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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6 Responses to “Why Shavuos is always on Sunday”


  1. 1 messianic613 November 20, 2008 at 2:01 am

    The following objections against a Sunday Omer were made by Daniel Gregg

    1. The word ‘Sabbath’ merely means ‘rest’ or ‘cessation’. That is why it can be used for Yom Kippur. Lev. 23:11, ‘the sabbath’ refers to the first day of unleavened bread. Exodus 12:15, “on the first day you shall make to Sabbath the leaven out of your houses”. The argument cannot be merely settled by assuming that the word Sabbath ‘only’ means the seventh day. One must look elsewhere.

    2. The word ‘morrow’ in Lev. 23:11, 15, and 16 is misleading. The Hebrew merely means “in the time after” and is indefinite as to how much time after. The Hebrew ‘in the day after’ is an idiom for indefinite time after. The proof of this begins with Genesis 30:33. So the argument cannot be settled by assuming that the ‘morrow after the seventh sabbath’ means Sunday, when in fact the Hebrew merely means ‘in the time after the seventh Sabbath. One must look elsewhere for the solution, since this in fact may mean any day in the week following the seventh sabbath.

    3. According to Seder Olam, the 10 commandments were given on the weekly Sabbath, which was Shavuot. Can we verify this from the scripture? Yes, because after Shavuot, “And the glory of the LORD abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days: and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud.” (Ex. 24:16). So we see that the LORD was in the habit of doing important things on the Sabbath, and that in fact, one exact week after Shavuot, the LORD met again with Moses proving that Shavuot itself was on the preceeding Sabbath.

    4. The resurection of Yeshua was on ‘one of the sabbaths’ (all gospels). This ‘one of the sabbaths’ (not ‘first day of the week’ which is corrupt) was so called because of Leviticus 23:15. It was the first of seven sabbaths that were counted after Pesah. Why is this significant? Because if Shavuot were always on a Sunday, then the resurrection could not have been on ‘one of the Sabbaths’ (In the Sunday ‘method’ ‘one of the sabbaths’ comes at least a week after pesach).

  2. 2 messianic613 November 20, 2008 at 2:05 am

    Because of the exegetic details involved here the answer would become very lenghty. Therefore each of Daniel Gregg’s objections is treated in a separate comment.

    The first objection:
    The word ‘Sabbath’ merely means ‘rest’ or ‘cessation’. That is why it can be used for Yom Kippur. Lev. 23:11, ‘the sabbath’ refers to the first day of unleavened bread. Exodus 12:15, “on the first day you shall make to Sabbath the leaven out of your houses”. The argument cannot be merely settled by assuming that the word Sabbath ‘only’ means the seventh day. One must look elsewhere.

    Answer to the first objection:
    It is correct that the word ‘Sabbath’ clearly means ‘rest’ or ‘cessation’ as you mentioned. The verb ‘to Sabbath’ illustrates this, in the example you gave of the cessation of the leavened. Some special times are called ‘Sabbath’ in Scripture, and these are times of ‘cessation’ or ‘rest’. The best known of these times is the weekly Sabbath of the seventh day. Besides the weekly Sabbath, we find Yom Kippur to be called a Sabbath. Another instance of a Sabbath time period is the Sabbath year, the seventh year. These special times are all called Sabbaths, because they are cessations.

    The question is now whether the feast days mentioned in Lev. 23 are called Shabbaths. The answer must be a clear ‘no’. Lev. 23 is a carefully composed whole, and it shows a very clear distinction between Shabbaths and feast days. The chapter begins with a general charge to keep the feasts of HaShem (in 23:1-2) and then introduces the special case of the weekly Sabbath (in :3). After that the general charge about the feasts is repeated (in :4), and in the following verses the successive feasts throughout the year, from Pesach until Sukkot are treated (::5-36). Then (in ::37-38) a general charge is made concerning the sacrifices on these special days. Here again the weekly Sabbath is clearly distinguished from the other holy convocations, as it is said (:38): “Besides the Sabbaths of HaShem…”. In the following verses (::39-43) special charges for Sukkot are given, and the chapter concludes with a general charge about all the festivals (in :44).

    The feast days which are not the weekly Sabbath are not called Sabbaths in this chapter, with the notable exception of Yom Kippur only. This one exception is undoubtedly due to the very strict character of this day. For all the other feasts the prohibition of work is less strict than the work prohibition of the weekly Sabbath, and concerns what is called “servile work”, while on Yom Kippur all work is prohibited. The work prohibition of Yom Kippur is thus of the same level of strictness as on the weekly Sabbath (“no work”).

