Parshat Bamidbar: From holy to holiday

‘From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: Ye shall number them by their hosts…’ (Numbers 1:3).

soldier salute_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
soldier salute_521
(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).
Our 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.
Our 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 – a Sunday.
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.
The Sadducees 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 night.
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.