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Emor 2011

What is the connection between this week’s Sedra, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Goths and the consolations of philosophy? And before anyone starts scrabbling through some of the more obscure passages in Emor, let me say that I plan to focus my remarks on some of the best-known verses in the sedra, in the section dealing with the festivals.

The passage which I propose to discuss is Vayikra 23: 10-11 &15-16:

"When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the kohen. He shall elevate the sheaf before God by your will; the kohen shall elevate it on the day following the Shabbat… And from the day following the Shabbat, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering, you shall count seven weeks. You must count until the day following the seventh week - fifty days, and then you shall bring an offering of new grain to God."



The day the Torah refers to as "the day following Shabbat" determines the scheduling of an entire array of mitzvot in the Jewish calendar. On that day itself, the Omer grain offering is waved, accompanied by its sacrifice. In Biblical times, the Omer offering marked the end of the period in which the new year's grain crop is prohibited. An Omer is a quantity, a dry measure of approximately 43.2 eggs, according to Rashi.

This offering had to be brought to the priest, and thereafter the owner and his family could begin eating from the new grain, ie barley at that time of the year. It was also the time at which the counting sequence of 49 days to Shavuot began. In the Torah, no date is ordained for Shavuot, only that it must be on the fiftieth day after the Omer was offered. So it was obviously of critical importance to get the right date for offering the Omer; otherwise Shavuot would be kept on the wrong date.

"When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest..."

So when did the Omer have to be brought? Here we immediately encounter a problem. The Torah states that the Omer shall be offered on “the day following the Shabbat”. So what is meant by the word Shabbat in this context? As many of you will know, there was a major dispute in Temple times over the meaning of the word “Shabbat” in this context. The Sadducees held that it should be taken literally, to mean the Shabbat of Pesach, whilst the Pharisees concluded that the word referred to the first day of Pesach.


Sadducees, Pharisees and Boethusians

Before looking at the implications and significance of this dispute, a short digression is needed to explain who the Sadducees and Pharisees were. The Sadducees (Tzedukim) were a sect of Jews who were active in Israel during the Second Temple period, starting from the 2nd century BCE through to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The sect was identified by Josephus with the upper social and economic echelon of Judean society. The Sadducees fulfilled various political, social and religious roles, including maintaining the Temple. Their sect is believed to have become extinct sometime after the destruction of  the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, but it may be that the later Karaites had some roots or connections with old Sadducee views.

The Pharisees (perushim, meaning "set apart") were at various times a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought among Jews during the Second Temple period under the Hasmonean dynasty (140–37 BCE). Conflicts between the Pharisees and the Sadducees took place in the context of much broader and longstanding social and religious conflicts among Jews dating back to the Babylonian captivity and exacerbated by the Roman conquest. One conflict was class, between the wealthy and the poor, as the Sadducees included mainly the priestly and aristocratic families. Another conflict was cultural, between those who favored hellenization and those who resisted it. A third was juridico-religious, between those who emphasized the importance of the Temple, and those who emphasized the importance of other Mosaic laws and prophetic values. A fourth, specifically religious, involved different interpretations of the Bible and how to apply the Torah to Jewish life, with the Sadducees recognizing only the written letter of the Torah and rejecting life after death, while the Pharisees held to Rabbinic interpretations additional to the written texts. Josephus indicates that the Pharisees received the backing and goodwill of the common people, apparently in contrast to the more elite Sadducees. Pharisees claimed prophetic or Mosaic authority for their interpretation of Jewish laws, while the Sadducees represented the authority of the priestly privileges and prerogatives. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE Pharisaic beliefs became the basis for Rabbinic Judaism, which ultimately produced the normative traditional Judaism that forms the basis for all contemporary forms of Judaism other than Karaism. Now here we come to yet a further digression. The Sadducees were not a homogeneous group, and around the later days of the Second Temple there appear to have been two principal sects of Sadducees, one the Sadducees proper and the other the Boethusians. At first I thought this must be a misreading of Boethiusians, ie followers of Boethius. And who, you may ask, was Boethius? He was a senator at the time the Ostrogoths overran Rome in the sixth century. The Goths overthrew the Romans, and Boethius was imprisoned and sentenced to death. Whilst awaiting his execution he wrote a well-known work entitled “The Consolations of Philosophy”. This was, for all practical purposes, the last great work of classical scholarship, the final flowering of a tradition which had started nearly a thousand years earlier with Socrates and Plato. Thereafter philosophy became largely Christian in content. Boethius’ work was very popular throughout the middle ages and is still available in all good bookshops today. However, it appears that I was wrong. The Boethusians (in Hebrew Beitusim) had nothing whatsoever to do with Boethius, who lived about 500 years later. The Boethusians were a splinter group of Sadducees, about whom very little is known. It is said that the son of Boethus was made the High Priest by Herod the Great and that for a hundred years afterwards, until the fall of the Temple, his descendants occupied the position of High Priest. Otherwise their sole claim to fame was their literalist reading of the verse referring to the day following the Shabbat as the basis for the Omer offering. In other words, if you were a Boethusian, you held that the Omer must be brought on the Sunday of Pesach, and it therefore followed that Shavuot must always fall on a Sunday. This view was condemned by the Pharisees as heretical, and by the time of the Talmud the rabbis were united in their interpretation that the day following the Sabbath must refer to the second day of Pesach. By then only the Karaites continued to support the Boethusian opinion, which they maintain to this day, but they too have always been regarded as heretics.


