Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Textual Confusion - Counting the Omer and Shavuot (Part 4)

As noted in earlier posts, the Torah itself indicates that Shavuot is an agricultural holiday commemorating the wheat harvest and involving a grain offering. However, the later rabbinic literature links the holiday to the giving of the Ten Commandments (or perhaps the whole Torah) on Mount Sinai. This claim is found nowhere in the Torah or any early literature, and the precise date of this event was disputed from an early period. Let's review the facts and then figure out what to make of them.

As noted in the second post in this series, Shavuot is 50 days after the day after "the shabbat" after the barley offering. One key question is what does "the shabbat" mean here. The answer gives us the date of Shavuot, or if we know the date of Shavuot, reasoning backwards will give us the date of "the shabbat."

"Shabbat" usually means the seventh day, sundown Friday night through sundown Saturday night. But in some contexts, it means a generic day of rest. For example, later in Leviticus 23 (the chapter mentioning the counting of the omer and Shavuot), the Torah calls Yom Kippur a "shabbat shabbaton" or a "sabbath of complete rest." (Lev. 23:32.) Similarly, Leviticus 25 discusses the sabbatical year, where no planting or sowing is permitted and the land is to rest. God commands that the land will keep a "sabbath" (Lev. 25:2) and calls it a "shabbat shabbaton".

Back in Leviticus 23, there are three holidays mentioned before the omer-counting passages. The first holiday listed is shabbat, and it is decreed to be a "shabbat shabbaton." (Lev. 23:3). The second holiday is Passover, and it is decreed to be a "mikrah kodesh" (or holy convocation) and no work is permitted. (Lev 23:7.) Importantly, even though no work is permitted, the day is note called a "shabbat." The third holiday is the seventh day after Passover, and this too is called a "mikrah kodesh," no work is permitted, and is not specifically called a "shabbat." (Lev 23:8.) Then the counting of the omer and Shavuot passages noted earlier occur (Lev 23:9 ff), and this counting is to start the day after "the shabbat". Which one?

There are three possibilities: (1) the normal Friday/Saturday shabbat, (2) Passover, and (3) the seventh day of Passover.

As a simple matter of textual interpretation, the first argument seems the strongest. After all, shabbat is the only day that is specifically called "shabbat." The second best argument is the third one. The holiday where no work is permitted that immediately precedes the omer counting command is the seventh day of Passover. The one the rabbis went with, Passover itself, is the weakest argument, at least as a purely textual matter. But of course there is a lot more to understanding the meaning of this passage than simply interpreting an ambiguous passage, and the historical tradition is quite important. I will look at that next.

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