The Messianic Confusion About the Omer, Part III: “The Morrow After the Sabbath”

by Geert ter Horst


This is the third in our series of articles devoted to solving the debate in messianic circles about the correct beginning point of the Omer, and, consequently, about the right date of the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). We now direct our attention to the expression “the morrow after the Sabbath” in Lev. 23:11 & 15-16.

Our analysis in Part II contains major consequences for the status of the first Yom Tov day of Matzot. On the day after it the counting of the Omer starts according to the rabbinic theory. According to Lev. 23:15 this count starts on the day of the wave-offering of the sheaf of the firstlings, and this wave-offering according to the text occurs “on the morrow after the Sabbath” (Lev. 23:11). Lev. 23:15-16 states: “And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave-offering seven Sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meal-offering unto HaShem.

According to the rabbinic theory the Omer count always starts on Nisan 16, and the “morrow after the Sabbath” referred to in Lev. 23:11 & 15 thus has to be the 16th of Nisan, and consequently the Sabbath mentioned there has to be the first Yom Tov of Matzot, the 15th of Nisan. This would mean that the first day of the feast was referred to as a Shabbat. From our earlier reflections on the terms ‘Shabbat’ and ‘Shabbaton’ (in Parts I & II) this is completely unacceptable. For we have made clear that the annual feast days are not named ‘Shabbat’ but at best ‘Shabbaton’.

The textual context of this chapter doesn’t permit of any reasonable possibility for the Shabbat mentioned in :11, save only to be a normal weekly Shabbat or Shabbat b’Reisheet. The Shabbat mentioned in :11 logically refers back to the Shabbat mentioned in :3, which is the weekly Shabbat. Moreover, it should be noticed that the word ‘Shabbat’ in :11 has the definite article, ‘HaShabbat’. This means that it carries a reference to a Shabbat which was supposed to be known before. The only Shabbat mentioned before in this chapter, however, is the weekly Shabbat.

Further proof for the thesis that :11 refers to a weekly Sabbath is afforded by ::15-16. According to the instructions given in these verses seven Sabbaths are to be counted after the just mentioned Sabbath. Now, if we comply, for the moment and for the sake of the argument, with the rabbinic theory that the Shabbat preceding the first day of the Omer is not the weekly Shabbat but the feast day which is the first Yom Tov of Matzot (Nisan 15), then the unavoidable conclusion seems to be that the seven Sabbaths of ::15-16 have to be seven feast days. But this is clearly impossible. There are no seven feast days between the 15th of Nisan and the Feast of Weeks. The only feast day falling in this time is the seventh day of Matzot, the 21st of Nisan. The inconvenience of this result for their theory motivated the Rabbis to take refuge in the explication that the seven Sabbaths are simply seven weeks, not seven feast days or seven weekly Sabbaths.

This explication, however, is very problematic, not to say completely unsustainable, for the following reasons. In the first place, the term ‘Shabbat’ in the Torah and the whole of the Tanach never signifies ‘week’, and certainly this signification isn’t supported by any data in the text of Lev. 23. As already said in Part II, a period of time signified by a number of Sabbaths can as well be signified by a number of weeks — and that is the reason why the feast following upon the Omer count can be called the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) in Dt. 16:9-10 — but this fact doesn’t allow us to impose the meaning ‘week’ upon the term ‘Shabbat’, or to translate ‘seven Sabbaths’ by ‘seven weeks’ (as happens e.g. in the The Soncino Chumash with the commentary of Rabbi J.H. Hertz). The seven Sabbaths (plus the day of Shavuot) also equal fifty days. But in a similar manner as it would be a gross mistranslation to substitute the expression ‘seven Sabbaths’ in this chapter by the expression ‘fifty days’, it would be a gross mistranslation to substitute it by ‘seven weeks’.

In the second place the translation of ‘Sabbath’ by ‘week’ causes an unsolable problem in Lev. 23:15. Here we meet a single sentence in which the term ‘Sabbath’ occurs twice, once in the singular (‘Shabbat’) and once in the plural (‘Shabbatot’). By following the rabbinic explanation we would have to say that this term signifies, when it occurs the first time, ‘feast day’, and, when it occurs the second time, ‘week’. It is difficult to imagine a thing more incredible than this explanation, according to which the word ‘Shabbat’ would have two different significations in one and the same sentence, while in neither case expressing the normal meaning it has in the entire Torah and even in all of the Tanach. If the word ‘Shabbat’ the first time it occurs in the sentence is forced to mean ‘feast day’, one would expect it to have this signification the second time also. The result of this would be that :15 requires “seven complete feast days” to be counted, a reading already rejected above as being impossible: everyone knows that there are no seven feast days between Pesach and Shavuot.

However, if the word ‘Shabbat’ when it occurs the second time in the sentence forcibly has to mean ‘week’, then it also has to have this meaning the first time. According to this reading Lev. 23:15-16 should be rendered as follows: “And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the week, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave-offering seven weeks shall be complete: Even unto the morrow of the seventh week shall ye number fifty days”. What the day “after the week” signifies is not clear here. This reading is as impossible as the first, since it necessitates to read the meaning ‘week’ into the word ‘Shabbat’ in :11 too. By doing so it becomes unclear what is intended in this verse. Is it about a complete week, from Sunday to Sabbath inclusive, or is it perhaps about the week of Matzot? Both readings are so artificial that one involuntarily asks oneself how the only sensible and self-evident reading, according to which ‘Shabbat’ has its normal signification of the weekly rest-day, could be overlooked. And the rabbinic exegesis, which here combines the meanings ‘feast-day’ and ‘week’ for the word ‘Shabbat’ is by far the unlikeliest of all readings of the text. If the word ‘Shabbat’ in one and the same sentence has to mean both ‘feast day’ and ‘week’ and is forcibly prohibited to signify the weekly rest of the seventh day, which is its normal meaning, then of all unlikely readings the unlikeliest and of all impossible interpretations the most impossible is chosen.

We may conclude, therefore, without exaggeration, that the rabbinic explanation of Lev. 23:11 & 15-16 and the halachah based on it regarding the beginning of the Omer count and the date of Shavuot (Sivan 6) are clearly disqualified. There remains no possibility of a consistent reading of Lev. 23 if one accepts the rabbinic exegesis. This reading not only conflicts with the data of the text but also shows strong inner tensions.


1 Response to “The Messianic Confusion About the Omer, Part III: “The Morrow After the Sabbath””

  1. 1 C.E. Miller September 9, 2011 at 2:50 am

    This is an excellent article on the subject of “the morrow after the sabbath”. The Rabbinic theory is so very problematic. One point they always seem to leave out in dealing with Joshua 5:11, is Numbers 33:3. In that verse, the Children of Israel left Egypt in the first month, on the 15th day, “the day after the Passover”. The Passover was kept on the previous evening, and the Children of Israel were “thrust out” of Egypt on the followig day (the day time part of Nissan 15). In Joshua 5:11, it is clear that the omer was also offered up on “the day after the Passover”. So, it is clear that the omer was first offered up on Nissan 15 that year, “the day after the Passover”, the same day in which they had left Egypt forty years before. This absolutely refutes the Pharisees idea that the omer was always offered up on Nissan 16.

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