The Messianic Confusion About the Omer, Part II: An Exegetical and Halachic Analysis of the Terms ‘Shabbat’ and ‘Shabbaton’ in Lev. ch. XXIII

by Geert ter Horst


This is the second article in a series devoted to solving the messianic conflict about the Omer. In it I give an exegetical and halachic analysis of the distinction between the terms ‘Shabbat’ and ‘Shabbaton’. The conclusion of this analysis is that it is impossible to interpret the term ‘Shabbat’ in Lev. 23:11, 15 as a reference to the first day of the feast of the unleavened bread (Matzot). Thus an important argument for the rabbinic system of starting the Omer count on the day after the first Yom Tov of Matzot is refuted.

The halachic distinction between Shabbat and Yom Tov is clearly indicated and outlined in Lev. ch. 23. This chapter opens with a general call (23:1-2) to proclaim the appointed seasons of HaShem (the Moadim), which are to be holy convocations. In 23:3 the weekly Shabbat is introduced as the first of these, followed by instructions for the annual feast days (from :4 on). In 23:5-36 the festivals from Pesach until Sukkot inclusive are treated. In ::37-38 general directions are given about the special sacrifices for these days, and at this point (in :38) the Shabbat is clearly distinguished from the feast days (in :37). In the next verses (::39-43) specific instructions are given for the feast of Tabernacles, and the chapter ends with a repeated mentioning, in general terms and by manner of inclusio, of the appointed seasons (in :44).

As I have said already in the previous article, the annual feasts are not called ‘Shabbat’ in this text. Sometimes these days are called ‘Shabbaton’, as for instance in the cases of Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot (::23, 39). The feast days of Matzot and Shavuot, however, are not called ‘Shabbat’ or ‘Shabbaton’.

The terms ‘Shabbat’ and ‘Shabbaton’ indicate to certain characteristic features of a day, not to that day itself. ‘Shabbat’ is not the proper name of the seventh day of the week, but the seventh day is called a ‘Shabbat’ to signify the character of the day. In the same manner certain days are called ‘Shabbaton’, after the characteristic features of these days. Both words, ‘Shabbat’ and ‘Shabbaton’ are derived from the root ‘Sh.b.t’, which means to ‘cease’ or ‘rest’. The seventh day of the week is named ‘Shabbat’, and this word is made from the verbal Pi‘el stem, which is the intensive of the active form of the verb. ‘Shabbat’ thus means a ‘complete cessation’ or ‘complete rest’. The word ‘Shabbaton’ seems to be derived from the Qal (or Pa‘al) stem, because of the –on ending, which indicates the normal active form. According to this stem the verb means ‘to cease’ or ‘to rest’. A Shabbaton is thus a cessation or rest, while a Shabbat is a complete cessation or a complete rest.

We also find the combination of these words, in the expression ‘Shabbat Shabbaton’, in Ex. 31:15 and Lev. 23:3, 32. In this expression ‘Shabbaton’ is qualified by ‘Shabbat’, and one can translate it as “Sabbath of rest” or circumscribe it more extensively as a “cessation which is a complete cessation” or a “rest which is a complete rest”. The expression ‘Shabbat Shabbaton’ is reserved for the weekly Shabbat and Yom Kippur. The expression emphasizes that the rest demanded in a certain context or on a certain day should be a complete rest. This emphasis is naturally important in relation to the prescriptions for the weekly Sabbath and Yom Kippur, since these days are different from the other feast days by their distuighed degree of ‘rest’ or ‘cessation’. While for the annual feast days a rest is demanded which is described by the words: “ye shall do no servile work therein” (Lev. 23:8, 21, 25, 35, 36), the rest demanded on the weekly Sabbath and Yom Kippur is described as: “ye shall do no work (or: “no manner of work”) therein” (Lev. 23:3, 31, cf. ::28, 29). The prohibitions of work for Yom Kippur and for the weekly Sabbath are thus principally on an equal level of severity. The prohibition of work for the annual feast days is, however, on an a lighter level than that for the weekly Sabbath.

