By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Someone once pointed out that in New York City all one has to do to calculate sundown in May is add a number of minutes equal to the day of the month to 7:50 p.m., and at worst it is off by a minute and a half. (In April, add the date to 7:20 p.m.). Shavuos this year starts on the evening of the 28th day of May, and sundown is at 8:16 and 50 seconds. The calculation is off by 1 minute, 10 seconds, which fits pretty much into the formula.
It is the practice throughout K’lal Yisrael to wait to daven Maariv on Shavuos until it is certainly dark. This means that we wait until after tzeis ha’kochavim (stars coming out), either 42 or 50 minutes past sundown. The Mishnah Berurah rules conclusively in this way (494:1) and it has become the accepted custom in K’lal Yisrael.
The reason is explained by the TaZ (Rabbi Dovid HaLevi) in his commentary on chapter 494 in Orech Chayim: The counting of the omer must be complete; it must be seven perfect and complete weeks in order to fulfill the verse “sheva shavuos temimos-seven complete weeks.” If we daven Maariv early on Shavuos, then it is not complete; so we wait.
Also, in discussing Shavuos, the Torah uses the term “b’etzem ha’yom ha’zeh-on this very day,” which seems to indicate that Shavuos should be observed in its exact time, not earlier. Whether this is a different reason than the one just discussed is a matter that needs further clarification.
The problem is that there is a mitzvah in general of adding on to Shabbos and yom tov. The Chofetz Chaim (in Bi’ur Halachah 261:2) says that most Rishonim are of the opinion that this tosefes Shabbos is a Biblical mitzvah that applies equally to men and women. Indeed, the Avnei Neizer in a responsum (Orach Chayim 316:12) rules that tosefes yom tov is also a Biblical mitzvah. If so, by waiting on Shavuos then we are not fulfilling the mitzvah of adding on to the yom tov.
One could, of course, answer that we accomplish the adding on after the yom tov. But it does seem to be a little bit strange. Do we find a distinction between Shavuos and the other yomim tovim in regard to the mitzvah of tosefes yom tov? Also, even if we were to find such a difference based upon the omer, what would be the halachah nowadays, when most authorities hold that counting the omer is only a rabbinic mitzvah?
The Maharsham in his work Da’as Torah (494:1) cites a responsum from the Maaseis Binyamin that the issue of temimus applies only to the recitation of Kiddush, but not to the prayer service of Maariv. Indeed, the siddur of the Yaavetz (Beis Yaakov, Shavuos note No. 4) writes that a person who davens early on Shavuos is called a zariz (a person who is quick to do mitzvos) and is rewarded. Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, in the Melamed LeHoil (Volume 1, responsum 108) rules that a person should at least wait until bein ha’shemashos-twilight.
It seems that these authorities would hold that the concept of temimus does not prevent us from starting Shavuos early-the omer was still counted the entire time through Shavuos!
The Klausenberger Rebbe, zt’l, in Divrei Yatziv (O.C., No. 226) writes that the reason we are stringent is not because it does not complete the 49 days of the omer, but rather because it appears as if we have not completed the full 49 days of the omer! He adduces this reading also from the wording of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav (the first Rebbe of Chabad).
It is interesting to note that Rav Chaim Berlin (the son of the Netziv and the Chief Rabbi of Moscow from 1865), in Koveitz Shaarei Torah, Volume 8 (9:68), has an entirely different reading of this Taz. He writes that the Taz is not dealing with any special aspect of Shavuos. Rather, he explains, just as during all other days of the omer the counting must be perfect, without the internal contradiction of having to count it on a different day, the same is true with the 49th day: the omer may not be counted on a day the latter part of which is shared with Shavuos.
The Tzitz Eliezer (Volume 13, No. 59), however, rejects Rav Chaim Berlin’s interesting rereading of the Taz and maintains that the idea of “b’etzem ha’yom ha’zeh” makes this halachah unique to Shavuos.
Another issue relates to the second day of Shavuos. There is an enactment to keep two days of yom tov in Chutz LaAretz (on account of sefeika d’yoma-an uncertainty in the day that rosh chodesh was declared). Can we daven early on the second night (Friday night), or do we have to wait until the time the stars come, just as we do on the first night of Shavuos?
On the one hand, on the second day of Shavuos there never would have been a sefeika d’yoma, since by that time everyone would know when Rosh Chodesh Nissan was declared and when the omer count started. Yet on the other hand we are enjoined to treat the second day of yom tov exactly like we would treat the first day of yom tov. So what should we do?
Some authorities explain that the reason why we keep the second day of Shavuos is not because of a sefeika d’yoma but rather because of “lo p’lug”-the rabbis did not differentiate this yom tov from other yomim tovim. Since this is the case, one can make a good argument that starting the second day early would not take away from the temimus, the perfection of the counting of the omer on the previous day. It seems that the combination of both of these rationales would at least allow us to daven earlier on Friday night on the second night of Shavuos.
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