Archive for the 'Shavuot' Category

The Custom of Eating Dairy on Shavuot: An Attempt at a Logical Explanation

by Geert ter Horst

Blintzes, a popular Shavuot dessert

Blintzes, a popular Shavuot dessert

The festival of Shavuot is not marked by any inherent mitzvah. While Passover is characterized by the mitzvah of abstaining from Chametz, Rosh HaShanah by the mitzvah of blowing of the Shofar, and Sukkot by the mitzvot concerning the Sukkah, the Lulav, and the Etrog, the only scriptural mitzvah characteristic of Shavuot is the wave-offering of the two loaves of the first fruits, which cannot be observed nowadays.

Since Shavuot is the celebration of the giving of the Torah (Matan Torah), this lack of specifics is understandable in a way. That which is about the whole of the Torah doesn’t seem fit to descend into the specific.

Yet there’s a specific custom which everyone associates with this festival. Eating dairy foods on Shavuot has become an enduring and universal Jewish tradition. The reasons usually given for it, however, are rather improbable and spurious. I’ll mention some of them.

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger says, in HaElef Lecha Shlomo, that on Shavuot milk became permitted for the Jewish people. He arrives at this conclusion through a particular explanation of the Noachide prohibition of the limb of a living animal. While non-Jews were allowed to follow a lenient interpretation of this prohibition, according to which only the parts of the animal itself should not be consumed while being alive, the Jews were obligated to follow a stricter interpretation and to abstain from all produce of a living animal. They were freed from this additional restriction at Sinai, when they received the Torah. Since the Torah refers to the promised land as “a land flowing of milk and honey”, they concluded that the stricter interpretation of the prohibition was no longer necessary.

This explanation is supplementary to another one, found in the Mishnah Berurah (494:12) and the Talmud Bavli (Berochot 6b), stating that when the oral instructions regarding Shechitah were revealed at Sinai, all meat foods — plus all meat utensils — became treif, because in the light of the new rules they weren’t properly prepared. So the Jews had to resort to milk food, which became permissible at the same moment when their meat became prohibited.

Some other reasons for this custom are based on gematria:

The gematria of chalav (milk) is 40, and this is the number of the days Moshe spent on Mount Sinai while receiving the Torah.

The gematria of gevina (cheese) is 70, which is also the number of an alternative name of Mount Sinai, Har Gav’nunim, the mountain of majestic peaks.

The Zohar associates each of the 365 negative commandments with a day of the year. The commandment associated with the rabbinic date of Shavuot (the 6th of Sivan) is the prohibition of mixing meat and milk. The association is based on Exodus 34:26, where this prohibition is found in connection with the obligation to bring the firstfruits.

Another spurious explanation is given in the Talmud, Tractate Sotah (12b), which places the birthday of Moshe on Adar 7. After being hid three months (Ex. 2:2), he was received in Pharao’s household on the 6th of Sivan, the traditional date of Shavuot. Through Yocheved’s and Miryam’s ruse he was given Yocheved as a nurse and thus received milk on Sivan 6. The custom of eating dairy foods is explained as a remembrance of this event by which Moshe’s life was saved.

Moshe’s greater life is the Torah, since he was chosen to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai and to transmit it to Israel. On the 6th of Sivan following his birth the Torah was thus ‘saved’ to be given to Israel on a later 6th of Sivan.

As I said, these reasons and explanation don’t seem to be genuine or real. They are rather improbable and spurious and clearly bear the mark of being invented for the occasion, in order to defend this custom or to give it an appearance of rationality.

Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried’s Kitzur Shulchon Oroch (III:103:7) shows some concern about this minhag, when it says: “The custom of eating dairy foods [may be problematic] because it is a mitzvah to eat meat [on Shavuos] as on all other holidays. Accordingly, precautions should be taken that a prohibition is not violated”.

The Kitzur text draws our attention to the fact that on Shavuot we are not supposed to eat dairy instead of meat, the normal festive ingredient, but in addition to it. While normally on the festivals the emphasis is on meat, here it is on milk, without neglecting, however, the custom of eating meat. It would be wrong to abstain from meat on this occasion, since meat is the festive food per se.

The concern expressed by the Kitzur may perhaps be the key for understanding and appreciating this custom. The tradition to eat meat on the Yamim Tovim undoubtedly dates from times when the Temple was functioning. The pilgrimage festivals were occasions to bring thanksgiving offerings in abundance, so naturally meat was the main food on these days. Jerusalem was packed with visitors and for families and friends the festivals were important meeting events.

Even in the diaspora and without a functioning Temple the festivals still have this meeting function for the larger Jewish communities. The eating of meat on these days is still a precious tradition because it reminds us of the Temple and the thanksgiving offerings. The custom to eat dairy on Shavuot may thus cause complications if a person visits a home where dairy was eaten while he has just finished his meat meal. He cannot simply jump in and join them in eating dairy snacks. He has to be on the qui vive about his eating. On the community level it is thus necessary to take precautions, in order that all can join.

