Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Behar 5765/ May 21, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

 

The Year of Nature, the Year of History, and Sefirat Ha-Omer

 

 Dr. Haim Burgansky

 

Department of Talmud

 

The biblical jubilee year, commanded in Parashat Behar, begins in the seventh month (Lev. 25:9), as do all the shemittah years in the cycle of sabbatical years, since the jubilee begins when the forty-ninth year of this cycle ends.  How can a year begin in the seventh month and not in the first?  Here the Torah teaches us about the reckoning of years which begins with the month of Tishre and concludes with the month of Elul, a reckoning which comes in addition to the familiar one known to us from the holiday calendar, in which the year begins in Nisan, the first month of the year (Ex.12:2).

How do these two types of year differ?   Rabbi Mordechai Breuer has suggested the following distinction: [1]

The year for the land and its fruits commences as the winter, the rainy season, begins…  Therefore the first of Tishre is the new year for most of the rules of halakhah that are integrally tied to the land…  Therefore also the creation of the world was completed on the first of Tishre  Therefore, also the years that we reckon from the creation of the world begin on the first of Tishre; for on this day Creation was completed and the first year of the earth commenced.

In apposition to this, the Israelite historical year begins on the first of Nisan, for the Israelites left Egypt in the month of Abib (the spring month)… Henceforth, all the years in Israelite history would be counted according to the reckoning of years from the exodus from Egypt.

Carrying this distinction further, we find that the entire system of lunar time, the system of dating used among the Jewish people, is tied to the year that commences with Nisan, for on the first of Nisan Moses was commanded regarding sanctification of the month, and with the exodus from Egypt the month of Nisan was established as “the beginning of months, … first of the months of the year” (Ex. 12:2).   Therefore in the Torah the sanctified times of the year are specified with reference to the month of Nisan:   the first month and the seventh month.

The Year of Weeks

The year that begins in Tishre, which is the year that we reckon from Creation, has a separate system of time that does not depend on sanctifying the new moon; this is the system of weeks, which was established with Creation and in which the seventh day is sanctified.   The system of sanctified times in the Hebrew calendar depends on the people of Israel who sanctify the special occasions, whereas the Sabbath of the weekly system does not depend on the people of Israel but exists and owes its sanctity to the Holy One, blessed be He, who blessed the Sabbath and consecrated it when He created the universe, many generations before the people of Israel were commanded to observe this day.

The National Year

Thus we could say that the year which begins in Nisan is the “Israelite” year, both in terms of is national-historical content and in terms of its dependence on the rabbinical courts of Israel that proclaimed and sanctified its sacred times and seasons.  This year has no existence without the people of Israel.   In contrast, the year that begins in Tishre is the year of nature, agriculturally matching the order of the seasons and existing independently of the people of Israel, ever since creation of the universe, with its sanctified times stemming from the seven days of Creation. [2]

Shemittah and the Sabbath

In light of this one can easily understand why the sabbatical year begins in the month of Tishre.   It is essential from the practical standpoint, since the sowing year begins in the fall; thus the sabbatical year covers an entire agricultural year.  Were the sabbatical year to begin in the month of Nisan, that would cause two agricultural years to be lost:  the produce of the seventh year would not be gathered by its owners, since the sabbatical year would have begun with the harvest season, but in the eighth year no sowing would be done, since that winter would be part of the sabbatical year.  Beyond the practical aspects, parallel ideas can be found between the cycle of sabbatical years and the cycle of Sabbaths.  The use of the word Sabbath with reference to the shemittah (=sabbatical) year, the double reasons given for the commandment of the sabbatical year, similar to the double reason for the commandment of the Sabbath, and especially the use of groups of seven years (Heb. shabbatot or “Sabbaths”) as the basis of the cycle and the sanctity of the seventh year – all these connect the cycle of the Sabbath with the cycle of the sabbatical year, creating a clear connection of ideas between the Sabbath day and the sabbatical year.  Thus the sabbatical year is tied to the creation of the world, in which the cycle of   seven was set as the basic cycle of time.  Therefore it is fitting for it to begin in the month of Tishre.

With this understanding of the two systems of time that exist in the Torah, and with the distinction between the Sabbath and sabbatical year, both of which belong to the time system associated with Creation, as opposed to the rest of the holidays, which belong to the system of time associated with the Exodus from Egypt, we can now take a second look at the Sages’ commentaries on the time set for beginning to count the Omer.

Sefirat Haomer and the Shemittah

One can hardly ignore the great similarity between counting seven groups of seven years, ending with the fiftieth year, and counting seven weeks, ending with the fiftieth day. [3]   Indeed, the plain sense of the text in Leviticus 23 draws a connection between counting the Omer and the system of Sabbaths associated with Creation:  “The priest shall elevate it on the day after the Sabbath...   from the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks ... until the day after the seventh week” (Lev. 23:11, 15-16).  Even Torah’s stipulation, that “you shall count off seven weeks.  They must be complete” (Lev. 23:15), alludes to the fact that the counting is done in a system of time associated with Creation, the system of weeks.  But if so, why did the Sages prefer to interpret the expression, “from the after the Sabbath” as meaning “from the day after the holiday,” thus separating the counting of the Omer from the system of time of Creation and ignoring the connection between counting the weeks of Omer and the seven-year cycles of the sabbatical year?

