The Messianic Confusion About the Omer, Part I: The Misnomer ‘Annual Sabbaths’

 by Geert ter Horst


This article is the first of a series devoted to solving, on a biblical basis, the ongoing debate among Messianics on the Omer count. Major messianic ministries, such as FFOZ, TorahResource, and TNN have simply adopted the traditional rabbinic way of counting the Omer from the calendrical date of the 16th of Nisan, while failing to give clear scriptural arguments for it, and without duly considering whether the acceptance of the rabbinic halachah in this case can be reconciled with a messianic perspective. It seems that a messianic position can only be maintained and defended theologically if Scripture holds the place of supreme authority and is recognized above rabbinic tradition. As Messianics, we should never adopt a doctrine or practice which clearly conflicts with the teachings of Scripture. The traditional rabbinic system of counting the Omer, which is based on the halachah of the Pharisees,  in  my opinion clearly violates the instructions of Scripture, as found in the Book of Leviticus, to count the Omer from the morrow of the Shabbat” (Lev. 23:11, 15).

In this first article I point to the facts that Scripture teaches a clear distinction between the annual Mo’edim and the weekly Shabbat, and that, with the notable exception of only Yom Kippur, an annual Yom Tov is never called a ‘Shabbat’ in any part of Scripture. In the next article I hope to give a further theological and halachic analysis of this state of affairs. The often heard claim that the rabbinic or pharisaic halachah on the Omer was actually followed during the times of Yeshua and the Apostles will be also be part of our investigations in this series of articles. This claim will be questioned on its historical tenability.

A thing that strikes us when we engage in a detailed study of Lev. ch. XXIII is that this chapter does always make a clear distinction between the weekly Shabbat and the other high-days. This distinction is also found in the other parts of the Torah dealing with the Shabbat and the annual feast days. Nowhere a yearly feast day is called a Shabbat. Sometimes a related word, Shabbaton, is used, that cannot be equalized with ‘Shabbat’. There is only one exception to this: the Day of Atonement, which is called a ‘Shabbat Shabbaton’. We’ll return to this expression in the next article.

Among Messianics, however, it is of daily occurrence to speak of ‘annual Sabbaths’ and commonly a yearly high-day is called a ‘Shabbat’ or ‘Sabbath-day’ by them. This never happens in Holy Scripture. Scripture doesn’t know yearly Sabbaths at all. The feast days traditionally termed Yamim Tovim in Judaism — such as the first and seventh days of Matzot, the day of the Feast of Weeks (Shavu‘ot), the day of the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh HaShanah) and the feast days of the festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot) — are never at all designated as ‘Shabbatot’. To speak of yearly or annual Sabbaths in referring to the Yamim Tovim, then, is clearly incorrect and potentially misleading. It is a misnomer.

When we keep track of the days or times the term ‘Shabbat’ is reserved for by the Torah, we find that, except for the weekly Shabbat, it is used for the Shabbat-year (or Shemittah-year), — i.e. the seventh year, during which the fields in in Eretz Yisrael have to lie fallow — and, as mentioned, for the particular case of Yom Kippur. These are the only days and times designated ‘Shabbat’ by the Torah.

According to the rabbinic exegesis of Lev. 23:11, however, the word Shabbat found there should refer to the annual first Yom Tov of Matzot. And in :15 it should refer to this holiday the first time it occurs in that verse, while the second time it should have the meaning of ‘week’.

The time-period of the week, which is based on the division made by the Shabbat, is never itself called ‘Shabbat’ in the Torah, however. The Hebrew language has a proper word for ‘week’ (Shavu‘ah), not related to the word ‘Shabbat’. Although it is obvious that a time-period of a certain number of weeks can be marked as one of an equal number of Sabbaths (cf. Lk. 18:12), this manner of speech is not convertible. If one can speak of seven weeks as of seven Sabbaths this is only a genuine possibility if these weeks are counted from Sunday to Sabbath. A time-period of seven serried Sabbaths thus equals a period of seven weeks, which is self-evident and contained in the nature of the case. But this doesn’t imply that the term ‘week’ can be replaced by ‘Shabbat’. The meaning of ‘Shabbat’ is entirely different from the meaning of ‘week’ (Shavu‘ah). ‘Shabbat’ means ‘cessation’ or ‘rest’, while ‘Shavu‘ah’ means ‘number of seven’. Moreover, each arbitrary time-period of seven serried days, not necessarily counted from Sunday to Sabbath, can be called a week. But a series of these weeks is not likely to be called a series of Sabbaths, since the Sabbath doesn’t function here as the divisive marker that separates one week from another.

This little study about the terms ‘Shabbat’, ‘Shabbaton’ and ‘Shavu‘ah’ contains already a genuine indication for the case under investigation here. The fact that the festival days of the unleavened bread (Matzot) are never called Sabbaths by the Torah means that there has to be provided weighty additional exgetical proof to defend a textual interpretation (and a halachic practice) based on a terminological levelling or equalization of Yom Tov and Shabbat. Likewise, weighty additional proof has to be brought forth to allow for an equalization of the seven Sabbaths of Lev. 23:15-16 to seven weeks with an arbitrary beginning day.

The conclusion thus far must be that it is very improbable that the annual first day of Matzot is referred to as the Shabbat mentioned in Lev. 23:11, where it is said: “And he shall wave the the sheaf before HaShem, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the Shabbat the priest shall wave it”. The only Shabbat that was mentioned before in this chapter is the weekly Shabbat in 23:3. An unbiased reading of 23:11 thus reveals that a weekly Shabbat seems to be indicated by this text, not an annual Yom Tov. And this constitutes a strong indication against the rabbinic exegesis of Lev. 23:11, 15 and against the halachah based on that exegesis.


2 Responses to “The Messianic Confusion About the Omer, Part I: The Misnomer ‘Annual Sabbaths’”

  1. 1 belen sanchez January 6, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    My Name is Belen and I post a Group on Facebook name Hebrew Calender Yisrael, and what i understood is that Vayrikra 23:11, meant is to start the count the following day after the weekly shavat, example if the Passover fell om a weekly shavat you would have to wait for the next weekly shavat on the next day after to start the count. EhYeh Asher EhYeh (אהיה אשר אהיה) Eloheinu Meleck ha’Olam is the one who determines the length of the Moadim yearly and weekly, so please when studying the Torah once must be very careful to notice the difference between His commandments and men made traditional doctrines, and not follow blindly after the traditions of men, Shalom…

  1. 1 On the Celebration of Passover: Some Liturgical and Calendrical Issues Addressed. Part Two — The Chronology of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion « Messianic613′s Weblog Trackback on March 11, 2011 at 3:34 pm

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