The Kashrut laws of the Torah are fundamentally about meat. They are about what kinds of animals we may eat, how they are to be slaughtered, what parts of them may be consumed, and what combinations with other foods are permissible. Eating permissible meats is thus always a significant part of Jewish observance, for it involves obeying many rules of the Torah.

There is one type of food which may not be combined with meat. This is dairy food. Now, if there is an occasion when we eat both meat and dairy, all the Kashrut rules are fully and explicitly involved. On this occasion we thus obey the rules concerning kosher animals and kosher slaughter, plus the rules concerning the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy.

By simply adding a dairy meal on the festival of Shavuot, we thus symbolically express, in the domain of Kashrut, that we are willing to obey the entire Torah. Adding a dairy meal in the context of a Yom Tov, when meat normally is the predominant food, causes us to be mindful of the prohibition of mixing meat and milk and draws our attention to all the rules of Kashrut.

The custom of eating dairy on Shavuout is thus a beautiful dietary symbol of one of the main themes of this festival, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The specific character of the festival is brought about, in this case, not by a special positive or negative mitzvah, such as blowing the Shofar or abstaining from Chametz, but by bringing to full relevance all rules that govern a certain domain, and by positively obeying these rules to the fullest extent, with all their implications.

To me at least this sounds like a simple and logical explanation of a simple and yet extremely meaningful custom.



The Messianic Confusion About the Omer, Part V: The Appeal to the Septuagint

by Geert ter Horst


Messianic defenders of the rabbinic (pharisaic) calendar regarding the Omer count and the Feast of Weeks often make an appeal to the Septuagint (LXX) translation to defend their interpretation of the relevant texts of Lev. ch. 23. This appeal to an important degree is a futile matter, however, because, as we’ll see below, apart from a single ambiguity, the LXX strongly agrees with the masoretic text. Although the LXX has “complete weeks” instead of “complete Sabbaths” in Lev. 23:15, and thus seemingly offers some ground for the rabbinic interpretation, yet it translates here, like the masoretic text, “the morrow after the Sabbath” (“epaurion town Sabbatown”). Moreover, the terminological distinction between ‘Shabbat’ and ‘Shabbaton’ is preserved in the LXX and the annual feast days are not called Sabbaths. The Greek ‘Sabbaton’ is used as the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Shabbat’ and the Greek ‘Anapausis’ as the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Shabbaton’. Consequently, there is no ambiguity about the referent of ‘Sabbatown’ (‘Shabbat’) in Lev. 23:15. This can only be the weekly Sabbath.[1]

The only text that is problematic in the LXX translation of Lev. ch. 23 is :11. Instead of “the morrow after the Sabbath” the LXX translates here: “the morrow after the first (day)” (“tei epaurion tes prowtes”). This verse indeed seems to support the rabbinic Nisan 16 theory. In that case “the first” of :11 would refer to “the first day” (“hemera he prowte”) of :7, i.e. the first day of Matzot.

From this instance alone it cannot be concluded, however, that the LXX confirms or supports the rabbinic theory. Far from it. This text only proves that the LXX offers no definite clarity on the issue, or is perhaps inconsistent. This translation “the morrow after the first (day)” (“tei epaurion tes prowtes”) in :11 does  by no means take away the other translation, in :15, “the morrow after the Sabbath” (“tes epaurion town Sabbatown”). These two LXX texts are difficult to reconcile, but there is no valid reason why the first (:11) should be given more weight than the second (:15). Since the distinction between the weekly Shabbat and the annual Yamim Tovim is carefully maintained by the distinction between ‘Sabbaton’ (as translation of ‘Shabbat’) and ‘Anapausis’ (as translation of ‘Shabbaton’) one should not expect this distinction to be suddenly enfeebled by the one time occurrence of “the morrow after the first (day)” in :11.

The LXX was resived and edited several times and it is by no means excluded that the conflict about the Omer has left its traces in these revisions, so that the pharisaic view possibly could assert its influence in :11. On the other hand it is also quite possible that the LXX translation of Lev. 23:11 is a case of textual corruption. An explicatory comment (e.g. “the morrow after the Sabbath, which is the first day”) might have entered the main text, and thus what at first was a reference to a Sunday was changed into a reference to the 16th of Nisan. We simply don’t know. Whatever may be the case, it is clear that it is not possible to derive from the text of the LXX a decisive argument in favour of the rabbinic theory of the Omer count.

