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The Omer and Loaves Brought from the Coastal Plain
Avraham Sasson and Dr. Zohar Omer
Department of Land of Israel Studies
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 priest. He shall elevate the sheaf before the Lord for acceptance in your behalf; the priest shall elevate it on the day after the sabbath... Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your G-d, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears; it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements. And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering--the day after the sabbath--you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete; you must count until the day after the seventh week--fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:10-16)
Bringing the omer, or sheaf of elevation offering, and the two loaves of bread are commandments explicitly given in the Torah (Leviticus 23:9-21; Numbers 28:26-28). One the eve after the first day of Passover messengers from the court used to go to one of the barley fields near Jerusalem and in a festive ceremony would harvest a handful of barley which they then waved over the altar (Menahot 10.3).
The offering of two loaves of bread was made from the first wheat harvested on the Feast of Weeks. The omer ceremony on the 16th of Nisan permitted the people to eat from the fresh harvest of that year, whereas the offering of two loaves, the "offering of new grain," permitted using the new wheat and produce in the Temple (Menahot 10.6).
From where was the omer brought?
Scripture is not specific about the actual geographical details concerning the commandment of omer. This is only discussed in Rabbinic literature by the Sages. There it says that the omer and two loaves "must come only from the new crop and from within the Land of Israel" (Menahot 8.1).
To begin with, all the offerings brought had to be only from the choicest produce. "And which is the choicest? Michmas and Zanuchah [alt. Michmash and Yenochah] are the best quality of fine flour; second to them is Chafarayim in the valley. [The flour from] all parts [of the Land of Israel] was valid, but they used to bring it from these [three] places only" (Menahot 8.1). With respect to the omer, however, the Mishnah states explicitly that it had to be harvested "from near" (Menahot 10.2), from fields close to Jerusalem. The reason, in the words of the Sages, is that "performance of the commandments must not be postponed" (Menahot 64a), i.e., they should be fulfilled by that which is close at hand, with no delay. Another reason given there by the Sages is "on account of fresh ears." In other words, the omer had to be brought from soft grain (karmel) that could be crushed in the hand, and if it was brought from afar there was the danger that it would dry out in the breeze and become hard in transit.
The Talmud, in the name of Abba Shaul, mentions a specific place from which the omer was taken, namely "Beit Makleh Valley of Nahal Kidron" (Tosefta Menahot 10.21, Mandelkern ed., p. 528; Menahot 85b). It is generally agreed that this was a location very close to the Temple (Klein, 1934, 144-145; Ashbel, 1965, 29; Luria, 1984, 50).
The general rule set by the Sages was, "Omer must come only from Judea" (Sanhedrin 11b; Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 1.2, 18d; cf. Tosefta, Sanhedrin 2.3, p. 416: "Because of the first grain that comes from there"). Our underlying assumption is that in the late Second Temple period all of Judea was considered within the limits of the district of Jerusalem (Avi-Yonah, 1984, 98). Rashi also notes, "It is said that the omer is only to be brought from near Jerusalem, that is from Judea" (Sanhedrin 11b, s.v. "al shtayim me-hen"). In the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, the territory of the tribe of Judah included extensive areas that were well-suited to growing barley, as we read in the Midrash: "'[Jacob addressed] to each a blessing appropriate to him' (Genesis 49:28), parceling out the land to them, giving Judah land that grows barley, and Benjamin land good for growing wheat" (Tanhuma Va-Yehi, 17). This geographical fact is supported by other sources. For example, in the Book of Ruth barley is the main feature on the agricultural landscape of Judah. Therefore the barley that served for the omer was naturally taken from the region of Judea.
Mishnah Menahot (10.2), however, adds, "If [the barley growing] near Jerusalem were not yet ripe, it could be brought from any place. Once it was brought from Ginnot (alt., Gaggot) Tserifin, and the two loaves, from the Valley of En Socher."
It follows from the Mishnah that if barley and wheat were not to be found around Jerusalem, they could be brought from anywhere in the country; such as from Tserifin (Sarafand), which is near Lod, and En Socher, which today is generally thought to have been in Samaria. If we accept the general rule that the omer must be brought from Judea, however, then this text from the Mishnah must be interpreted differently.
Let us try to understand what was meant by "it could be brought from any place." Why did the Mishnah choose Tserifin and En Socher as examples of the exception? The key to understanding this question lies in correctly identifying En Socher.
Identifying Tserifin and En Socher
Most scholars, including the authors, believe that Tserifin mentioned in the Mishnah is Sarafand el-Amar, near present-day Ramla (135/151 on the map, within the army installation of Tserifin), which in the time of the Talmud lay in the district of Lydda. Indeed, the land around the Ono Valley and Lydda Valley was exceptionally fertile, causing the area to flourish and support steady settlement for many generations, until the present day. Grain cultivation was of great importance to the region, comprising about 50% of the crops up to modern times.
Scholars generally agree that the En Socher Valley should be identified with En Askar which is near Shechem. The New Testament also mentions a place called Socher as being near Shechem and inhabited by Samaritans (John 4:5). In the authors' opinion, locating mishnaic En Socher in the vicinity of Shechem raises several problems. Assuming that Tserifin and Gannot Socher are neighboring places, we beg to differ with most scholars and suggest that En Socher be identified somewhere near Lod. There is evidence of a settlement by this name having existed there at a later period. Two places are mentioned by Yakut (d. 1229) under the entry Askar in his geographical lexicon: one is Askar al-Zeitun near Shechem, generally agreed by most scholars to be En Socher; the other is Askar al-Ramla, on which he writes, "A neighborhood in the city of Ramla, which is a city in the [district] of Palestine and now is a ruin." We believe Askar al-Ramla to have been the site of En Socher mentioned in the Mishnah. During that period both En Socher and Tserifin were in the district of Lydda, whereas in the Arab period they were included in the district of Ramla.