A Double List

Perhaps the answer lies in Parashat Emor, chapter 23, called “The Parasha of the Holidays” or, to be more precise, in the double title of the chapter.  At the end of verse 2 it says, “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:  These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.”  Verse three mentions the Sabbath, and then verse four surprisingly introduces another heading, similar to the first:  “These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time.”  Then the festivals are detailed in the following order:  Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread; the sheaf (Omer) of the day after the Sabbath; counting the Omer and the fiftieth day; the New Year; the Day of Atonement; the Feast of Booths and the eighth day of solemn gathering.

Notice that the function of the double heading is unclear and verse four seems superfluous; why is it needed after having been stated in the heading in verse two?

Looking at the structure of the chapter, we observe that the first heading covers all the holidays mentioned in the chapter, including the Sabbath, whereas the second heading does not pertain to the Sabbath but concerns the festivals from Passover on.  Comparing the two similar headings word for word, we see that verse two commands Israel to sanctify the Lord’s special occasions, [4] whereas verse four commands Israel to celebrate the holidays at their appointed time.   As we know, the Sages interpreted this as indicating that the holidays have no absolute time, but that appointing their time is in the hands of Israel’s rabbinical court; [5]   the holidays would fall according to the court’s proclamation of the new moon, whether or not they proclaimed the new month at its actual time. [6]   Such an instruction could not come at the beginning of the entire passage, for the passage also includes the Sabbath, which is tied to the system of time associated with Creation, whose sanctification is in the hands of Heaven and not in Israel’s hands.  Thus we see that the two headings serve different purposes; the first heading (v. 2) is general and commands Israel regarding sanctification of all of the Lord’s sacred occasions, including the Sabbath; whereas the second heading (v. 4) commands Israel to determine the actual time of celebration of the festivals, and this command does not include the Sabbath. [7]

The Day After Passover

Perhaps herein lies the key to understanding the Sages’ interpretation of the expression, “on the day after the Sabbath.”   If the Torah’s intention was literal, that the time for the Omer has to do with the cycle of weeks associated with Creation, then the passages on the Omer and counting the Omer should have been placed at the beginning on the chapter, along with the verse dealing with the Sabbath.  The heading of the entire chapter would be appropriate to these verses, as well, for this heading contains no instruction about setting the time of the festival, rather only instructions about its sanctification.  But since the Torah placed these passages about the Omer under the second heading, which commands the nation (in the rabbinic interpretation, the rabbinical court) to set the time when the festivals are to fall, we have no choice but to separate the time for the Omer from the cycle of time that depends on Creation and to transfer it to the cycle of time in which the dates depend on sanctification of the month as determined by the rabbinical court.  Making such a separation is possible only by disassociating the expression “on the day after the Sabbath” from the Sabbath that goes with Creation and associating it with the sanctified first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, whose consecration depends on sanctification of the month by the rabbinical court.

Now we can see that chapter 23 is indeed well-organized.  It begins with a general proclamation regarding sanctification of the two systems of time, the one dependant on the creation of the universe and the other having national-historical significance.  After mention of the Sabbath comes an additional proclamation obliging Israel to set times for the festivals that belong to the national cycle:   Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Omer and counting the Omer, etc.   Thus the Sages’ understanding of the dual system of the cycle of the year led them to disassociate counting weeks of Omer from counting seven-year cycles of Sabbatical years and to tie the Omer to the Passover festival, which gave rise to their interpretation of the expression, “on the day after the Sabbath,” as the day after Passover, when we begin counting the Omer.



[1] Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, Pirkei Mo’adot, Part II, second edition, Jerusalem 1989, pp. 493-494.

[2] Thus we could say that leap years are proclaimed because of the wish to coordinate the cycles of the two years, and therefore the Torah commanded that the festivals fall regularly during certain specific seasons.  In so doing the Torah linked the historical festivals with the natural year.  Perhaps the authors of Megillat ha-Mikdash, one of the Dead Sea scrolls, based their calendar, comprised of fifty-two complete weeks in which the holidays always fall on the same dates, on a similar understanding.  Thus the cycle of sanctified Sabbaths is coordinated with the cycle of sanctified festivals associated with the exodus from Egypt.   One must bear in mind that this was not a lunar calendar, and therefore these ideas require closer study.

[3] The association of the Feast of Weeks with the year tied to Creation also explains the absence of any historical explanation for this festival in the Torah.

[4] That is how one should interpret the commandment to proclaim a sacred occasion ( mikra kodesh ) on a specific day.  For example, see Rashi’s interpretation of Leviticus 23:35, s.v. mikra kodesh.

[5] See Sifra, Emor ch. 10.1.

[6] For example, see Babylonian Talmud, Rosh ha-Shanah 25a.

[7] Compare my suggestion to Nahmanides’ interpretation of Leviticus 23:2, s.v. davar.