The Messianic Confusion About the Omer, Part IV: The Traditional Appeal to Josh. 5:10-12

by Geert ter Horst


Here follows the fourth article in our series about the Omer count, which centers around the Passover mentioned in Josh. 5:10-12. It is oftentimes argued that this text affords additional proof for the rabbinic theory that the Omer always starts on the 16th of Nisan. We hope to demonstrate here below that the argument for the rabbinic date is far from conclusive.

The rabbinic date for the beginning of the Omer, the 16th of Nisan, is often defended by an appeal to the description of the celebration of Passover in the Book of Joshua. Josh. 5:10-11 says: “And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at even in the plains of Jericho. And they did eat of the old corn of the land on the morrow after the Passover, unleavened cakes, and parched corn in the selfsame day”. Oftentimes these verses seem to motivate the thought that the day here called “the morrow after the Passover” was the 16th of Nisan, the day on which, according to the rabbinic explanation of Lev. 23:10-14, 15-16 the Omer was to be brought. In particular Lev. 23:14 is referred to, where it is said: “And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor green ears, until the selfsame day that ye have brought an offering unto your G-d”.

From the fact that Josh. 5:11 reports that the Israelites ate corn of the land it is inferred that the Omer was already brought. In his article “Counting the Omer” (TorahResource, 2002) Tim Hegg has tried to defend the rabbinic view on this ground.[1] He says (on p. 4) that the Israelites could not enter the land before the 16th for the reason that the 15th was a Yom Tov. And he explains the expression “the morrow after the Passover” as being “the morrow after the Sabbath” of Lev. 23:11, 15, the 16th of Nisan. In Hegg’s view the day after the Passover here was not the day after the 14th of Nisan, or the day after the slaughtering of the Passover lambs, but the day after the first Yom Tov of Matzot (Nisan 15), which immediately followed the Passover. Hegg argues here from Dt. 16:1, where the celebration of the Passover seems to include the celebration of (the first day of) Matzot.

But is this line of thought indeed convincing and is this defense of the rabbinic position conclusive? In my perception this is hardly the case. Firstly, it is not a correct rendering of the historical events to say that the Israelites couldn’t enter the land before the 16th of Nisan because of the Yom Tov of the 15th. According to the story of the foregoing chapters they had crossed the river Jordan on the 10th of Nisan (4:19), and thus were in the land already.

Secondly, is Hegg’s conclusion justified that Dt. 16:1 proves that “the morrow after the Passover” can refer to the 16th of Nisan? This is very doubtful, to say the least. Hegg ignores that in the Torah itself a clear indication is given of the meaning of the expression “the morrow after the Passover” (mimacharot haPesach). In Num. 33:3 we find exactly the same expression: “And they departed from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month; on the morrow after the Passover (mimacharot haPesach) the children of Israel went out with an high hand in the sight of all the Egyptians”. This text clearly states that the morrow after the Passover is the 15th, not the 16th of Nisan.

Since exactly the same expression is used in Josh. 5:11 and in the text of the Torah in Num. 33:3, it seems obvious that the morrow after the Passover in Josh. 5:11 is the 15th of Nisan.[2]  The objections made against this and which are related to Lev. 23:14 can easily be solved. Lev. 23:14 doesn’t contain an absolute prohibition of eating grain or grain products before the cutting and offering of the Omer sheaf. The prohibition is limited to grain of the new harvest. This is clear from the fact that old grain was needed to make matzah for Pesach. The offering of the Omer was always after Pesach, never before, in accordance with the sequence of the appointed times in Lev. 23.

The Israelites in Josh. 5:11 did not eat of the new harvest, however, but, as the text says, “of the old corn of the land”. The word used here is ‘abur’, which in Strong’s Concordance is explained as used only of stored grain (#5669). That this is indeed about the 15th of Nisan is even more probable because of the addition “in the selfsame day”. The adherents of the rabbinic tradition want us to believe that this expression is related to the adjunct “until the selfsame day” of Lev. 23:14. It would indicate that “the morrow after the Passover” in Josh. 5:11 refers to the day on which the Omer was brought. And in the rabbinic perspective this day was of course the 16th.