The Boethusian argument

Our position, like that of all mainstream Jewish communities, is to follow the Rabbinic tradition. But we have to accept that there is some logic to the alternative viewpoint. We regard the Omer counting as the bridge between the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, and we accept from tradition that the latter event took place 50 days after the beginning of Pesach. But that is never stated in the Torah. The Boethusians held that the link between Pesach and Shavuot is agricultural, and that what Emor is saying is that the barley offering is to be brought on the first Sunday of Pesach and that fifty days later the wheat harvest and firstfruits were brought as offerings on Shavuot. In other words, the Boethusians tended to see the festivals, based upon the language of this Parsha, as secular agricultural events, whereas Chazal and later commentators highlighted the spiritual dimension. So this is clearly a major disagreement which goes to the very heart of what the festivals are there to celebrate.


Rabbinic rebuttals

"that is to overlook the subtlety of the Rabbinic tradition ..."

You might think that by basing their approach on the actual words of the Torah, the Boethusians were on strong ground. But that is to overlook the subtlety of the Rabbinic tradition when it came to demonstrating that in this particular context Shabbat could not mean Shabbat. So what arguments did the Rabbis use to undermine their opponents? These are stated clearly in the Gemara (Menachos 65-66) as follows:

  1. The Torah commands us to count fifty days to Shavuot; but if the first day of Pesach falls on a Sunday (as it can do) the Omer cannot be brought that day so is brought on the following Sunday, in which case there would be 56 days, ie eight weeks, to Shavuot.
  2. If the Boethusians argue that the Omer on Pesach resembled the Two Loaves offered on Shavuot, it was inconsistent if the Omer was not brought as soon as possible on Pesach, ie on day 2.
  3. Shavuot must occur on a fixed day of the month (as required in verse 2 of this chapter), but this could not happen if there was no fixed date for beginning the count of the Omer.
  4. The Torah uses the phrase “You shall count for yourselves”, namely that the counting depends on the community, or more specifically the Bet Din which sets the festivals; if the counting were based on Shabbat, there would be no role for the Bet Din as everyone would know when Shabbat is.
  5. The Torah refers to the day after Shabbat, with no mention of Pesach; without the tradition handed down by the Rabbis there is no reason to select the Shabbat of Pesach. The verse itself could refer to any of the Shabbatot of the year.
  6. In this Sedra the commandment is to eat Matzot for seven days, whereas in the book of Devarim the commandment is to eat Matzot for six days. How do you reconcile the two? It means you can eat Matzot from the old crop for seven days, but you may eat Matzot from the new crop for only six days.

 Additional arguments put forward by later Rabbis include the fact that seven is a significant number for festivals: Pesach and Succot each have seven days; the counting of the Omer lasts seven weeks; the most important month for festivals is the seventh month; the Shemitta and Yovel occur respectively after seven years and seven times seven years. If we counted the days between Pesach and Shavuot differently, there would not always be seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. It is regarded as totally illogical not to have a set date for Shavuot, when every other festival has. And as the Sedra states: “These are the appointed seasons of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy gatherings” (v37). The word Moed indicates a fixed date, and it would be completely inconsistent to have a festival which had no fixed date.


