1. The requirement to count the years of the Yovel cycle
Parshat BeHar discusses the laws of Shemitah – the Sabbatical Year – and Yovel – the Jubilee Year. The Sabbatical Year occurs in the Land of Israel every seven years. During the Shemitah year, the land may not be worked. The produce that grows spontaneously is shared by all inhabitants of the land. Every fiftieth year the Yovel year – the Jubilee year – is observed in the Land of Israel. The Yovel marks the culmination of seven Sabbatical year cycles. The Yovel shares many of the laws of the Sabbatical year. One of the shared laws is the restriction against farming the land.
Additional mitzvot apply to Yovel that are not in-common with Shemitah. In the Yovel year all Jewish indentured servants must be granted their liberty. This applies even to cases in which the servant wishes to continue his servitude. He is not permitted to extend his term of service beyond the Yovel year.
Another aspect of Yovel is land redistribution. After its conquests, the Land of Israel was distributed among the shevatim – the tribes. In turn, each shevet – tribe – divided its portion among its constituent families. The families divided their respective portions among their members. In each generation the land was further divided among the heirs of the land-holders. In general, a transfer of land was effective up to the Yovel year. With the arrival of the Yovel year all land was redistributed among the heirs of the owners to whom the land was distributed following its conquest.
In the above passages, Bnai Yisrael is commanded to count the years of the Yovel cycle. Seven seven-year cycles are to be counted or a total of forty-nine years. The fiftieth year is to be declared the Yovel year.
And you shall count for you from the day following the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving, seven weeks. They should be complete. Until the day after the seventh week you shall count fifty days. And you shall present a new meal-offering unto Hashem. (Sefer VaYikra 23:15-16)
2. The requirement to count the days of the Omer
The Torah description of the counting of the years leading-up to the Yovel year is similar to the description in Parshat Emor of the counting of the days from the second day of Pesach to the festival of Shavuot. In both instances Bnai Yisrael is required to count seven cycles of seven or forty-nine time units and then sanctify the fiftieth unit. In the case of Yovel the time units that are counted are years – seven cycles of seven years or forty-nine years are counted and the fiftieth year is sanctified as the Yovel year. In the case of counting from Pesach to Shavuot, the units counted are days. Seven cycles of seven days or forty-nine days are counted and the fiftieth day is sanctified as Shavuot – the Festival of Weeks.
The days from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot are counted in the literal sense. Each evening we count by proclaiming the day’s number. On the second night of Pesach we declare that the night initiates the first day of the Omer – the series of days between that night and Shavuot. Similarly, on the third night of Pesach we declare that we have arrived at the second day of the Omer. This process continues for forty-nine evenings. Because these proclamations fulfill the mitzvah described in the above passages, each evening the proclamation is proceeded by a blessing – as is typical before the performance of most positive commandments.
3. Are the years of the Yovel cycle formally counted?
The Talmud explains that every individual is required to count the days of the Omer. The Tosefot explain that in this requirement the mitzvah of counting the Omer differs from counting of the years the Yovel cycle. The responsibility of counting the years of the Yovel cycle rest upon the Rabbinic court. Individuals do not participate in counting the years of this cycle. The Tosefot then raise an interesting question. As explained above, the commandment to count the Omer is interpreted in a literal manner. Each night a formal counting is performed proceeded by a blessing by every individual. Does this same interpretation apply to the commandment to count the years of the Yovel cycle? Does the court, at the beginning of each year, recite a blessing and proclaim the number of that year in the Yovel cycle? The Tosefot raise this issue without coming to a resolution. However, other authorities do take positions regarding the Tosefot’s question. Rabbaynu Asher and Maimonides agree that the years of the Yovel cycle are counted by the court in the same manner in which the Omer is counted by individuals. Rabbaynu Nissim disagrees and argues that the years of the Yovel cycle are not formally counted. The court is required only to mark the years – in whatever manner – and declare each fiftieth year to be a Yovel year.
At first glance it seems that the position of Maimonides and Rabbaynu Asher is more reasonable. The passages regarding the counting of the years of the Yovel cycle and those describing the counting of the Omer mirror one another. It is reasonable to assume that just as the counting of the Omer requires a formal proclamation each and every evening, so too, the counting of the years of the Yovel cycle is accomplished through a formal proclamation at the beginning of each year of the cycle. Why does Rabbaynu Nissim conclude that the court is merely required to keep the tally necessary to assure that the Yovel year is observed in its appropriate time but not actually formally proclaim each year?
4. An important difference in the Torah’s descriptions of counting
A more careful review of the passages describing each counting is helpful. The two sets of passages are very similar. Each set describes an obligation to count forty-nine units which comprise seven cycles of seven units. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two sets of passages. The passages concerning the counting of the Omer describe the obligation as a process of counting from a starting point to an end point. We are instructed to count from the second day of Pesach to the fiftieth day – upon which Shavuot is observed. The element of counting from a beginning point to an end point is absent in the Torah’s description of the counting of the years of the Yovel cycle.
What is the significance of the inclusion of this element in the Torah’s directive to count the Omer? What conclusions may be drawn from the absence of this element in the instructions regarding the counting of the Yovel cycle?
5. The Shavuot anomaly and its explanation
Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot constitute the three Regalim – the pilgrimage festivals. During the era of its existence, we were required to appear at the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple – on these three festivals. It is interesting that Pesach and Succot are observed over a period of seven or eight days. Both begin and end with a day that is sanctified with a relatively comprehensive prohibition against performance of creative labor. During the intervening days the prohibition against performing creative labor is more lenient. In contrast, Shavuot is described by the Torah as a single day festival. How can this difference between Shavuot and the other Regalim be explained?
Nachmanides discusses this issue. He explains that Shavuot is actually an extension of Pesach. It is the culmination of an extended festival that begins with Pesach and extends through Shavuot. The intervening days between Pesach and Shavuot – although not subject to a prohibition against labor – are to be understood as akin to the intervening days between the initial and final sanctified days of Succot and Pesach proper.
6. The fundamental difference between the two versions of counting
Based on Nachmanides’ comments, the message communicated by the Torah’s description of the counting of the Omer can be better understood. This Torah describes the counting of the days of the Omer as a process of counting from Pesach to Shavuot. This is because this counting is designed to express the relationship between Pesach and Shavuot. Through counting to Shavuot we demonstrate that it is connected to and the completion of the Pesach festival.
As explained above, the Torah’s description of counting the years of the Yovel cycle differs from its description of counting the days of the Omer. The Omer counting is described as a process of counting from one date to another. In discussing the counting of the years of the Yovel cycle, this element is absent. The significance of this element is now evident. The process of counting the days of the Omer is designed to communicate the integral connection between Pesach and Shavuot. Merely counting-off forty-nine days on a calendar and marking the fiftieth day as Shavuot does not accomplish this task. It is through the process of counting that the connection between Pesach and Shavuot is communicated. In contrast, the counting of the Yovel cycle is not described in terms of counting from one date to another date that is fifty years in the future. The absence of this description suggests to Rabbaynu Nissim that the counting of the years of the Yovel cycle does not require a formal annual proclamation by the court. The objective of this counting is not to connect each Yovel year with the next Yovel year. The counting of the years of the Yovel cycle is instead a requirement upon the court to maintain a tally of the years and to declare each Yovel year in its proper time.
1. Tosefot Mesechet Menachot 65b.
2. Rabbaynu Asher, Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Pesachim, Chapter 10, note 40.
3. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 140.
4. Rabbaynu Nissim ben Reuven, (Ran) Notes to Commentary of Rabbaynu Yitzchak Alfasi, Mesechet Pesachim 27b.
5. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 23:36