New Light on an Ancient Ritual [1]

The period between Passover and the festival of Shavu'ot is designated the Omer according to the Biblical precept (Leviticus 23:10-16), which commands that "you shall bring a sheaf (omer) of the first fruits of your harvest unto the priest. And he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord to be accepted for you."

The sheaf (traditionally understood to be of barley, whose harvest generally occurs by Passover-time) is to be "waved before the Lord," with accompanying sacrifices, and only after this ceremony may the grain of the new year be consumed.

Subsequently the Torah outlines the following procedure (verse 15): "And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the Sabbath from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave-offering; seven Sabbaths shall be complete," until, on the fiftieth day, the Festival of Weeks (Shavu'ot) is celebrated with its distinctive sacrifices and rituals.

Contemporary observance of this precept excludes, for obvious reasons, those elements of the rite which are dependent on the existence of the Jerusalem Temple. Nevertheless, the rabbis of the Talmud understood that the practice of counting seven weeks is binding even in generations which cannot actually wave the sheaf. Thus, traditional Jews still continue to count each night the number of days that have elapsed since the day when their ancestors would have offered up the omer in the Temple precincts.

Beginning the Count

When does this count begin? The verse which we quoted designates the "morrow after the Sabbath" as the time for waving the sheaf. Understood literally, this would imply that the count must invariably begin on the same day of the week: a Sunday (which Sunday is far from clear. Perhaps during Passover, perhaps the one immediately following; or maybe the first one after the ripening of the barley crop).

Similarly, the count would end on a Sunday, and Shavu'ot would invariably fall on the same day of the week, though not on a designated calendar date (thus in verse 16: "Even until the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall you count fifty days").

Anyone who is familiar with actual Jewish practice knows that this is not the way the calculations are actually done. The counting of the omer invariably begins on the second night of Passover, on whichever day of the week that might happen to fall, and concludes with Shavu'ot, always on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan.

"Sabbath" was understood by the Rabbis as referring, in the first instance, to the first day of Passover (on which most classes of labour are forbidden); and in the second, to the week as a whole (i.e., "after the conclusion of the last week of the count"; this is a normal usage in Rabbinic Hebrew).

And in fact we find that the question of the dating of the omer ritual was a source of major conflict among the Jewish sects and movements of the Second Temple era, some of whose implications we have begun to understand only recently.

The Count Conflict

The tradition that "sabbath" really means "festival" is an ancient one, and was utilized in the Septuagint, the 3rd century B.C.E. Greek translation of the Torah commissioned by King Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt. The Septuagint is generally a literal translation, and its occasional departures from literalism can often serve as a warning sign that something is afoot.

Talmudic literature records a number of controversies with a sect known as the Baitusim, a little-known Second Temple religious movement. These controversies focus precisely on this question.

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star
The Baitusim insisted on counting from Sunday, and in order to prevent the Pharisees from counting from the first day of Passover they would do everything in their power to confuse the issue, including trying to deceive the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court, sitting in Jerusalem) by misrepresenting the date of the New Moon (which, in those days, was determined not according to a fixed calendar, but by the testimony of witnesses who had seen the renewal of the moon), or by sending out false signals (at that time the New Moon was announced through the lighting of a chain of bonfires) about which date had been determined as the New Moon.

These Baitusim were concerned in particular that the harvesting of the omer sheaves should not turn out on a Sabbath. For the Pharisees, this was a possibility and in their view the Biblical command would override the normal prohibition against harvesting on Saturday. For their opponents harvesting on the wrong day was an unjustifiable desecration of the Day of Rest.

The Mishnah records special rituals for the harvesting of the omer on the Sabbath, in which great emphasis was laid on the publicity of the event. Each act was described loudly three times, proudly asserting that it was in fact Shabbat, and that nonetheless they were harvesting the sheaf. All this was done in order to emphatically dissociate themselves from the literalism of the Baitusim.

Talmudic literature tells us very little about the ideology or motivations of the Baitusim, other than the literalistic approach to the Biblical text which they shared with several other movements in the Jewish world.

A new perspective was added to our understanding of the phenomenon when scholars began to compare the rabbinic writings with the Book of Jubilees, an unusual volume composed probably during the second century B.C.E. and claiming to record a revelation to Moses by the "Angel of God's Presence." It retells the narratives of the Torah according to its own peculiar ideology.

One of the most important themes of the Book of Jubilees is that, contrary to traditional Jewish custom, the Bible commands us to use a solar calendar of 364 days a year. Since the number 364 is evenly divisible by seven, it turns out that all the festivals will fall on fixed days of the week. According to their view, the counting is to begin on the Sabbath immediately following Passover.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940's it was noted that the sect who had produced the scrolls observed the "Jubilees calendar," and accepted Jubilees as a canonical work. The fact that they operated according to a different calendar has been seen as one of the main reasons why they were forced to withdraw to their hermit-like community in the Judean desert.

Some scholars pointed out that in manuscripts the word Baitusin usually appears as two words: beit sin (the house of Sin); and the suggestion was proposed that perhaps this is the original Hebrew form for the name which was preserved in Greek sources as "essenes," a group described at length by ancient writers as living a secluded communal existence in the Judean wilderness, identified by many scholars with the Dead Sea sect, but apparently not mentioned by name in the whole of rabbinic literature. Indeed, the Baitusim are linked in the Talmud with Ma'aleh Adumim, on the way to the Dead Sea.

The issue of the dating of the omer period is thus seen to be not an isolated halakhic dispute, but an instance of a basic divergence of approaches to Jewish observance.

Our knowledge of this episode took on fascinating new dimensions with the publication by Prof. Yigael Yadin, in the 1970's, of the Temple Scroll, one of the most important of the Dead Sea writings.

In addition to the reliance on the 364-day calendar, common to the other scrolls, the Temple Scroll revealed before us an entire series of some four different 49-day "countings," extending throughout the summer months, each one terminating in a different festival of agricultural thanksgiving, not only for the barley, but also for the wheat, wine and (olive) oil. The centrality of the omer question to the world-view of the sect is thus seen to be more far-reaching than we had hitherto imagined, and it will probably be some time before we can understand its full significance.

Oral Law Doctrine

Why did the Pharisaic-Rabbinic tradition reject the simple literal interpretation of the Biblical text?

Actually, the Rabbis argue at length that their interpretation is the correct rendering of the passages in Leviticus, though their arguments are far from convincing. Such traditions are generally seen as an example of the "doctrine of the Oral Law," the characteristic ideology of the rabbis which states that the written Torah is not complete in itself, but must be modified and complemented by a living tradition transmitted by the authoritative interpreters in each generation.

In our instance, perhaps another factor is to be discerned as well. By beginning the count from the second day of Passover, we discover that the festival of Shavu'ot coincides with the day on which the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. It thus allows the transformation of the Feast of Weeks from a purely agricultural festival into a historical one which commemorates one of the central events in Israel's history.

In this respect as well, this understanding of Shavu'ot appears to be a typical "Oral Law" innovation of rabbinic Judaism, audaciously adding a new dimension of meaning to the tradition. Ironically the commemoration of the giving of the Written Torah can only be observed if we accept the dating supplied by the Oral Law tradition.

The study of Jewish history and traditions is still a vibrant endeavour, and further discoveries promise to add new insights into an ancient heritage.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication: JS, March 31 1988.