Parshat Emor: When Does The Omer Begin? National Historical Memory and Contemporary Society

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וּקְצַרְתֶּם אֶת קְצִירָהּ וַהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת עֹמֶר רֵאשִׁית קְצִירְכֶם אֶל הַכֹּהֵן: וְהֵנִיף אֶת הָעֹמֶר לִפְנֵי ה’ לִרְצֹנְכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת יְנִיפֶנּוּ הַכֹּהֵן… וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה: עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַה’:

(ויקרא כג, ט-יא; טו-טז)

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the Land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, you shall bring to the kohen an omer of the beginning of your reaping. And he shall wave the omer before the Lord so that it will be acceptable for you; the kohen shall wave it on the day after the rest day… And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering, seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord.

(Vayikra 23:9–11; 15–16)

In these verses, the Torah commands us regarding the waving of the omer and the counting of seven complete weeks immediately following that ceremony. Scripture does not mention an explicit date on which the omer should be brought and after which the counting should begin. The timing is stated in terms of the morrow of the rest day, i.e., the day after the rest day.

All halakhic opinions link the bringing of the omer with the Passover festival. The Sages determined that the rest day mentioned by Scripture refers to the first day of Passover, meaning that the counting of the omer begins on the sixteenth of Nisan. The Boethusians held that the morrow of the rest day is Sunday, and determined that the omer should be waved on the first Sunday following the seventh day of Passover.  According to their sectarian calendar, that day always falls on the twenty-fifth of Nisan and the Shavuot festival follows seven weeks later, on the fifteenth of Sivan.

HarvestA rereading of these verses reveals the possibility of an alternative interpretation. According to the order of the verses here and in Parashat Re’eh, the omer offering is made sometime after Passover. The ambiguous expression, day after the rest day, implies that the omer will be offered in accordance with the timing for the beginning of the harvest on each particular year, and not on some fixed date. This also is suggested by the parallel passage in Devarim 16:9: from [the time] the sickle is first put to the standing crop, you shall begin to count seven weeks.

Every year has its particular yield, and every year has its particular time of harvest; therefore, no fixed date is given for the performance of the commandment. The omer offering and the harvest festival are essentially linked to agriculture. The omer marks the beginning of the harvest, and when the work is concluded fifty days later, the offering of the two loaves is made on Shavuot.

Passover, on the other hand, reflects the pastoralist’s life. The laws of Passover always appear in conjunction with the laws of animal births, whose season ends with the coming of spring. Shepherding expresses a deep connection with the generation of the patriarchs: Your servants are shepherds, both we and our forefathers (Bereishit 47:3), a fact that distinguished them from the Egyptians: all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians (Bereishit 46:34). In this context, the Passover festival becomes especially identified with the community of shepherds who are blessed in its season with newborn lambs and who view themselves as the natural continuation of the patriarchs.

The Oral Torah places the omer offering within the Passover holiday, on the sixteenth of Nisan.  This date precedes the harvest time by several weeks, making the link to the harvest festival a forced one. If so, why did the Sages agree to celebrate the omer offering during Passover?

I believe that the Sages’ tradition brings new significance to the timing of the holidays. According to the Written Torah, the harvest celebration occurs on the day after the rest day, while the Oral Torah comes and establishes it within Passover. It is thanks to this ruling that we do not distinguish between the festival of the shepherds and that of the agriculturalists. This move combines the historical identity of a shepherding people with the new identity it gained upon entering the Land – an identity involving agriculture. The Sages took pains to find grain that can ripen by Passover, thus rounding out the picture of the spring festival.

Here the Oral Torah offers us a possible model for preserving the nation’s historical memory while maintaining a lively dialogue with new identities that have formed in contemporary society.

This D’var Torah was originally published in Rav Bigman’s The Fire and the Cloud (Gefen Publishing, 2011, www.gefenpublishing.com), and appears here with permission.

 

Rav David Bigman
Rav David Bigman, a member of Beit Hillel, is Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, having previously served as Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati Ein Tzurim, and as Rabbi of Kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa. He was one of the founders of Midreshet HaBanot b’Ein Hanatz”iv. He is active in issues pertaining to society and halacha, as well as dialogue between secular and religious Israelis.
 

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