(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘When you enter the land I am going to give you and reap its harvest, bring to
the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest... From the day after the
Sabbath (the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering), count seven full
weeks. Count 50 days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present
an offering of new grain to the Lord’ (Leviticus 23:9- 10,15-16).
Hebrew calendar places us toward the end of the Counting of the Omer between the
festivals of Pessah and Shavuot, after the modern Israeli Independence Day and
just before Jerusalem Day. It gives us a perfect opportunity to take a fresh
look at the biblical commandment to count the Omer, and attempt to understand
anew the connection (if any) between Pessah and Shavuot, and perhaps to discern
the invisible “finger of the Divine” guiding Jewish history.
investigation must begin with a problematic phrase found in the section dealing
with all the festivals, quoted above.
The count is to begin “on the
morrow of the Rest Day,” which may be interpreted as either on the day after the
Sabbath (following the Pessah festival) or on the day following the festival of
Pessah, 16 Nisan. The Sadducees – a second-commonwealth sect consisting mainly
of Kohanim and wealthy aristocrats who limited the scope of the Oral Law –
maintained the former interpretation.
They argued that the count was to
begin the day after the Sabbath, which meant the Israelites would count from
Sunday to Sunday for seven weeks, with Shavuot always falling on the 50th day –
The Pharisees – a sect committed to an expanding Oral Law –
would always begin the count on the second evening of Pessah, 16 Nisan, with the
day of the week remaining fluid, depending on the year.
seem much more in line with the plain meaning of the text, “on the morrow of the
Sabbath.” For the Pharisees, Shabbat in this context must be taken to
mean festival, a day of rest, which is highly universal. What is the true
basis of their debate? Remember, too, that the Pharisees could find themselves
harvesting the barley omer on Friday night, which would be impossible for the
Sadducees, for whom the harvest sacrifice was always on Saturday
The heart of our understanding of this debate lies, I believe, in
the two distinct ways of viewing the festivals and the two distinct New Years of
the Hebrew calendar.
The month of Tishrei marks the New Year from an
agricultural perspective, commemorating the creation of the world with Rosh
Hashana and announcing the beginning of the rainy season (Succot) which is so
necessary for the harvest. Nisan, on the other hand, is the first month from a
nationalistic perspective, commemorating our Exodus from Egypt and our birth as
an independent nation.
Into which of these two rubrics does the Omer
period fit? The Sadducees logically maintain that it is purely agricultural – a
seven-week period which opens with the ripening of barley and concludes with the
ripening of wheat, with the ripening of the rest of the seven species taking
place at this time as well. Hence it is a free-standing period of seven Sabbath
weeks, paralleling the 7 x 7 Sabbatical years (49 years) and culminating in the
purely agricultural festival of the first fruits (Shavuot). Note as well the
centrality of the Shabbat element in this picture.
The Pharisees see it
differently. Remember, they would say, that the Bible commands the omer count
and barley harvest sacrifice right after its mention of Pessah – the month
marking our national independence. Hence they link the count specifically to
Pessah, beginning it on the second evening of Pessah, thereby cementing the
connection from Pessah to Shavuot. And although the period is unmistakably
dedicated to the grain harvest, it is also – and for them primarily – the count
of the preparation for and expectation of the Revelation at Sinai. Pessah is
only the first step of our move away from slavery, leading up to the much more
exalted service with the Revelation at Sinai on the 50th day (Shavuot, according
to our oral tradition).
And so from this historical perspective, Pessah
only begins the march to freedom – a march which will culminate on Shavuot with
the Festival of First Fruits in our Temple, and depending only on our ethical,
moral and religious preparedness for God’s revelation. Along the way we fell
down, and so we must mourn the loss of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples in the
abortive Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome – a tragedy which occurred during
this period in 135 CE because we didn’t respect each other enough. However, the
modern calendar brings us renewed hope, with our new festivals of Independence
Day and Jerusalem Day! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah
Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.