The Festival of the Harvest

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Festival of the Harvest

By Rav Michael Hattin




            Parashat Emor begins with a series of injunctions directed towards the Kohanim or Priests.  With the exception of the seven immediate relatives (father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, spouse) whose death rites they may attend, the Kohanim are otherwise to refrain from any contact with corpse Tuma that would temporarily disqualify them from serving at the Mishkan.  Additionally, and like the rest of their Israelite brethren, they are to avoid extreme mourning practices such as plucking the hair of the head or gouging the skin.  In short, they must strive to be "holy to their God.  They must not profane the name of their God, for their offer God's sacrifices and must therefore be holy" (Vayikra 21:6). 


            While the first half of our Parasha addresses the Priests, the second half speaks of the holiday cycle.  The Sabbath and the Pilgrim Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are spelled out, as are the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  In addition to detailing the special ritual observances of each of the days, the Torah also indicates the requisite sacrifices to be presented at the Mishkan, thus linking the discussion with the more general context of the "Priestly Code."  This week, we will consider the observance of Shavuot, here called the Festival of the First Fruits. 


            Unique among the holidays spelled out in the Torah, the exact calendar date of Shavuot is not indicated, and instead it is calculated according to the date of Passover.  The precise determination of the festival's date was the subject of great disagreement during the middle of the Second Temple period and onwards, and pitted the Rabbinic leadership of the people against opposing elements that rejected what they regarded as unwarranted "tampering" with the plain meaning of the text of the Torah.  In fact, this conflict between the Sages and the so-called Sadducees presaged many later battles between those who championed the existence of an "Oral Tradition" and those who demurred.  It should be pointed out that according to ancient and well-founded traditions, the Revelation at Sinai, the Giving of the Torah to the people of Israel, took place on Shavuot, although as we shall see this is not stated explicitly in the text of the Torah.




These are the appointed times of God, times of sacred assembly, that you shall proclaim at their appointed time.  In the first month, on the fourteenth day at evening, is Passover to God.  On the fifteenth day of this month, the festival of Matzot to God, you shall eat matzot for seven days.  On the first…and seventh day shall be a time of sacred assembly, you shall do no manner of work…


God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: when you enter the land that I give you and harvest its grain, you shall then present an omer measure of the first grain to the Kohen.  He shall wave the omer before God to be accepted, on the morrow of the "Shabbat" the Kohen shall wave it…You shall not eat bread (from new grain), roasted or fresh grain, until this very day, until you bring this sacrifice to your Lord.  It is an eternal statute for all generations in all of your habitations.


From the morrow of the "Shabbat," from the day that you present the omer of waving, you shall count seven complete "Shabbatot."  Until the morrow of the seventh "Shabbat" you shall have counted fifty days, and then you shall offer a new meal offering to God.  From your habitations you shall bring two loaves of waving, made of two-tenths (of an efah) of fine wheat meal, they shall be baked with leaven, the first of the harvest offered to God…On this very day you shall proclaim a sacred assembly, you shall do no manner of work.  It is an eternal statute for all generations in all of your habitations.   When you harvest the grain of your land you shall neither completely harvest the ends of the field, nor take the stalks that have fallen.  Rather, you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger, for I am God your Lord. (Vayikra 23:4-22).




            This lengthy passage, taken from the larger context of the holiday cycle, describes the observance of the Passover, and the "Harvest Festival" that follows it.  The former is to be ushered in on the 14th day of the first month at evening with the offering of the Paschal Lamb, and the holiday continues for an additional period of seven days, during which time only matzot may be consumed.  The Passover observance, marked by a cessation of labor on the 15th day of the month, is succeeded on the morrow by an offering of an omer of new grain of barley, an amount equal to about 2.2 liters.  This barley offering is significant, for it permits consumption of the new harvest, "bread, roasted or fresh grain."


            The omer offering ushers in a period of seven weeks that are to be assiduously counted one day at a time.  The conclusion of the count, the fiftieth day, is also commemorated by an offering of new grain, this time in the form of two leavened loaves of wheat.  Additionally, this fiftieth day is celebrated as a festival characterized by the prohibition of labor. 


            Taken together, it is clear that Pesach as well as the festival of the first fruits both pivot around the agricultural event of the grain harvest. The seven-week count begins with a barley offering and concludes with a wheat offering.  The former begins to ripen in early Spring (i.e. the time of the Passover observance) while the latter ripens later, towards the onset of the hot summer months when the fruits of the tree are also making their appearance.  The centrality of the harvest theme that colors the season is emphasized by the parenthetical legislation concerning the "ends of the field and the fallen stalks" that are to be left for the poor when the fields are cut.


            The linkage between Pesach and Shavuot is therefore an intrinsic and organic one.  These two festivals are not simply strung together by an artificial counting of weeks.  Rather, they are integrally related through the process of the grains reaching maturation.  At the same time, the Torah's injunction to "count the weeks" is similarly not an arbitrary contrivance but rather an astute reading of the anxiousness of the season.  Every day that uneventfully passes brings the grain crops one day closer to safely completing their development.  No wonder that the binary nodes of the omer and the wheat loaves, effectively delineating between themselves the duration of the spring season, both function as enablers for the consumption of the new grain.  It is as if the Torah implores us to recognize that the blessing of the new crops is solely the product of God's beneficial intervention.  We cannot partake of the new grains without first acknowledging God's pivotal role in nurturing and sustaining them.




