Here are four questions to help prepare you for this weekend:
On what date does it say Passover falls?
On what date does it say Rosh Hashanah falls?
On what date does it say we should begin counting the Omer?
On what date does it say Shavuot falls, and what does it say about why we observe Shavuot?
Now, let us consider the answers.
Question No. 1: If you said Passover begins on the 15th day of the first month (Nisan), you would be wrong (and any “Jewish calendar” you can reference as saying that would be wrong too). The festival that begins on that day is Chag Hamatzot, the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Passover (Pesach) begins very late on the 14th of the first month (Nisan). (See Leviticus 23:5-6. Also see Numbers 28:16-17.) As for when the Torah says Pesach ends, it implies that it disappears around midnight, just a few hours after it began. Chag Hamatzot, on the other hand, lasts until the end of the 21st day of the first month. (See Leviticus 23:6-8. We add an extra day in the diaspora, but that is not under discussion here. I will refer to the Chag Hamatzot as Pesach because that is now the accepted name.)
Question No. 2: Regarding Rosh Hashanah, to say the first of Tishrei is also wrong. The Torah does designate the day as a sacred occasion. Never, however, does it refer to it as “Rosh Hashanah,” which literally means “head of (or beginning of) the year.” To the Torah, this day is “the first day of the seventh month,” not the first month — a designation it reserves for the month we call Nisan. As the Torah says in Exodus 12:2: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.”
Is your head spinning yet? We still have two questions to go.
Question No. 3: The Torah does not give a date for when to begin counting the Omer. The Sages of Blessed Memory ruled that the day is the 16th of Nisan, meaning the second day of Pesach, but this was a matter of great controversy in late Second Temple times. A sect allied with the Temple priesthood insisted the counting had to begin on the first Sunday after Pesach.
Who was correct? Here is what the text says, in part: “…[Y]ou shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.…[O]n the day after the sabbath…, [o]n the day that you elevate the sheaf, you shall offer as a burnt offering to the Lord a lamb of the first year without blemish….Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread…; it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements.” (See Leviticus 23:10ff.)
One way to read this is that they were both wrong. The offering had to be brought when the first sheaf of grain emerged from the ground, whenever that was. (Deuteronomy 16:9 puts it this way: “start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain.”) The Sages said that had to be the second day of Pesach. If that is correct, however, then the text makes no sense, because the Torah clearly states, “Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread.” The logical inference is that you may eat bread from that day forward, but not until then. Yet matzah, which is bread of the unleavened kind, must be eaten on the first night of Pesach at the very least, and bread of the leavened kind may not be eaten for six more days after the Omer offering.
On the other hand, there is no warrant for considering “the day after the sabbath” to mean the Sunday after Pesach, because the Torah itself refers to the festivals as sabbaths (see Leviticus 23:24, 32, and 39), making the second day of Pesach a “day after the sabbath.” Since there is no way to predict from year to year when the first sheaf of grain will appear, the second day of Pesach makes the most sense.
That bring us to Question No. 4, the first part of which depends entirely on Question No. 3. If the second day of Pesach is when we begin to count “seven complete weeks,” with Shavuot occurring on the 50th day, then Shavuot must fall out on the sixth day of the third month (Sivan), which it does. If that was your answer to Question No. 4, however, you were wrong again. As with the Omer, so with Shavuot: The Torah supplies no date. (See, for example, Numbers 28:26.)
This in itself is curious, because the Torah supplies dates for Pesach, Chag Hamatzot, the festival of the first day of the seventh month (which we call Rosh Hashanah), Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Sh’mini Atzeret.
Just as curious is its description of the reason for Shavuot: It is the Festival of First Fruits, period. It was the Sages who designated Shavuot as Z’man Matan Torateinu, the time of the Giving of the Torah. (Even more curious, perhaps, is its lack of any description of why we observe the festival we call Rosh Hashanah. It is the only day on the sacred calendar for which no reason is given at all. All it says is that it is a day on which a shofar either is sounded [see Numbers 29:1], or its sounding is recalled [see Leviticus 23:23-25].)
If you got one or more answers wrong, and even if you got all four wrong, welcome to the club. Until I began to study Torah seriously, I probably would have done as poorly. We know what the calendars tell us, and what our teachers told us. We had no reason to doubt either the calendar or our teachers.
What we do not know, though, is what the Torah actually says about the calendar and so many other things. We just take the word of others. For too many people, this has led to them thinking the Torah is a collection of archaic laws and unbelievable narratives.
The Sages were not wrong in ascribing the giving of the Torah to Shavuot. The chronology given in the Torah for the trek from Egypt to Sinai leaves no doubt. Shavuot thus becomes the perfect time for us to set aside our notions of what the Torah says — and to begin studying it seriously.