    Apart from this single exception all the other feast days are never called “Sabbath”, but “Shabbaton” instead, as to make a clear distinction between the two levels of observance, and of the work prohibition, of the weekly Sabbath and of the feast days. The first day of the Matzoth feast is never called a Sabbath in the instructions given for Pesach and the Unleavened Bread, in ::5-8, and even the word ‘Shabbaton’ is not used there. From this it easily follows that the only Sabbath that can be referred to in :11, is the weekly Sabbath, that already was treated earlier in this chapter (in :3). There is simply no other point of reference for this term.

  3. 3 messianic613 November 20, 2008 at 2:13 am

    The second objection:
    The word ‘morrow’ in Lev. 23:11, 15, and 16 is misleading. The Hebrew merely means “in the time after” and is indefinite as to how much time after. The Hebrew ‘in the day after’ is an idiom for indefinite time after. The proof of this begins with Genesis 30:33. So the argument cannot be settled by assuming that the ‘morrow after the seventh sabbath’ means Sunday, when in fact the Hebrew merely means ‘in the time after the seventh Sabbath’. One must look elsewhere for the solution, since this in fact may mean any day in the week following the seventh sabbath.

    Answer to the second objection:
    Although it may perhaps be true that the Hebrew for ‘morrow’ can mean ‘in the time after’ in an indefinite sense — this is far from sure, however, and no proof of this is given in Gen. 30:33 — yet there are sincere doubts on this indefinitess in regard of the complete expression “on the morrow after the Sabbath” (Lev. 23:11), Hebr. “mimacharoth haShabbath”. But, more important, this argument is self destructive if one wants to plead the case for beginning the Omer count on Nisan 16. If one insists that the feast day of Nisan 15 is the ‘Sabbath’ mentioned in :11, and if “the morrow of the Sabbath” is an indefinite time after it, and not necessarily the next day, then of course the morrow of the feast day is also an indefinite time after Nisan 15. How then, can one establish the next day, Nisan 16, as the proper time to start the Omer?

    Moreover, what is to be understood by the “seven Sabbaths”? If the Sabbath preceding the Omer count is the feast day, then what are these seven Sabbaths? In Gregg’s view they cannot be weekly Sabbaths, for if one counts both the weekly Sabbaths and the feast days together as Sabbaths one will never get the same date for Shavuoth as the Rabbis, if only for the reason that in this case one also has to count the seventh day of Matzoth as a Sabbath day.

  4. 4 messianic613 November 20, 2008 at 2:16 am

    The third objection:
    According to Seder Olam, the 10 commandments were given on the weekly Sabbath, which was Shavuot. Can we verify this from the scripture? Yes, because after Shavuot, “And the glory of the LORD abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days: and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud.” (Ex. 24:16). So we see that the LORD was in the habit of doing important things on the Sabbath, and that in fact, one exact week after Shavuot, the LORD met again with Moses proving that Shavuot itself was on the preceeding Sabbath.

    Answer to the third objection:
    This argument is irrelevant, for a number of reasons. First, Lev. 23 shows no obvious relation to Ex. 24 and should be explained on its own merits. Lev. 23 contains no textual indications that the Feast of the First Fruits is the feast of the Giving of the Torah. This connection cannot be found in the Torah itself. By this I don’t deny that we rightly celebrate the Giving of the Torah on the Feast of the First Fruits, but the text in Lev. 23 simply doesn’t show the connection. Second, it is difficult to prove that the Giving of the Torah occurred on a weekly Sabbath, and Ex. 24:16 is certainly not conclusive, because it is unknown when the six days started. Third, and more important, even if it should be true that the Giving of the Torah was on a weekly Sabbath, what does this prove for the celebration of Shavuoth? That we should always celebrate Shavuoth on a Sabbath? Certainly not, for this is clearly impossible. Or perhaps that we should celebrate it on its calendar date? Certainly not, for this is equally impossible. The Israelites arrived at Sinai on Sivan 15 (Ex. 19:1), and the Giving of the Torah was at least three days later (Ex. 19:10-11), on a date never celebrated by either the Pharisaic or the Sadducean reckoning of Shavuoth.

    It shouldn’t surprise us that certain events are not celebrated on the day they actually happened. In the case of Shavuoth there is simply not a well established connection in the Torah between the Feast of the First Fruits and the time of the Giving of the Torah. Another telling example is Rosh HaShanah. The Rabbis tell us that this day remembers the creation of mankind. According to the creation story Adam and Eve were created on Friday, however, and yet Rosh HaShanah can never fall on a Friday, because this would cause Yom Kippur to fall immediately after the Sabbath, on a Sunday. This is to be avoided because of the hardship it causes. Likewise it is sometimes said that Rosh HaShanah remembers the creation of the world. But the creation of the world occurred on the first day, Sunday, and yet Rosh HaShanah can never fall on a Sunday either. For this would cause Hoshanna Rabbah to fall on a Sabbath. This would be inconvenient, because the rituals of that day contain many things that cannot be done on the Sabbbath.