It is far more probable, however, that “in the selfsame day” in Josh. 5:11 is reminiscent of Ex. 12:41, where we find exactly the same expression, “b’etzem hayom”, which is not the same as the expression found in Lev. 23:14, “ad etzem hayom” (“until the selfsame day”). In Ex. 12:41 the 15th of Nisan is intended and the emphasis is on the fact that the Israelites left Egypt “the selfsame day” after having been there for exactly 430 years. In Josh. 5:11 the emphasis is on the fact that the Israelites, exactly 40 years after the exodus, again on the selfsame day, “did eat of the old corn of the land”. “On the selfsame day”, and thus on the 15th of Nisan.

There is nothing in Josh. 5:11 to suggest a necessary relation between the morrow or day after the Passover and the bringing of the Omer. The next verse (:12) informs us: “And the manna ceased on the morrow after they had eaten of the old corn of the land; neither had the children of Israel manna any more; but they did eat of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year”. We are told here that the manna definitely ceased the next day, the 16th of Nisan. It may be that this was also a Sunday and the date on which the Omer was brought in that year, but we cannot know this with any certainty. Apparently the Israelites had purchased or captured enough old grain for the Passover and for the part of the festive week which fell before the Omer, so that they needed no manna anymore. As the text says, “they did eat of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year”. The fruit, or produce, of the land of :12 seems to include both the old grain of :11 and the grain of the new harvest.

We can conclude, therefore, that Josh. 5:11 affords no additional proof for the rabbinic position regarding the calendrical starting point of the Omer.


[1] Tim Hegg, “Counting the Omer: An Inquiry into the Divergent Methods of the 1st Century Judaisms”, TorahResource 2002 (2009), downloadable at: 

[2] Cf. J. van Goudoever, Biblical Calendars, Brill — Leiden 1961 (1959), p. 19.


4 Responses to “The Messianic Confusion About the Omer, Part IV: The Traditional Appeal to Josh. 5:10-12”

  1. 1 graspingmashiach April 22, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Interestingly, in the Miqra’ot Gedolot of Leviticus 23, Ibn Ezra says that those who attempt to defend the traditional view of the Sages regarding the “morrow after the Sabbath” by using Joshua 5:11 as a proof text are like “a bird rushing into a trap not knowing his life is at stake!” (Prov. 7:32). It is a very weak argument indeed and the classic commentators certainly recognized this.

    A prominent theme among the commentators which I have come across is the idea that the intention of the Torah regarding the start of the Omer count was transmitted to the Sanhedrin and Jewish sages despite the apparent conflict with the plain meaning of the texts. Judah HaLevi in the classic Kuzari, admitted that the “plain meaning” of “the morrow of the Sabbath” conforms to the Karaite or literal interpretation of the “Sunday following Passover”, yet argued that the plain meaning is not the intended meaning.

    Along the same lines, Ibn Ezra comes up with a very interesting conjecture in understanding that Moses prophetically knew the first Passover in the Land would occur on a Friday, the First Day Matzot on Shabbat and the day after, Sunday, the sheaf would be waved. Therefore, the intention of Torah is that the waving of the sheaf should take place on the day after the First Day of Unleavened bread which was on a Sunday during the first year in the Land. The most literal reading of the Torah — that the Omer count commence on the day after the Sabbath (Sunday) — was given with the first Passover in the Land in view, and applied only to the first year observance specifically.



    • 2 messianic613 April 22, 2010 at 3:57 pm

      At first sight it is difficult to establish here what can be the sense of making a distinction between the intention of the Torah and its literal meaning, since, normally, the intention of a text is contained in its literal meaning.

      Nevertheless, I think that your comment is very to the point as to what is at stake here in the background of this seemingly superficial conflict about a calendrical technicality. What seems to be really at stake here is the relation between the Oral and the Written Torah. If, as you report, it is a prominent theme in the commentaries on this halachic dispute that “the intention of the Torah regarding the start of the Omer was transmitted to the Sanhedrin and the Jewish Sages despite the apparent conflict with the plain meaning of the texts”, then, obviously the background thought is that the intention of the Written Torah cannot be understood at all without the additional light of the Oral Torah.