Ironically, the messianic appeal to the Septuagint to defend the pharisaic datings of the Omer and Shavuot is not appreciated by Rabbinic Judaism, which brought the LXX into disrepute after the first century, because it was much used by Christians and seemed to favour a Christian interpretation of the Tanach. Thus the means chosen by some Messianics here apparently doesn’t properly relate to the end. The halachic argument for the rabbinic position avoids any appeal to the Septuagint.


[1] J. van Goudoever, in his Biblical Calendars, concedes that the Greek Sabbaton can also mean ‘week’. He says (p. 18): “The word Sabbath in Greek can in fact only mean the seventh day of the week, or the week, but not the festival day”. If it means ‘week, however, this can only be a week from Sunday to Sabbath inclusive. This amounts to the same thing, since the morrow after the week is the same day as the morrow after the Sabbath, namely Sunday. [Cf. J. van Goudoever, Biblical Calendars, E.J. Brill — Leiden 1961 (1959)]

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.

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.

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.

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.

Shavuot and Matan Torah


According to Jewish tradition the festival of Shavuot is referred to as “the time of the Giving of our Torah”, as appears from the Amidah for the festival (cf. the ArtScroll Siddur, p. 665). Remarkably, this association between the date of the festival and the date of the Giving of the Torah (Matan Torah) is not made by the text of the Torah itself. It is never said in the Chumash that the Theophany on Mount Sinai happened on the date of Shavuot

In Ex. 19:1 it is said: “In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai”. The words “the same day” seem to signify that the arrival at Sinai happened on the 15th of Sivan. In rabbinic exegesis (e.g. Rashi’s Chumash commentary) it happened on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, but this reading cannot be taken for granted. Ex. 19:1 seems to refer back to Ex. 12:41, and thus to the day on which the Exodus from Egypt (which happened on the 15th of the first month — Nisan) did take place, and to Ex. 16:1, the day when the Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Sin (the 15th of the second month — Iyyar). If the first day of the month was meant one would expect the wording of the text to be different, and more like Ex. 40:2, 17. 

If the three days mentioned in Ex.19:10-11 began immediately on Sivan 15, and if the counting of these days should be inclusive, then the 17th of Sivan was the earliest possible day for Matan Torah. This is a day that is completely incompatible with the rabbinic date of Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan. It should be noticed that it is also incompatible with a Sadducean reckoning of Shavuot, which has this festival always happening between Sivan 5 and Sivan 12. The only way the 17th Sivan could be a possible date of Shavuot is by admitting that Shavuot according to Dt. 16:9 was determined agriculturally and was dependent upon the state of the fields, i.c. the ripening of the barley. This is in accordance with the stipulations given in Lev. 23:9-11 about the Omer. In Lev. 23:9 a new section of the text begins that has no immediate connection with what was said before, and from Lev. ch. 23 alone a direct relation between Pesach and the counting of the Omer cannot be proved. 

In normal circumstances, however, the barley would be ripe around the time of Pesach. And I guess that only in times of bad and late harvests it could happen that Shavuot would be as late in the year as Sivan 17. 

While in the Tanach we never see a direct relation, as far as I know, between Shavuot and Matan Torah, in rabbinic literature, from the second century CE on, we find the two identified. There may have been an earlier oral tradition, though, because in the Apostolic Writings this identification appears to be alluded to. There are in fact interesting comparisons. In Ex. 32:28 we have three thousand people dying because of the sin of the golden calf, a sin which happened almost immediately after Matan Torah. In Acts 2:41 we have three thousand people being baptized and the Body of Messiah formed by the Ruach HaKodesh as a new and distinct group within Israel. Another similarity is to be noticed between the fire on Mount Sinai and the fiery tongues descending upon the Apostles. (Both events mark a new beginning and show a certain resemblance to what happened on the first day of creation, when the Ruach HaShem was above the waters and the light was created.) 

Thus the conclusion might be justified that qua theological content there is a relation between Shavuot and Matan Torah but not qua calendrical date. The fact that Shavuot is the only yearly festival which has no fixed date in the Torah may already point in this direction. The rabbinic idea that Matan Torah happened on the 6th of Sivan should perhaps be considered a forced attempt to emphasize the celebration of Matan Torah in a diaspora situation in which the agricultural aspects of Shavuot could no longer be given due weight. To be clear, this rabbinic idea is only to be regarded as “forced” in relation to the actual date of Sivan 6, not in relation to its thematic content. Israel is the firstfruits of mankind, a nation dedicated to HaShem and which received its constitution at Mount Sinai. The Messianic Assembly is that part of Israel which has the firstfruits of the Spirit as the Apostle says in Rom. 8:23, and which was constituted on the Shavuot day of Acts ch. 2. 

The thematic identification of Shavuot and Matan Torah is thus probably a later but legitimate development of the oral tradition. It appears to be based on a grown understanding of the symbolism of the festival. And in a broad sense there’s still a calendrical connection between Shavuot and Matan Torah, since both events are related to the third month.