    For all these reasons no objection against a Sunday Shavuoth can be derived from the events at Sinai, or from the tradition that the Torah was given on a Sabbath.

  5. 5 messianic613 November 20, 2008 at 2:19 am

    The fourth objection:
    The resurection of Yeshua was on ‘one of the sabbaths’ (all gospels). This ‘one of the sabbaths’ (not ‘first day of the week’ which is corrupt) was so called because of Leviticus 23:15. It was the first of seven sabbaths that were counted after Pesah. Why is this significant? Because if Shavuot were always on a Sunday, then the resurrection could not have been on ‘one of the Sabbaths’ (In the Sunday ‘method’ ‘one of the sabbaths’ comes at least a week after pesach).

    Answer to the fourth objection:
    The expression often translated as ‘first day of the week’ (‘mia tôn sabbatôn’) is found eight times in the Apostolic Writings to my knowledge: six times in the Gospels, once in the Acts and once in the Epistles of Paul. This expression sometimes allows for more than one possibility of translation. First, let me give the texts where this expression — or a slight variation of it — is found. These are the following:

    Matthew 28:1: “eis mian sabbatôn”;
    Mark 16:2: “tè mia tôn sabbatôn”;
    Mark 16:9: “prôtès sabbatôn”;
    Luke 24:1: “tè de mia tôn sabbatôn“;
    John 20:1: “tè de mia tôn sabbatôn“;
    John 20:19: “tè èmera ekein tè mia sabbatôn” ;
    Acts 20:7: “tè mia tôn sabbatôn”;
    1 Corinthians 16:2: “kata mian sabbatôn”.

    ‘Mia’ is the feminine form of the cardinal number one, and it can be translated as ‘one’ or as ‘a’. The word ‘day’ is not found in the texts above, but it is clear that ‘day’ must be inserted, because ‘mia’, a feminine word, cannot be directly bear on ‘sabbatôn’, which is neuter. Another example of the insertion of the word ‘day’ is Mathew 26:17, where the literal expression is: “first of the unleavened”. Further, ‘sabbatôn’ is the plural genitive form of ‘sabbaton’ (‘Sabbath’). This word ‘sabbaton’ can be used in a number of contexts as an equivalent for ‘week’. An example of this is Luke 18:12. The Pharisee mentioned in this verse fasted twice “each Sabbath” says the text literally. Of course this does not mean that the man fasted twice on the Sabbath. He fasted twice a week. But a time period that is measured by weeks can naturally be designated as measured by Sabbaths as well. Therefore sometimes ‘sabbaton’ has the meaning ‘week’. Thus, it cannot be decided beforehand, how to translate the expression: ‘mia tôn sabbatôn’. It may be translated as: ‘one day of the Sabbaths’, or: ‘day one of the Sabbaths’; but also as: ‘one day of the weeks’, or: ‘day one of the weeks’. Further complications arise when it has to be accepted, as some say, that the plural ‘sabbata’ can also have the singular meaning: ‘Sabbath day’, and, derivatively, ‘week’.

    A very conspicuous variant of the expression ‘mia tôn sabbatôn’ we find in Mt. 28:1: “Opse tôn sabbatôn tei epiphoskousei eis mian sabbatôn”. Of the two possibilities of translation, only one makes sense here. “In the end of the weeks, as day one (or: one day) of the weeks was dawning” simply doesn’t make sense. The other translation however: “In the end of the Sabbaths, as day one (or: one day) of the Sabbaths was dawning”, seems to be mysterious at first sight, to say the least. That is why this sentence often is translated: “In the end of the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning”, on the above mentioned assumption that the plural term ‘sabbata’ can stand for it singular meanings: ‘Sabbath’, and ‘week’. On this assumption even the translation: “In the end of the week, as day one of the week (or: the first day of the week) was dawning” seems to be possible.

    It may be however, that on due consideration a more literal translation can be given. If it can be proven that the expression ‘mia tôn sabbatôn’, or its equivalents of the list given above, always refers to the period between Pesach and Shavuoth, then of course it appears that “one (day) of the Sabbaths” always designates to a day in the time period of the 50 days of the Omer count. Well, this is exactly the case. For the Gospel texts of our list this is already evident. For Acts 20:7 this is proven by Acts 20:6 (“after the days of unleavened bread”), and for 1 Cor. 16:2 by 1 Cor. 16:8 (“I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost”). We may thus infer that “the Sabbaths” in the expression “day one (or: one day) of the Sabbaths” refers to that special time period of the year that was designated as: “the Sabbaths”, namely the period of the seven Sabbaths mentioned in Lev. 23. The phrase ‘mia tôn sabbatôn’ thus may very well be a technical term to designate the first day of the Omer.

