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Thought for the Day: Counting S'fira -- You Need to Know What You Are Saying.

My wife makes incredible baked goods; much better than I could do.  She also knows much less chemistry than I do (and she isn't even embarrassed by that fact... go figure).  Knowledge of chemistry is, apparently, not a good indicator of baking skill.  In fact, baking skill and knowledge of chemistry are almost entirely unrelated.  Not entirely unrelated, because to progress beyond a certain level of baking, one really does need to know something about chemistry and food science (sorry, honey).

T'fila (prayer) is something like that.  Knowledge of Hebrew grammar and a large vocabulary is not a good indicator of how well one will pray.  The caveat here, is that one must daven in Lashon HaKodesh for that to work.  If you pray in another language, you darn well better understand what you are saying.  Being yotzi the mitzvah of hearing M'gilas Esther is similar: Lashon HaKodesh, good to go; foreign language, you better know what you are saying.  K'ri'as Sh'ma also works like that.  Even birkas ha'mazon works like that.  So using Lashon HaKodesh is a silver bullet; right?

Wrong.  Really, really wrong.  True enough for all those examples (and others), using Lashon HaKodesh works even without understanding a single syllable of what you are saying.  But certain things require understanding.  Case in point: S'firas ha'Omer.  The mitzvah is not to recite certain hebrew phrases that have deep, kabablistic interactions with the upper worlds.  The mitzvah of s'firas ha'Omer is to count the days of the omer.  If one read the number in hebrew and doesn't know what those words mean, then he has not counted the omer and now has a bracha l'vatala to his credit.

It's nice to to say it in Hebrew and one certainly feels more religious.  To fulfill the mitzvah and feel religious, I have been known to count in English first, then say the number in Hebrew (which also, by the way, helped me learn the numbers in Hebrew).  It has to be in that order or there will be a hefsek (interruption) between the bracha and the fulfillment of said mitzvah.

By the way, this concept applies in other areas: counting for a minyan, bitul chameitz, making an eiruv; just to name a few.  Thank goodness for Art Scroll.

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