      Because the discrepancy between the literal meaning of the texts and the interpretation of the Sages is so apparent here, the case of the Omer may have functioned historically as a test case for establishing the preponderance of the Oral Torah. Karel Hanhart notes that the acceptance of the pharisaic date of the Omermeant an annual rejection of the priestly calendar, highlighting the influence of oral tradition, which grew to such a degree that although the specific injunction was not found in the Torah, it could still become “unwritten law”. It is a telling example of the “hidden revolution” the Sages brought about by oral tradition in the second Temple period”[1] This seems to be confirmed by the angered and defiant tone shown by the halachic sources, such as the Sifra and the Talmud, in their discussions with the Sadducees and the Boethusians.

      If this intuition is correct the common messianic conviction that the Written Torah enjoys a higher degree of authority than the Oral Torah would demand a return to the pre-pharisaic and scripturally based tradition of counting the Omer.


      [1] Karel Hanhart, The Open Tomb: A New Approach, Mark’s Passover Haggadah, The Liturgical Press — Collegeville, Minnesota 1995, pp. 281-282. The term “hidden revolution” in the quote refers to Ellis Rivkin’s study of the pharisaic movement, A Hidden Revolution, Nashville — Abingdon 1978.

  2. 3 John June 1, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    As a matter of interest, when was Shavuot in Acts 2:1 likely to have occurred – according to the dates reckoned by the priests or the Pharisees (if there were different calendars in existence already)? There does not seem to be any indication of confusion about such festival dates from the accounts recorded in Matthew to Acts. Why is that (or am I missing something)?

    • 4 messianic613 June 1, 2010 at 7:37 pm

      It is my hypothesis that in the year of Yeshua’s death and resurrection the Sadducees were still in control of the Temple institutions and that they followed the old Zadokite priestly calendar and thus counted the Omer in accordance with the instructions found the Written Torah. Although the Pharisees were an important force in the first century, and already determined many aspects of Jewish life in the Synagogue, they seem not yet have gained the upper hand in the national institutions like the Temple and the Sanhedrin. From time to time there may have been clashes of power between the two groups. We find an example of this in the case of Paul’s hearing before the Sanhedrin (in Acts 23:6-9).

      There is evidence that at some time during the first century the conflict about the calendar was decided in favour of the Pharisaic position. This conflict is known as the Boethusian conflict. According to Van Goudoever, in his Biblical Calendars, the Boethusians “formed a group within the priestly Sadducees and among them there were about six high priests between 24 BC and 26 AD. The Sadducees were probably in their turn the heirs of the old Zadokite tradition in Jerusalem”. (p. 20)

      Later on (p. 182) Van Goudoever concludes “that the Christians of the first century counted the days [of the Omer] from Sunday to Sunday. In this custom the old Israelite priestly calendar is continued”.

      The 6th and 7th chapters of Hanhart’s dissertation, The Open Tomb, offer important historical evidence for the introduction of the Pharisaic calendar during the reign of king Herod Agrippa I (39-44 CE), who initiated a heavy persecution against the followers of Yeshua and highly favoured the Pharisees. He is the Herod of Acts ch. 12. Personally I find this hypothesis the most promising of what I have read thus far.

      The detailed history of the first century is, however, an extremely complicated field of study, and only very few things are beyond reasonable doubt. One has to add to this that one of our chief sources of this time, Josephus, has to be read with particular suspicion, because he belonged to the Pharisaic party and wrote his works while having his own agenda, after the destruction of the Temple.

      In any case, the Boethusian conflict seems to have continued during the second half of the first century, for we find it mentioned in the discussions of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai in the Talmud. It thus seems that the Talmud, viewing back, saw Yochanan ben Zakkai as the figure who decisively influenced the halachah into the Pharisaic direction. If the Talmud acknowledges that the conflict was not solved before, or at least not completely, then this would perhaps imply that the acceptance of the Pharisaic calendar was a post-Destruction development.

      I intend to continue my series of articles on the Omer with some detailed historical studies on the Boethusian conflict and the possible moments for the introduction of the Pharisaic calendar.

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