Appropriately enough, Parashat Emor finds us in the middle of the counting of the Omer, the countdown from Pessah to Shavuot.
|You shall count from the day after the Shabbat, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving, seven complete weeks. From the day after the seventh week you shall count fifty days; and then you shall present a new meal-offering to Hashem.
|וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה: שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה.
עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת, תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם; וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה, לַה׳.
We naturally associate this as the countdown to the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. And yet, our parasha characterizes it only in agricultural terms. In fact, the connection between Shavuot with the giving of the Torah is nowhere to be found in the Torah! The holiday is defined exclusively in relation to previous holidays—the end of the agricultural cycle which begins during Pessah. Shavuot was called the festival of the wheat harvest, Chag HaKatzir (Sh’mot 23:16) or a day for bringing first-fruits to the Temple, Yom HaBikkurim (BaMidbar 28:26), but not Z’man Matan Toratenu, the time of giving of the Law.
Moreover, the Torah doesn’t even specify a date for the holiday. Instead, we are just told to count seven weeks “from the day after the Shabbat, from the day on which you brought the Omer of offering,” and then celebrate the bringing of the first fruits.
The Torah: carved in stone or tree of life?
This absence of explicit instructions or explanations left plenty of room for interpretation, and the nature of the holiday became the subject of intense debate among rival factions during the time of Bayit Sheni. In fact, this controversy was part of a much larger debate which threatened to split the Jewish nation along sectarian lines. The split hinged on a major difference of opinion over the nature of Jewish society and its foundation texts: Is the Torah a fixed text, unchangeable for all time, or is it a living document meant to be reinterpreted in the light of changing circumstances?
The Tzadokim (Sadducees) took the more literal view: the Torah is a fixed document, given once and for all. Our sages, on the other hand, argued that the Torah is the tip of the iceberg, a shorthand reference to deeper strata of customs, legends, and traditions too voluminous to be written down. Since the tradition is built up, layer by layer, in every generation, the Torah is never really finished.
This debate was not only about the date of Shavuot; it was about who had the authority to legislate. The Tzadokim maintained that authority should be centralized around the cohanim; the rabbis argued in favor of a decentralized model, based on universal education and local legal traditions.
The day after the Shabbat
And so we come back to our Parasha. The text tells us to count seven full weeks from “the day after the Sabbath”. But which Sabbath? The Tzadokim took a literal view: Sabbath meant the actual Sabbath. We start counting on a Sunday and end on a Sunday seven weeks later. According to the fixed calendar used by the Tzadokim, this would put Shavuot on a full moon, in line with the natural cycle as befitting a harvest festival.
Our sages argued that the Torah can’t be understood without the Oral Law; there is a long unwritten tradition handed down for centuries, and that tradition identifies this “Sabbath” with the festival of Pessah itself. One starts counting on the day after the full moon of Passover, and Shavuot falls on the sixth of Sivan—the day of the giving of the Torah:
|The Sages taught: On the sixth of the month of Sivan, the Ten Commandments were given to the Jewish people. Rabbi Yosei says: On the seventh day of the month.
Rava said: Everyone agrees that the Jews came to the Sinai desert on the New Moon, as it is written here: “In the third month after the children of Israel had left the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai” (Shmot 19:1), without elaborating what day it was. And it is written there: “This month shall be to you the beginning of months” (Shmot 12:2). Just as there, the term “this” refers to the New Moon, so too, here the term refers to the New Moon. And similarly, everyone agrees that the Torah was given to the Jewish people on Shabbat, as it is written here: “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy” (Shmot 20:8), and it is written there: “And Moses said to the people: Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 13:3). Just as there, the mitzva of remembrance was commanded on the very day of the Exodus, so too, here the mitzva was commanded on the very day of Shabbat.
Where Rabbi Yosei and the Sages disagree is with regard to the determination of the month, meaning which day of the week was established as the New Moon. Rabbi Yosei held: The New Moon was established on the first day of the week, and on the first day of the week He did not say anything to them due to the weariness caused by the journey. On the second day of the week, He said to them: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Bavli Shabbat 86b
ת”ר בששי בחדש ניתנו עשרת הדברות לישראל רבי יוסי אומר בשבעה בו
אמר רבא דכולי עלמא בר”ח אתו למדבר סיני כתיב הכא (שמות יט, א) ביום הזה באו מדבר סיני וכתיב התם (שמות יב, ב) החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים מה להלן ר”ח אף כאן ר”ח ודכולי עלמא בשבת ניתנה תורה לישראל כתיב הכא (שמות כ, ז) זכור את יום השבת לקדשו וכתיב התם (שמות יג, ג) ויאמר משה אל העם זכור את היום הזה מה להלן בעצומו של יום אף כאן בעצומו של יום
כי פליגי בקביעא דירחא רבי יוסי סבר בחד בשבא איקבע ירחא ובחד בשבא לא אמר להו ולא מידי משום חולשא דאורחא בתרי בשבא אמר להו (שמות יט, ו) ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים
The lessons of the harvest
Rava’s explanation of R’ Yossei’s calculation contains a hint of something deeper: The Torah was given to Israel so that we would become a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. The Torah was not given only to the priests (as the Tzadokim argued) but to Am Yisrael as a whole.
In linking the Day of First Fruits with Matan Torah, our sages hinted at the meaning of Jewish history. Even after the Horban, when the first fruits could no longer be brought to the Mikdash, the Torah given on Shavuot continues to bear fruit.
And so the countdown from Pessah to Shavuot contains us a lesson about how we become a nation of priests. Just as seeds must be sown in prepared ground, nourished and watered and weeded, so the fate of nations and individuals is contingent upon law and justice. Deeds, like crops, eventually bear fruit. It is up to each of us to decide what sort of harvest we will reap.