            Notwithstanding the simplicity and elegance of the above, there is a serious difficulty with which the Biblical text presents us in its discussion of the festival.  According to the verses quoted earlier, the count of weeks is to commence on the day of the presentation of the omer, this being the "morrow of the Shabbat":


…when you enter the land that I give you and harvest its grain, you shall then present an omer measure of the first grain to the Kohen.  He shall wave the omer before God to be accepted, on the morrow of the "Shabbat" the Kohen shall wave it…You shall not eat bread (from new grain), roasted or fresh grain, until this very day, until you bring this sacrifice to your Lord.  It is an eternal statute for all generations in all of your habitations.


From the morrow of the "Shabbat," from the day that you present the omer of waving, you shall count seven complete "Shabbatot."  Until the morrow of the seventh "Shabbat" you shall have counted fifty days, and then you shall offer a new meal offering to God.  From your habitations you shall bring two loaves of waving, made of two-tenths (of an efah) of fine wheat meal, they shall be baked with leaven, the first of the harvest offered to God…On this very day you shall proclaim a sacred assembly…(Vayikra 23: 10-21).


            While traditionally the "morrow of the Shabbat" has been taken to mean "the morrow of the first day of Pesach," so that the count commences on the 16th day of Nissan, this is by no means obvious.  The reading depends, of course, on interpreting "Shabbat" here not as the Sabbath but rather as a "day of cessation from labor."  While the term "Shabbat" is sometimes used in this fashion in the Torah (see for example Vayikra 23:22 in the context of Yom Kippur) it is more often used in accordance with its usual meaning as the Sabbath day.  This is in fact how the Sadducees of the Second Temple period interpreted the expression, therefore determining that the fifty day count was always to commence and conclude on a SUNDAY!


            The commentaries early and late, beginning with the Aramaic Targum (2nd century, Israel) and continuing chronologically with Rav Sa'diah Gaon (10th century, Babylon), Rashi (11th century, France), Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), Ramban (13th century, Spain), Chizkuni (14th century, Spain) and the moderns until our own era, labored mightily to establish the Rabbinic tradition concerning the meaning of "Shabbat."  But even their best arguments failed to dispel any and every doubt concerning the veracity of alternative interpretations.  In the final analysis, how one understands the term "Shabbat" in the verse in question is entirely a function of how one relates to the Oral Tradition and its authenticity.




            In the popular imagination, especially insofar as the festival of Shavuot is observed in the Diaspora, the primary character of the holiday does not relate to the harvest but rather is a function of its designation as the anniversary of the day on which the Torah was given.  In this respect, Shavuot resembles the other pilgrim festivals, each of which preserves a similar dual character: Pesach, the festival of the Spring and the ripening of the barley, also commemorates the Exodus from Egypt.  Sukkot, the festival of the autumnal ingathering of the products of the field and the end of the agricultural cycle, commemorates the period of Israel's wilderness sojourns when they dwelt in booths.  In other words, each of the holidays has both a seasonal as well as an historical aspect.  But whereas the historical events associated with Pesach and Sukkot are spelled out explicitly in the text of the Torah, the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah as events that took place on Shavuot are not stated.  While it may be possible to construct a REASONABLE chronology of events so that the date of the giving of the Torah corresponds to the observance of the festival of the harvest as we know it from our Parasha, the relevant passage in Sefer Shemot is still startlingly ambiguous.  The introductory verses there state that:


In the third month of the people's exodus from Egypt, on this day, they came to the wilderness of Sinai.  They journeyed from Refidim and they came to the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness.  The people of Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.  Moshe ascended to the Lord…(Shemot 19:1-3).


From the above, we can conclude that the people reached the wilderness of Sinai in the third month (Sivan), and encamped at Sinai "on this day."  This latter expression is of course tantalizingly obscure, prompting most of the commentaries (basing themselves upon much earlier Rabbinic traditions) to posit, not without basis, that it is a reference to Rosh Chodesh or the first day of the month.  After all, how else to explain a definite reference to a definite calendar day that is mentioned in the context of the "third month" but is otherwise undefined? 


            However, even if we succeed in anchoring the arrival at Sinai to the first day of Sivan, this does not entirely alleviate the difficulty.  While it may be possible to roughly reconstruct the ensuing chronology by tracking the consecutive ascents and descents of Moshe (Shemot 19:3-9) and then adding to them the two days of Divinely imposed preparatory sanctification (Shemot 19:10), to then assume that this NECESSARILY yields the currently celebrated 6th day of Sivan is utterly unwarranted.  What can only be stated with certainty is that the revelation takes place "on the third day" after those two days of preparation, a fact that is stated no less than three times (Shemot 19:10,11,16).  In short, even granting that it may be possible to plausibly connect the celebration of the giving of the Torah to a particular date on the calendar (albeit by engaging in a rather spirited session of hermeneutics) we cannot state categorically that the people of Israel received the Torah on Shavuot.