The distinction between the work-prohibitions for days that are marked as ‘Shabbaton’ and days that are marked as ‘Shabbat’ is that on the Shabbat-days no work at all is permitted, while on the Shabbaton-days no work of service is permitted. By what is said elsewhere in the Torah it is clear that this distinction should be understood as meaning that on Shabbaton-days food may be prepared, while on the weekly Sabbath and on Yom Kippur this is not permitted. The distinction about food-preparation is the one important distinction between the prohibitions of Yom Tov and Shabbat found in the Torah-text itself. According to Ex. 12:16 preparation of food is a permitted actvity on the first and the seventh day of Matzot. From this instance we learn that, albeit preparation of food is defined as ‘work’ by the Torah, it is not defined as ‘work of service’. In virtue of Lev. 23:24-25, 35-36, 39, “no work of service” is the level of rest which is expressed by the term ‘Shabbaton’. Although the first and the seventh day of Matzot are not formally characterized as ‘Shabbaton’, it is clear that the degree of rest required on these days is the Shabbaton-rest and thus the cessation from “work of service” (Lev. 23:7-8, 21), not the Shabbat-rest from all work.

By now it is intelligible why Yom Kippur can be called a ‘Shabbat Shabbaton’. We have seen that Yom Kippur is an annual feast day and yet its work-prohibition is the same as the work-prohibition of the weekly Sabbath. This is undoubtedly due to the fact Yom Kippur is a day of humiliation, a day on which “ye shall afflict your souls” (Lev. 23:27). This affliction has always been understood to include a complete fast. To prepare food on Yom Kippur doesn’t make sense at all, because fasting is part of the required affliction, and it is actually excluded by the Shabbat work prohibition.

The distinction between the terms ‘Shabbat’ and ‘Shabbaton’ in characterizing certain days is therefore a distinction between two levels of the work-prohibition attached to these days. This distinction is maintained by the Torah in a precise and accurate manner. The annual feast days thus cannot properly be called ‘Sabbaths’, save only, as demonstrated above, Yom Kippur.

From this we can safely conclude that the Sabbath mentioned in Lev. 23:11, in the expression: “the morrow after the Sabbath” can not be the first Yom Tov day of Matzot. For this day can properly be called a ‘Shabbaton’, but not a ‘Shabbat’, since its work prohibition is limited to “work of service”, in :7. And this implies that the rabbinic system of counting the Omer, which assumes that the term ‘Shabbat’ in :11 refers to the first day of Matzot, cannot be correct. The Yom Tov day of the 15th of Nisan is not a Shabbat, it is a Shabbaton. To refer to it as a Shabbat would destroy the balanced distinction between these two terms, which is so carefully maintained throughout this chapter.


5 Responses to “The Messianic Confusion About the Omer, Part II: An Exegetical and Halachic Analysis of the Terms ‘Shabbat’ and ‘Shabbaton’ in Lev. ch. XXIII”

  1. 1 Dan benzvi April 18, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Very interesting. Are you planning to add more parts?

    My question is, why, with all the arguments that Yeshua had with the Pharisees we do not see any about calendar issues? Keep up the good work.

    • 2 messianic613 April 18, 2010 at 9:41 pm


      I have planned about another four articles to follow. As you may have noticed a third article is now published about the expression “the morrow after the Sabbath”. It will be followed by (4th) an exposition on the meaning of Josh. 5:11, an important text in the debate, and by (5th) considerations on the status of the Septuagint in this controversy. After that I intend to come with an article (6th) on the historical transition from the earlier priestly calendar that was preserved by the Sadducees, to the present pharisaic calendar. As I view the matter now, this change probably happened during the reign of Herod Agrippa I (39-44 CE).

      You rightly point out that there are no indications of a calendar debate between Yeshua and the Pharisees. This may be due to the fact that at this time the Pharisees still had a minority position in the Sanhedrin, and their halachah on this matter had not yet reached the point of having practical implications. The old priestly calendar was still in force. Although the Pharisees and their halachic opinions had already great influence in the domain of daily life, the Temple institutions were still in the hands of the Sadducees.

      It is known that the Sadducees were politically corrupt, and certainly not well-disposed to Yeshua and his followers. This is true, but the Sadducees were also conservative, and probably out of sheer conservatism preserved the old Zadokite calendrical system, which included a Sunday beginning of the Omer.

      I’ll return to this question in the historical article, in which I’ll also try to give a hypothesis for the reasons of the change favoured by the Pharisees.

  2. 3 Dan benzvi April 18, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks Greet, I will wait.

  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
  2. 2 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 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: