Emor: Shavuot and the “Set Times”
This week, let’s play a little game. The game is called (cue music) One of These Things is Not Like the Others — One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong. Here are the things:
- Rosh Hashanah
- Yom Kippur
They all belong in Leviticus 23. They are the “set times” of YHWH, the mo’adim, as we’re told in Lev 23:4, after which they are announced in order:
- 5 — 1st month (Nisan), 14th day at twilight — Passover offering to YHWH
- 6 — 1st month, 15th day — YHWH’s Festival of Unleavened Bread for seven days
- 24 — 7th month (Tishrei), 1st day — a day of rest, a memorial with shofar blasts
- 27 — 7th month, 10th day — the Day of Atonement
- 34 — 7th month, 15th day — the Festival of Booths [Sukkot] for seven days
In our current calendars, the Passover offering and the Festival of Unleavened Bread have been combined, and the 1st of Tishrei is of course what we now call Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Fun fact: In the Bible, that phrase occurs only in Ezek 40:1, and it refers not to the 1st day of Tishrei but to the period of the year when the 10th of Tishrei falls.
The holiday that doesn’t belong, the one that is not like the others, is the Festival of Weeks, the holiday of Shavuot. It’s different because Leviticus 23 does not tell us which day of which month Shavuot is supposed to fall on. Lev 23:9–14 says that the first sheaf harvested must be offered to YHWH, after which, vv. 15–16 explain …
You must count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day you bring the sheaf for the wave-offering. They shall be seven full weeks, until the day after the seventh week. You must count 50 days. Then bring a new grain offering to YHWH.
“Week” in this text is not שבוע shavua, the word used in the name of the festival, but שבת shabbat, the same word as in “from the day after the Sabbath.”
Why do we call this holiday Shavuot? That name is not given to it here in Leviticus 23. In the festival chapters of the book of Numbers, Num 28:26 refers to the offering of new grain “at your weeks [בְּשָׁבֻעֹ֖תֵיכֶ֑ם, b’shavuoteikhem],” without mentioning 7 weeks or 50 days, but also without setting a calendar date for the offering. Exod 34:22 names this holiday as Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, but without saying when it is observed. Only Deuteronomy 16 both calls it the Festival of Weeks and instructs us to count 7 weeks starting “when the sickle is first put to the standing grain” (Deut 16:9, NJPS translation). The 50-day count is not mentioned there.
In Leviticus 23, both v. 11, telling us when to offer the first sheaf, and v. 15, telling us to begin the count on that day, use the phrase ממחרת השבת mi-moḥorat ha-shabbat, literally “the day after the Sabbath.” But if we had to pick a particular Saturday and start counting on the Sunday after it, we wouldn’t know which one to choose — unless we were using a solar, non-rabbinic calendar, as some ancient Jews indeed did.
Since a festival is a sabbath of a kind, rabbinic tradition understands that “the day after the Sabbath” really means the day after the festival day, the first day of Passover. In that case, even on the rabbinic luni-solar calendar Shavuot can always be dated exactly. Count 50 days starting on the second day of Passover and you will inevitably end up on the 6th of Sivan (unless you have made the mistake of crossing the International Dateline).
The Torah, though, does not give us a day and a date for it. Why is it in the list of all the other holidays that do have particular dates? Let’s think about how these dates connect with conditions during the year.
The calendar starts with Passover on the full moon of the first spring month, and it ends with Sukkot, which begins on the full moon of the seventh month, the first month of autumn. That means the sequence of holidays runs roughly from equinox to equinox. All winter long, during the rainy season in the land of Israel, there aren’t any biblical holidays.
Last week, in Leviticus 16, we saw God inventing a Day of Atonement and deciding that it has to happen annually. Now, in Leviticus 23, God is declaring there to be “set times” that are supposed to carry the Israelites all the way through from the beginning of the productive period of the year in the spring to the end of it in the fall.
The Torah also realized, it seems to me, that some flexibility was needed. Both here and in Numbers the original plan was to have one occasion in the year that would not be a set time like all the others. People could celebrate it at a time that made sense in their lives that particular year. Whenever the omer was brought, that would start a count. The count it would start is very particular, but when the count begins would be flexible.
As with so much else in the relationship between God and the Jews, God discovered that if he gave us an inch we would take a mile, and so the date of Shavuot is not flexible any longer. Now, it too is a “set time.” It would be great if Shavuot were a day that we could celebrate on our time rather than one of the set times. It would also be great if we were still living in the garden of Eden, but that’s not going to happen either. In the meantime we’re going to make the best of it. If you like cheesecake the best of it is not too bad.