Boethusian counter-arguments

Needless to say, the Boethusians had their responses to the arguments of the Rabbis. They claimed that nowhere else in the Torah is Shabbat used to refer to a festival. They also contested the view of the Rabbis that there are exactly 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, even though the Torah stated fifty days. According to the Sadducees there might be some years when there could be 50 days, but some years might have as many as 56 days. In the Mishna, it was suggested that the Torah reference to fifty days was a rounding of 49 days, in the same way that the Torah spoke of seventy souls coming down with Jacob to Egypt, even though the list contains only 69 names. The Rabbis also noted that elsewhere in Emor the text describes Rosh Hashana (v 24), Yom Kippur (v 32) and Succot (v 39) as Shabbaton or Shabbat Shabbaton, so there was no reason why Pesach could not also be described as Shabbat. Ibn Ezra suggested that it is possible that the Torah referred to the day after Shabbat because that was the second day of Pesach in the year when the Israelites kept their first Pesach in the desert. This view is reinforced by the fact that the showbread was set up on the day the Mishkan was erected, and that had to be done on a Shabbat. As this was the first of Nisan, it followed that that year the first day of Pesach was a Shabbat, so the Omer would have to be offered the following day, ie Sunday. 

You might ask why the Torah did not simplify matters by referring to “the day after Pesach” rather than Mimocharat Hashabbat”. But that might imply the day after the paschal offering was brought on Erev Pesach, ie 15 Nisan. Alternatively it might have referred to “the day after the festival”, but that might mean the day after the last day of the festival. It is probably to dispel any confusion that we count the Omer by saying, “Today is one day of the Omer”, rather than “Today is the first day of the Omer”. If we said the latter, it might well be understood to be referring to the first day of the week.


A further Rabbinic perspective

Rabbi Elchanan Samet at Yeshivat Har Etzion has suggested a further argument based on an overlooked word in the verse. "The kohen shall elevate the sheaf before God “li-retzonkhem”; the kohen shall elevate it on the day following the Shabbat." This term, "li-retzonkhem," literally, "for your will," appears with reference to an individual offering a sacrifice four other times in Sefer Vayikra (1:3, 19:5, 22:19, 22:29.The Sifra and Talmud explain the "will" in the verse as referring not to God's will, but to that of the individual.

However, while the other four appearances involve individual, voluntary sacrifices, our context deals with a mandatory offering brought by the nation as a whole. How can the Torah require that a mandatory offering be brought "by the will" of the entire nation? The Sifra explains this term as indicating that the community at large is not to be coerced with regard to the Omer offering. The obvious question, however, is, to what kind of coercion does this refer? The answer is that there is only one detail of this sacrifice that indeed depends upon the decision of the nation - its date. The nation determines when the barley harvest begins, and thus, by extension, when to bring the Omer offering. This interpretation yields the following reading of the verse: "He shall elevate the sheaf before God by your will," meaning, whenever you decide, so long as "the kohen shall elevate it on the day following the Shabbat." Which Shabbat it is that will precede the day of the Omer depends entirely upon the will and decision of the people. And how does the nation express that will? Through the Bet Din. So the requirement to bring the Omer on Sunday applies only when the date depends upon the subjective determination of the people. However, once the Bet Din established a permanent date for the Omer offering (on the sixteenth of Nissan), the flexibility afforded by the term "by your will" no longer exists. Therefore, there was no longer any need for the restriction of "the day following Shabbat."

Alternatively, the Torah's requirement that the Omer be offered on "the day following Shabbat" may simply require that the offering be brought on the day following a day when no work is performed. In other words, the interpretation of "Shabbat" is open-ended: it can mean either the seventh day of the week, or a day upon which we desist from work. Thus, "the day after Shabbat" is either Sunday or the day following a Yom Tov. When the day of the Omer is subject to flexibility, then the most reasonable day of cessation of work to determine the day of the Omer is Shabbat, the most frequent day of rest. With the establishment of a permanent date for the Omer, the halakha determined that the day of rest to precede this day would be the first day of Pesach. If so, then the conventional understanding that Chazal actually interpret the word "Shabbat" as "Yom Tov," is, in a certain sense, correct. The Torah here refers to a day upon which no work is performed, be it Shabbat or Yom Tov. In actuality, however, when the day of the Omer depended upon the people's decision, it occurred on Sunday, whereas once a fixed date was established, it is brought on the day following Yom Tov.



It is interesting to note that Chazal say in the Gemara that they established a festival when they were able to defeat the Beitusim. There were other disputes, particularly over the immortality of the soul and resurrection, which the Boethusians denied. So we cannot be sure what defeat the Boethusians sustained or when the festival occurred. But of one thing we can be very sure, our religious practices would have been very different had the Rabbis not prevailed. And for all that we may criticise some of the interpretations of the Torah adopted by the rabbis, a literal reading of the Torah would have made our lives infinitely more difficult and probably much less rewarding.


Neville Nagler         7th May 2011

More documents on this Parshah: