Friday, May 13, 2005

Emor: Rabbinic Mathematics

[Note: I've altered this post somewhat since Shabbat. Persons by the name of Meredith are requested not to read the footnote.]

Today is the 19th day, that is, two weeks and five days in the counting of the Omer.

The commandment to count the omer (sheaves of wheat), in both days and weeks, comes from a literal reading of Lev. 23:15-16:

You shall count off seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, the day after you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation. You shall count until the day after the seventh Sabbath, a total of fifty days; then you shall offer new grain to the Lord.

Although the sheaves and grain can no longer be offered, rabbinic tradition retains the practice of counting these forty-nine days, which are followed, on the fiftieth day, by a festival (Lev. 23:21), elsewhere called Shavuot. However, unlike Sadduceean, Christian, and Karaite traditions, which interpret the phrase “the day after the Sabbath” literally, rabbinic tradition mandates that the count begin on the second night of Passover (the first day being a “holy convocation,” a sort of pseudo-Sabbath). Last year, I finally heard an explanation for this counter-intuitive interpretation: the Rabbis wanted Shavuot to fall on the sixth day of the month of Sivan, the day of the Sinai theophany. While all three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot) have agricultural and pastoral connotations, the Torah also associates Passover with the Exodus from Egypt and Sukkot with the journey through the wilderness. Only Shavuot is not anchored to Israel’s religious history. By making Shavuot “the day of the giving of our Torah,” the Rabbis made the holiday more durable: it could continue to have meaning when Jews no longer had a temple at which to offer sacrifices and had ceased to live in agricultural and pastoral communities.

This is all very well, except that the Torah does not explicitly state that the Israelites received the Torah on the sixth of Sivan. Exodus 19:1 does seem to suggest that they arrived in the Wilderness of Sinai on the first of Sivan (so Rashi), but the amount of time that elapsed between their arrival and the public theophany is unclear.* All that we know is that some time after the Israelites set up camp at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses instructed them to devote three days (inclusive of the day on which the instruction was issued) to preparation for an encounter with God. In keeping with the tradition that this encounter occurred on the sixth of Sivan, the instructions must have been issued to the Israelites on the fourth day of the same month. Are there any textual clues on which the rabbis might have drawn to support the idea that precisely four days elapsed between the encampment and Moses' instruction?

Ibn Ezra suggests that Moses made two separate trips up and down the mountain in the period between the first and fourth days of Sivan: first, to have a conversation with God about the laws that the Israelites were about to receive (Ex. 19:3-6), which he later relayed to the people (Ex. 19:7-8), and then to have a second conversation with God regarding the three days of preparation (Ex. 19:9-13), which he also relayed to the people (Ex. 19:14-15). If each conversation occurred on a distinct day, the following chronology can be deduced:

1 Sivan: Arrival; Moses' first conversation with God (Ex. 19:3-6)
2 Sivan: Moses' first conversation with the people (Ex. 19:7-8)
3 Sivan: Moses' second conversation with God (Ex. 19:9-13)
4 Sivan: Moses' second conversation with the people (Ex. 19:14-15); Beginning of three days' preparation
5 Sivan: Preparation continues
6 Sivan: Israelites receive the commandments (Ex. 19:16-)

Does this interpretation provide sufficient reason for the rabbis to have chosen their interpretation of the laws regarding the counting of the omer? Or is it, rather, the sort of interpretation that would have arisen after the date for the receiving of the Torah had been fixed at the sixth of Sivan? I fear the latter, which is rather disappointing, as it leaves me with no explanation for the rabbinic interpretation of Lev. 23:15-16.

Two alternative explanations emerged from conversations that I had over Shabbat, but I’m not sure what I think of them:

1. The rabbis wanted Shavuot to fall at the earliest possible date. This may because (as Ibn Ezra suggests) only a brief period seems to have elapsed between the arrival at the Wilderness of Sinai and the theophany. (My reservation: Ex. 19:11-6 allows for multiple interpretations. The Rabbis could have easily decided that Moses’ interactions with God and the Israelites took longer than four days.)

2. The Rabbis wanted Shavuot to fall on a particular calendar date, which could be more easily associated with the theophany than a date that varied according to the year. (My reservation: prior to the fixing of the Jewish calendar, Shavuot could fall on either the fifth or the sixth of Sivan. Is there, then, such an advantage to setting the beginning of the counting of the omer at the second night of Passover?)


*In fact, the narrative sequence is quite convoluted, evidence of the multiple authorship of this pericope. That does not concern me here, however; right now, I am only interested in the rabbinic interpretation of the text, which takes for granted that the narrative is a coherent whole.


shanna said...

Could it have been as simple as reinforcing a practice that differs from the practices of the Saducees?

Also (and I know I'm not making this up but I can't for the life of me remember where I heard it), isn't there something saying that the Torah was originally given on Shabbat? And Shavu'ot (the sixth of Sivan, that is) can never fall on Shabbat given our current calendar system, since then the following Hoshana Raba will also be on Shabbat and we can't have that. Kind of ironic. The fixed calendar also has the irony of 25 Elul (which is the first day of Creation in the seven-day story, in order to have Rosh Hashana = sixth day) never falling on Sunday.

elf said...

I suppose it could be that simple, although I still find the rabbinic interpretation awfully counter-intuitive.

Your second point is interesting. It occurred to me that a literal intepretation of the verses would conflict with the midrash that the Torah was given on Friday night, but I didn't realize that the same problem results from the fixed calander system. In any case, I don't know the source for midrash, either, and I have no idea whether it preceded or succeeded the idea that the Torah was given on Shavuot.

mmbbhk said...

There is a dispute of Tannaim about whether the revelation at Sinai occurred on the sixth or seventh of Sivan (R. Akiva holds that it happened on the seventh, which fits in with the Exodus being on Thursday morning and the revelation being on Shabbat. I don't remember who held the other position, but I want to say R. Yosi). This machlokes appears in several sugyot in the Talmud (for instance, somewhere in the first few dapim of Yoma; I don't have a Shas nearby), and in each case the Gemara takes care to resolve the problem according to both opinions. By this point, the laws of sefira and Shavuot were quite fixed, which seems to contradict your idea that they were rigged to make Shavuot fall on the sixth.
The Xtians interpret the "day after the Sabbath" verse to mean that Passover must always fall on the Sabbath (i.e. that Easter must be on Sunday). This is not an organic tradition that they hold, but a change made intentionally to prevent Easter from falling on the same night as Passover; they moved their sabbath to Sunday for similar reasons. Furthermore, this interpretation was not accepted by a significant minority of Xtians for quite a while; Bede the Venerable in the ninth century is obsessed with denouncing those who believe "like the Jews do" that Easter can fall on any day of the week.

As long as we're on the topic, happy Pentecost to everyone. In Germany, where I am at the moment, this is a national holiday and the country is shut down. I wonder what percentage of the population has any idea what Pentecost is.

Yaltie said...

I'm so grateful that I don't know the definition of "pericope".

I didn't mean to read the footnote, but I had to in order to find the comment section.

elf said...

Thanks for the info., mmbbkh. I think it's time to lay this theory to rest. Fun exercise, though.

Josh said...

Actually, I'll be dealing w/these issues in my tikkun shiur which I'm planning on blogging.

elf said...

Cool! Looking forward.

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