by R. Daniel Mann
Question: Which is the correct version of counting the omer – “… yamim la’omer” or “… yamim ba’omer”? Is there a content difference or only a grammatical one between them?
Answer: Let’s start with the simple background. Omer is the measurement of barley brought as a korban on the second day of Pesach, and it is the accepted rabbinic parlance to refer to the korban. The mitzva to count 49 days starts the day the korban ha’omer is offered (Vayikra 23:15). There is a machloket whether in our times, when there is no korban ha’omer, the mitzva of sefirat ha’omer is Torah law or Rabbinic (see Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 489).
Ba’omer almost certainly means “within the period of the omer.” La’omer can be a different expression of the same thing, or it can mean “from the time of the offering of the korban omer.” The Taz (OC 489:3) assumed that the latter explanation of la’omer is correct and, therefore, rejects it in favor his community’s minhag and the Rama’s (OC 489:1) opinion – ba’omer. He argues that the first night la’omer would not make sense since the count precedes the omer offering. It follows, then, that the text throughout must be ba’omer. We present another indication that the omer represents a time period and not from the bringing of the omer. The beracha is “on the counting of the omer.” This makes sense if omer is a period of time, broken up into days and weeks, which we count. However, if it is a korban or the day one brings it, we do not count it, but from it. (To deflect the proof one would have to say that the beracha is a slight misnomer.)
The Chok Yaakov (489:9) demonstrates that the apparently most prevalent text in the time of the Rishonim was la’omer. He supports the text, saying that la’omer means from the day of the offering of the omer and argues that ba’omer does not work well because it implies that this is one of the days that the omer is brought, which is true only on the first day. As mentioned, proponents of ba’omer understand it differently.
The Beit Yaakov (23) and his father-in-law, whom he cites, understand both la’omer and ba’omer as going on the day within a time period. The question for them is which the more appropriate prepositional prefix is. We find, in a get and a ketuba, that the letter lamed is used for the day number within the month, and bet for the day number within the week. The Bach (Even Haezer 126) feels that the standard way of writing is with a lamed and gives a technical reason why bet is sometimes needed to avoid confusion. On the other hand, we find “Tisha B’av, Tu B’shevat, and Lag Ba’omer, for days within months, even when there is no concern of confusion.
Regarding practice, perhaps because the Arizal and Shelah join most Rishonim in promoting la’omer, Sephardim and Nusach Sephard (Chassidic minhag) say la’omer. Perhaps because the Gra joins the Rama to promote it, most followers of Nusach Ashkenaz say ba’omer. The Mishna Berura (489:8) does claim that most poskim say la’omer, and the Aruch Hashulchan (OC 489:9), while citing both texts, prefers la’omer. In practice, as well, many otherwise Nusach Ashkenaz people and shuls say la’omer. Everyone can and preferably should follow their family minhag.
Realize that the stakes are very low. Even if one leaves out the word entirely, the counting is valid (Mishna Berura 489:8), and it seems that even if the word were needed, both versions are similar enough to be valid. One’s preference is certainly not an excuse to recite out loud a different version than is accepted (if one is accepted) in a specific shul (see Igrot Moshe, OC II:23), all the more so the chazan or other who recites it for the rest of the community must conform to their minhag.
There are reports of talmidei chachamim who repeat(ed) the count to cover both versions. This is certainly not necessary and probably not preferable (it is not found in classical poskim). If one is constantly in the practice of covering all halachic bases, and wants to include this one, he should do so only unnoticeably.