Al-Muqadassi lists the city gates of Ramla in the tenth century, including a gate facing "Bir el-Askar," in our opinion, En Socher. The remains of Askar cannot be found today, since it had been destroyed by the early thirteenth century and was only known of by name.
The district of Lydda, which we suggest included En Socher, suits the bill in terms of its climate: it was a fertile area, where fruits and grain ripened early. Modern-day Lod is still known as a region with a hot continental climate, defined as semi-arid mesothermic. The maximum monthly average temperatures are registered in the transitional seasons of spring and fall. This means these conditions pertained in the month of Nisan, when early-ripening wheat was sought for the omer offering and the two loaves. According to Ashbel, the climate around Lod is closest to optimal for growing barley. The winter lows are around 7-9 ºC, and the spring, about 30 ºC.
In our opinion, one must distinguish between Socher near Shechem, mentioned in the New Testame, and En Socher, mentioned in the Mishnah. The Sages, it appears, went to great efforts to stress the centrality of Jerusalem, as against the Samaritan approach (cf. John 4:20, continuing the story that takes place in Socher near Shechem), and therefore they preferred that the omer be brought "from any place" within the limits of Jerusalem, even from its farthest boundaries, and if there was no alternative, from the outlying towns on its borders. This is the 'exceptional example' that the Mishnah cites. Tserifin and Socher, in the Lod-Modi'in area, represented examples of places far from Jerusalem; in other words, they lay on the far western reaches of Jerusalem, near the district's borders.
There are several sources from which we may deduce that the Lod-Modi'in region was considered the outer limits of the district of Judea or Jerusalem. These include:
1) "The fruit of a vineyard in its fourth year had to be brought up to Jerusalem if distant up to a day's journey. And what was its limit? ... Lydda to the west" (Ma'aser Sheni 5.2). "It is taught: Rabbi Eliezer had a vineyard in its fourth year east of Lydda, by Kefar Tabi..." (Betza 5a).
2) The valley region of Judea is defined by R. Johanan as extending "from Lydda to the sea" (Jerusalem Talmud, Shevi'it 9.42).
3) "Whoever was unclean or was away on a far-off journey and had not observed the First Passover, must observe the Second... What is meant by a distant journey? From Modi'im and beyond and the like measure in all directions" (Pesahim 9.1-2).
4) "From Modi'in and inwards they were considered trustworthy regarding earthenware utensils, but from Modi'in outwards they were not trusted" (Hagigah 3.5).
On the basis of these source we may state more precisely that the term "near" (qarov) means within the limits of Jerusalem, and "far" (rahoq) means beyond Jerusalem's limits. Similarly, the term "inwards," mibbifnim, meaning within the limits of Jerusalem, whereas "outwards," mibbahutz, means beyond the district's limits. According to this interpretation we can better understand the following quote from the Mishnah and Talmud, which we present with explanatory interpolations:
Mishna Menahot 10,2:The rite enjoined for the omer is that it should come from near [= the city of Jerusalem]. If that near Jerusalem were not yet ripe, it could be brought from any place [within Jerusalem's limits]. Once [in an exceptional case], it was brought from Ginnot Tserifin, and the two loaves from the Valley of En Socher [=places far from the Jerusalem city limits]. Menahot 64b: The Rabbis taught: when the Hasmonean kings were fighting each other, and Hyrcanus was without [Jerusalem's limits] and Aristobulus within [Jerusalem], ... we learn about that [exceptional] time, that once the omer was brought from Ginnot Tserifin, and the two loaves from the Valley of En Socher.
According to our approach, one can draw four concentric circles indicating from where the grain may be brought for the omer and the two loaves. The first circle is "from near," meaning the area close to the Temple Mount, namely the "Beit Makleh Valley of Nahal Kidron." The second circle marked the general limits of Jerusalem or Judea, extending as far as the vicinity of Lod-Modi'in. Grain from this region was brought only if it had not ripened closer. This circle preserves the principle of the omer having to come from Judea, "since omer does not fulfill the requirement of being the choicest unless it comes from Judea" (Rashi on Sanhedrin 11b, s.v. "u-vi-zman she-Yehudah ehad"). Only under exceptional circumstances was grain brought "from afar," meaning from beyond Jerusalem's limits.
Even in these cases great efforts were made to bring the omer and two loaves from the closest localities to the limits of Jerusalem. For example, Tserifin and En Socher, which are within the district of Lydda, are geographically adjacent to Jerusalem; thus this comprises the third circle. As we have noted, these two places are near one another, in an area which on one hand is fertile and on the other, ripens its produce early in the season. The proximity of these two localities to the road from Jerusalem to Jaffa was another advantage, for the omer had to reach Jerusalem without delay. Moreover, the region of Lydda was considered next in importance after Jerusalem, as we read in a later Midrash which might reflect more ancient times: "The Mishneh" (Zeph. 1:10) means Lydda, which was second [mishneh] to Jerusalem. (Pesikta Rabbati 8)
In conclusion, The Lod Valley, including Tserifin and En Socher, during the historical period under consideration were part of the land of Judea. Thus the principle of bringing the omer only from Judea was preserved. After the fact, if the omer could not be brought from the Lydda valley, it could be brought from anywhere within the Land of Israel -- the fourth circle.
Most scholars identify En Socher as being near Shechem, in reference to the place from which the two loaves were brought. Instead of this "traditional" identification, we suggest another approach according to which En Socher is near Tserifin, in the district of Lydda. This theory resolves several difficulties that follow from the traditional identification and offers a more incisive understanding of the Mishnah. There is a halakhic consequence to our theory, namely the principle that one must strive to bring the offering from near Jerusalem, since the omer must be brought only from Judea.