    Now it becomes clear what is meant when it is said that Yeshua’s resurrection was on “day one (or: one day) of the Sabbaths”. It does not mean at all that Yeshua was resurrected on the weekly Sabbath. It does mean that he was resurrected on one of the days of the time period called “the Sabbaths”, i.e. on one of the days of the Omer count. In connection with this fact, the phrase “tè mia tôn sabbatôn” and its equivalents should be preferably be translated as: “day one of the Sabbaths”, or, if ‘Sabbath’ can stand for ‘week’, as: “day one of the Weeks”. Both translations thus designate the first day of the Omer.

    What should we do, however, with the first part of the sentence of Mt. 28:1: “Opse tôn sabbatôn”, lit. “In the end of the Sabbaths”? Here we have the plural form too, while there seems no reason for it. That is why this phrase is often simply translated as: “In the end of the Sabbath”, as it is said above, on the assumption that the plural form ‘sabbata’ can have singular meaning. But of course we would prefer to translate the two instances of “tôn sabbatôn” in an equal or at least similar way in this sentence. When we look at the other synoptic gospels, we notice that they have the singular form for the Sabbath preceding the resurrection. Mark (16:1) has: “And the Sabbath passing” (“Kai diagenomenou tou sabbatou”). Luke has the singular form of Sabbath in 23:56: “And they rested the Sabbath day”. These singular forms immediately precede the “mia tôn sabbatôn” sentences. The Gospel of John mentions a Sabbath following the crucifixion and before the “tè de mia tôn sabbatôn“ of 20:1, in 19:31. This sentence, John 19:31, is fascinating. It says: “The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the Sabbath day, (for that Sabbath day was an High day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and they might be taken away”. The fascinating part for our question is in the phrase: “for that Sabbath day was an High day”. This phrase is ambiguous. Is John calling here the feast day of Nisan 15 a Sabbath itself? Or does he want to say that the High day of Nisan 15 coincided with a weekly Sabbath? If the first, then this text would be only example in the Apostolic Scriptures of a feast day called a Sabbath. Because both interpretations are possible and nothing can be said with surety here, it is better to leave this question as undecided. But the phrase may unexpectedly throw some light on the first part of Mt. 28:1. If a High day could be called a Sabbath, then the phrase of Mt. 28:1 “In the end of the Sabbaths” could mean that both the High day of Nisan 15 and the weekly Sabbath had passed, and that after that, “on day one of the Sabbaths”, that is on the first day of the Omer, the resurrection took place. If the High day of Nissan 15 coincided with the weekly Sabbath, however, then the plural “Sabbaths” in “In the end of the Sabbaths” could point to this coincidence of a High day with a weekly Sabbath. As it is said, neither of these possibilities is to be excluded outright.

    Now, collecting all possibilities for the translation of Mt. 28:1, we arrive at the following overview of translations:

    The most literal translation possible is of course: “In the end of the Sabbaths, as day one of the Sabbaths was dawning”.

    On the assumption that the plural ‘Sabbaths’ may mean ‘week’ we get: “In the end of the week, as day one of the week was dawning”.

    On the assumption that the plural ‘Sabbaths’ may mean ‘week’, with the added assumption that “eis mian sabbatôn” is a technical term to designate the first day of the Omer, we get: “In the end of the week, when day one of the weeks was dawning”; or eventually: “In the end of the week, when day one of the Sabbaths was dawning”.

    On the assumption that the plural ‘Sabbaths’ was used because the weekly Sabbath coincided with the High day of Nisan 15, with the added assumption that “eis mian sabbatôn” is a technical term to designate the first day of the Omer, we get: “In the end of the Sabbath, when day one of the Weeks was dawning; or: “In the end of the Sabbath, when day one of the Sabbaths was dawning”

    On the assumption that the plural term ‘sabbata’ can stand for it singular meanings ‘Sabbath’ or ‘week’ we arrive at the traditional translation: “In the end of the Sabbath, when day one of the week was dawning”.

    The important thing to notice here is that none of these translation possibilities excludes in any way the position that the Omer always starts on a Sunday, or contradicts what was said in the earlier responses. In fact all these translations are perfectly compatible with a Sunday start of the Omer count.


  1. 1 Minor Celebrations Between Pesach and Shavuot « Messianic613’s Weblog Trackback on May 11, 2009 at 1:46 am

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