Archive for September, 2008

Why Shavuos is always on Sunday

The rabbinic date of Shavuos is very debatable. In my view the main objections against it are the following.


In the text of the Torah Yom Tov and Shabbos are always clearly distinguished from each other, and the Yamim Tovim are not designated as ‘Shabbos’. There is one apparent exception: Yom Kippur. This day is called in Lev. 23:32: Shabbos Shabboson, i.e. Shabbos of rest. This exception however is only apparent, because the term Shabbos is used here to indicate the severity of the prohibition of work on this day. Yom Kippur is a Shabbos in comparison to the other Yamim Tovim, which are sometimes called Shabboson, as e.g. in Lev. 23:24, but not Shabbos. However, even apart from this argument it is already clear that in the first part of Lev. 23 — that notably begins with the commandment to observe the weekly Shabbos! — this exception was not yet introduced and plays no role at all in the paragraphs in this chapter on Pesach and Shavuos. The word ‘Shabbos’ in the parts of the text dealing with these festivals thus simply designates the weekly Shabbos.


In the text of Lev. 23 seven Shabassos are mentioned, in Lev. 23:15. If, according to the rabbinic opinion, “the morrow after Shabbos” indicates the day following the festival day of Nisan 15, and if, accordingly, by ‘Shabbos’ here is meant the Yom Tov itself, then the question may rightly be asked what the seven Shabassos are. They are certainly not seven Yamim Tovim, as there are no festivals between Pesach and Shavuos. But why then is the opinion forced upon us that the first time the word ‘Shabbos’ occurs in Lev. 23:15 it really means ‘Yom Tov’, (and not ‘Shabbos’) and the second time — and in the same sentence! — it means ‘week’ (and again not ‘Shabbos’), without any indication of a change of meaning in the text? And, above all, why is the normal meaning of the word, Shabbos Bereishis, rejected?


The classic rabbinic answer to this question is to refer to Josh. 5:11. This text is interpreted as if it says that from Nisan 16 on chadash (new grain) was eaten. But in fact this is not what the text says. It says that the Israelites ate from the old grain of the land. And the day on which they ate it was not Nisan 16 but Nisan 15. For the morrow after the Passover is the morrow after Nisan 14. The slaughter of the Passover lamb takes place while it is still Nisan 14. Therefor the morrow of the Passover is Nisan 15, not Nisan 16. And thus the Nisan 16 theory for the beginning of the Omer again fails.


There is no historical proof for the opinion that the Nisan 16 beginning of the Omer was already established in the time of our Lord. Jan van Goudoever in his book Biblical Calendars (Brill — Leiden 1961 (1959)) already pointed out that in Yeshua’s time the old priestly Zadokean calendar was still in use, and that is was from sheer conservatism preserved by the Sadducees. And Karel Hanhart in his recent work The Open Tomb (Liturgical Press — Collegeville, Minn. 1995) extensively pointed to the historical evidence found by Safrai and others that the earliest possible time for the introduction of the Nisan 16 tradition was was during the years 40-50 CE.


From these arguments I conclude that there is a very good scriptural and historical case for the Sunday observance of Shavuos, and against the nowadays established rabbinic observance that is based on beginning the Omer on Nisan 16.


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