the minyan who is still counting with a beracha. In light of the shame that will befall the rabbi who is no longer able to recite the blessing publicly, we permit the rabbi to continue counting publicly with a blessing by reciting the berakha on behalf of someone else.

Rav Asher Weiss, however, prefers not to rely on the leniency of the Shevet HaLevi for a variety of reasons. First, we are truly concerned for the view of the Behag; there is a real possibility of beracha levatala. Second, many acharonim dispute the Beit HaLevi's practice of reciting the beracha on behalf of another person. Third, it is questionable if the halakhic category of embarrassment is truly applicable to our scenario.

In addition to the halakhic questions, there is a wider issue at play concerning the rabbi's relationship with his community. Although one can certainly make the case that it is embarrassing for the rabbi to no longer be able to recite the beracha, one can formulate an opposite argument as well. The rabbi who no longer recites the blessing is achieving an important educational goal, modeling for his congregants humility and halakhic integrity. As Rav Weiss notes, numerous scholars including Rav Yosef Shaul Natansohn (author of She'eilot u-Teshuvot Sho'el u-Meishiv) wrote explicitly about instances in which they erred in regard to matters of tefilla. More than that, in many areas of halakhic observance, it is human nature to allow our fear of embarrassment to preclude us from publicly "admitting" a mistake. By no longer reciting the blessing, the rabbi models for the congregation a willingness to put halakhic integrity ahead of one's own embarrassment.

This final argument carries particular contemporary resonance. In today's world, when rabbis are unfortunately too often viewed as "above the law," it is crucial that rabbis model humility. Far from degrading the rabbi's stature, in most of our shuls, the rabbi's willingness to "confess" his error and model halakhic integrity will elevate his stature in his congregants' eyes. By publicly holding himself to the same standards as the members of his community, the rabbi ultimately elevates the Torah, whose stature it is his sacred charge to uphold.