            We thus now have TWO unsettling uncertainties concerning the proper observance of the Shavuot festival.  On the one hand, while the directive to count the seven weeks after Pesach seems straightforward enough, the beginning of this count will entirely depend upon the interpretation of the critical "Shabbat" reference.  If we posit, as the Rabbis reasonably do, that "Shabbat" here means cessation from labor in its broadest sense, then the count begins on the day after the observance of labor cessation at the onset of Pesach.  In other words, the count begins on the 16th day of Nissan.  But if we entertain the opinion of the Sadducees, then the count begins after the "Shabbat" in its narrow sense, namely the first Sunday of the week that follows the offering of the paschal lamb.  If so, then the festival of Shavuot in turn, always observed on the fiftieth day, will inevitably fall on a Sunday. 


            On the other hand, while the narratives in Sefer Shemot certainly indicate that the revelation at Sinai took place in the "third month" (as counted from Nissan, namely Sivan), and may be plausibly INTERPRETED to yield the desired results, there is no textual proof that the Torah was in fact given on the festival of Shavuot.  To claim that we must interpret the obscurities of Sefer Shemot based upon our traditional conception of the holiday as the commemoration of the giving of the Torah is to beg the question.


            The overarching query might therefore be stated succinctly as follows: why all of the adumbration? 




            It is well known that the original Hebrew text of the Torah is the most accurately preserved document to have come down from antiquity.  This is in no small part due to the fact that from the time of the giving of the Torah, the people of Israel have regarded it as the literal word of God, a text communicated from on high with inherent and transcendent sanctity.  It is because of this great reverence for the text of the Torah that Jews have done their utmost to guard not only its contents but its external form as well.  The stringent controls associated with transcribing a scroll – statutes that determine everything concerning how the parchment is made, how the ink and stylus are prepared, how the letters and words are formed, even the state of mind of the scribe when he records the names of God – are indicative of the remarkable veneration of Israel for its Torah and its determination to bequeath it to posterity with precision and in unaltered form.


            At the same time, any Scripture so weighty, if it is to be able address meaningfully every new generation and every new contingency, must have a flexibility that an immutable text cannot provide.  It is for this reason that Jewish tradition has always maintained that the text of the written Torah was transmitted to Moshe along with oral explanations, clarifications, and elucidations as well as a set of principles of interpretation that could be used to engage the written text in order to extract from it new rulings.  This analog to the Written Torah is known as the Oral Torah, the traditions of which themselves later became venerated text (but of lesser sanctity) in the form of the Mishna and Talmud.


            Throughout the generations there have been sects within Judaism as well as outside of it that have accepted the authority of the written text while rejecting the authority of the Oral Tradition.  While perhaps defensible philosophically, on a practical level the position is untenable.  This is because as any student of a written text knows, transforming a finite written text, ANY finite written text, into a comprehensive and relevant system of law and guidance, requires – AS A RATIONAL PROPOSITION AND NOT ONLY AS A RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE – a means of interpreting and expanding the written material.  That is to say that one who rejects the authority of the Oral Tradition while still appending some sort of sanctity to the written text and regarding it as a source of instruction will be forced regardless to invent an "oral tradition" of his own.


            It is perhaps to underline the necessity of adhering to the Oral Torah that the Written Torah intentionally obscures the pivotal details associated with the festival of Shavuot.  Neither the fixing of the correct date nor even the historical significance of the festival can be ascertained from the written text alone without some sort of accompanying interpretive tradition.  That the "Shabbat" of our context means the 15th day of Nissan and not the Sabbath day is, in the end, only made certain by the oral tradition preserved by the Rabbis.  Surely it is not accidental that the Sadducees, who rejected Rabbinic authority and their oral tradition, disagreed so vehemently about precisely this point.  After all, the entire notion of a revealed oral tradition was anathema to their creed. To concede concerning the meaning of "Shabbat" would have implied both the existence of an authentic Oral Tradition as well as the authority of the Rabbis to transmit it. 


            That the revelation at Sinai took place at all on what later became the festival of Shavuot and not at some other time during the "third month" after the Exodus, is only ascertainable through recourse to an oral tradition communicated across the generations.  This perhaps is the true significance of the obscurity associated with the event.  The strict calendar date of Shavuot was nowhere spelled out in the Torah because it was intended to be a function of counting the fifty days from the Pesach But this cannot explain why the Torah does not explicitly link the Festival of the First Fruits with the giving of the Torah.  Once again, to acknowledge the linkage (plausible as it may be insofar as interpreting the text) is therefore to concede that an Oral Tradition is in force.


            As the festival of Shavuot approaches and, with it, the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai, let us hope that our loyalty to the teachings of the Torah and to the oral interpretations of our tradition is invigorated anew.


Shabbat Shalom