Monday, June 6, 2011

The Historical Confusion - Counting the Omer and Shavuot (Part 5)

In the previous post, I discussed the textual confusion about the date of the omer-counting and Shavuot. The historical record is similarly muddled. Let's start with what the Torah says about the date of the giving of the Ten Commandments and then see how early Jewish communities understood this

The Torah never states the date of the giving of the revelation at Mount Sinai. The Torah explains that the Exodus from Egypt took place on the 14th day of the first month. (Exod. 12:17-18.) After crossing the Reed Sea, the Israelites went to Elim (Exod. 15:27), then to the "wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month." (Exod. 16:1.) ("Sin" is a Hebrew word, not the English word.) After an indeterminate stay, they then went to Rephadim. (Exod 17:1.)

Exodus 19:1 then states, "In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai." It is not clear what "the same day" of a month means, although it arguably means the first day of the third month (later called Sivan). They then camped before Mount Sinai for some indeterminate amount of time (Exod. 19:2). Moses speaks with God (Exod. 19:3), then speaks with the people (Exod. 19:7-8), and then speaks with God again (Exod. 19:9-11). God tells Moses to tell the people to ready and on the third day, he will come down. (Exod. 19:11.) It is not clear from the text how much time this camping, and speaking took, but in any case the people do what they are told, and God appears on the third day. (Exod. 19:16.)

The rabbinic tradition is that the revelation on Mount Sinai occurred on Shavuot, which was 50 days after the second day of Passover, or (after some arithmetic, left as an exercise for the interested reader) on the 6th of Sivan. But as noted in earlier posts, this does not directly follow from the text. Shavuot in the Torah is an agricultural holiday and (unlike Passover) is not linked at all to the
revelation on Mount Sinai (0r anything else, for that matter), and in fact its date---seven weeks and one day after "the shabbat"---is also not clearly specified.

Given this, it is not surprising that there were early alternative traditions as to this date and the dating of Shavuot. The book of Jubilees was probably written in the second century BCE. It begins, "And it came to pass in the first year of the exodus of the children of Israel out of Egypt, in the third month, on the sixteenth day of the month" that God tells Moses to come up to Mount Sinai. The book later put Shavuot in the middle of the third month (and states that Isaac was born on this day): "And she [Sarah] bare a son in the third month, and in the middle of the month, at the time of which the Lord had spoken to Abraham, on the festival of the first fruits of the harvest, Isaac was born." This puts Shavuot 10 days later than the traditional rabbinic account, and thus the counting of the omer began 10 days after the traditional day, or on the 25th of the first month. Apparently, the author of Jubilees used a solar calendar where days fell on the same day of the week, and the 25th of the first month was the Sunday after the last day of Passover.

The later Christians adopted a similar understanding, putting the holiday of Pentecost at 50 days after Easter. Counting Easter Sunday as the first day, that put Pentecost on a Sunday, seven weeks later. But in the conventional account, the first Easter was the Sunday after the first day of Passover which was on Thursday night / Friday day, not the Sunday after the last day of the 7-day Passover week, as suggested by Jubilees.

The Talmud contains a debate regarding this issue. In Menachot 65a-66a, the Mishnah describes an elaborate procedure for the barley offering, and then asks why this procedure was necessary. "Because of the Boethusians who maintained that the reaping of the omer was not to take place at the conclusion of the [first day of the] festival." (The Boethusians were a sect that was related in some way to the Sadducees.) Thus, the Boethusians, like the Christians, placed the beginning of the omer counting on the Sunday after the first day of Passover, not the day after the second day of Passover.

The Gemara then picks up on this debate. One foolish old Boethusian (described that way in the Talmud) offers a silly argument for Shavuot being on a Sunday (and thus "the shabbat" being on Saturday), and R. Yochanan ben Zakkai responds by calling him a "fool" and offering a weak but possibly sarcastically made argument. The Gemara then offers four other arguments for "the shabbat" being the second day of Passover, none of which are very persuasive.

The obvious dispositive counter-argument is that if Shavuot had in fact commemorated the revelation at Mount Sinai, then it would be on whatever day the revelation at Mount Sinai occurred. If that was on the sixth of Sivan, then that's when it was. But no one in the Gemara makes this argument, presumably because the Boethusians either (1) did not believe that Shavuot commemorated the giving of the Ten Commandments, or (2) did not believe that the date was the sixth of Sivan.

In Louis Finkelstein's book "The Pharisees", he picks up on this debate. (Chapter VII.B, pp. 115-118.) He notes that "nothing could be more trivial than such a debate" and correctly explains that "[t]he Biblical verses in Leviticus which give the provisions of the law are concededly ambiguous." He then notes that the Pharisees linked Shavuot to the revelation at Sinai. They were more separated from agriculture than the Sadducees and more interested in history and the Law. The Sadducees, on the other hand, did not believe the holiday had any historical significance, and they were more attuned to the agricultural aspect of the holiday.

The historical upshot is this. Neither the fixing of the beginning of the omer counting (and equivalently, the date of Shavuot) or the link between Shavuot and the revelation at Sinai are based on the text of the Torah. Both were the subject of considerable debate in the period before the Talmud was written.

One can certainly believe that there was a reliable unbroken oral traditional going back to Sinai that established both the relevant dating and the link between Shavuot and the revelation at Sinai. But if one does not believe this, then it the holiday must have evolved in the thousand years before the Talmud was written. The holiday initially began as an agricultural festival, vaguely set at 50 days after an initial barley offering. The omer counting was either just a way of establishing this date or perhaps required actual counting. But over time, the date became fixed, the actual counting of days became required, and this agricultural holiday was linked to the revelation at Sinai.

In future posts, I will look at how Jews have created more layers of meaning attached to the counting of the omer, including most importantly the mystical sefirot.

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