Emor: A Shabbat Stop

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Stop Sign
06 May 2009

Yiddishe Nachas (lit. “Jewish transcendent joy”) is the whimsical expression my friend employs when our minyan skips the short supplicatory prayer known as tachanun. A Monday or Thursday (extra long tachanun) is an extra bonus. As any minyanaire will readily share, the recently completed month of Nissan, a tachanun-less month is replete with much (a sach) yiddishe nachas.

Understanding our ambivalent relationship with tachanun is for a different time, but according to some (1) the basis for Nissan’s month long exemption stems from a fascinating historical controversy, referenced in an early Mishnaic work, Megillat Ta’anit which obliquely states:

On the following days fasting, and on some of them also mourning, is forbidden: … from the eighth of Nissan until the close of Pesach, during which time the date for Shavuot was re-established, fasting is forbidden.

It seems strange to create a mini-holiday to celebrate resolving the date of another Jewish holiday. In fact it is somewhat of a complicated story. The short version is that Shavuot, unlike any other Jewish holiday has no calendar date; rather it is an offset of fifty days from the day we bring the omer offering in the Temple. Not coincidentally, on the very day that we bring the offering, we commence a 49 day count culminating in Shavuot; that count is commonly known as sefirat haOmer.

And when is the omer brought? Herein lies the famous rift. In Torah-speak, the omer is brought mimacharat HaShabbat, the morrow of the Shabbat.

The word Shabbat appears in the Torah approximately 25 times. It almost exclusively refers to Shabbat Bereishit, aka Saturday. Occasionally, when followed by a modifier it may refer to shemittah (shabbat ha’aretz) or Yom Kippur (shabbat shabbaton). In context, it may even refer to a period of seven days. Never however does it mean Yom Tov.

Never – until now; for our undisputed tradition teaches us that that Shabbat here refers to Pesach. The omer is brought on the morrow of Pesach. The Boethusians/Sadducees however reject basic Oral law and bitterly disputed this reading. For them, the Omer was always brought on a Sunday (that followed Pesach). Do the math and you will realize that Shavuot always fell on a Sunday as well (2). Understandably, this dispute rocked the Jewish world – for not only did it create a divided celebration, it served to cast aspersions upon the entire notion of our Oral tradition (3).

To quash the controversy, the Rabbis went on an offensive. The Rabbis marshal seven proofs to teach that Shabbat of this text must mean Pesach (4). One significant proof simply points out that if Shabbat means Saturday, and the Torah does not delineate a particular Shabbat, should not any Shabbat (of the year) be appropriate for the omer (or minimally any Shabbat after Pesach)? (5). Till this day, we find polemical references to this dispute embedded within our liturgy (6).

So here’s the question, with an ultimately unknowable answer: We believe that the word Shabbat means Pesach, and therefore we count the omer from the 2nd day of Pesach. Would it not have been simpler for the Torah to say it straight – let the Torah state on the morrow of Pesach, and the controversy would ostensibly not begin?

Ultimately, the answer is unknowable for essentially we are asking a question on God. Yet many great thinkers struggle with the question. Among the myriad answers:

  1. Had the Torah written Pesach, perhaps it would refer to the 14 Nissan, the time of the slaughter of the Korban Pesach
  2. Had the Torah written Pesach, perhaps it may refer to the end of the holiday
  3. Shabbat (which means to stop) accurately depicts a central aspect of Pesach, for on Pesach we stop (tashbitu) eating chametz
  4. One may not carry on Shabbat and the first Pesach one was prohibited from walking out of his home and eating the Pesach. Thus the first Pesach is Shabbat-like

Each of these answers either explain why the word Pesach won’t work or why Shabbat can also mean Pesach. To the first set of answers, we may still ask: why not employ the phrase moed or Yom Tov and to the second set we may still ask why we prefer the term Shabbat over Pesach.

It is a cholent of Meshech Chochma, Maharal and Zohar that gives me peace of mind.

First, Meshech Chochma [Shemos, 12:17] notes that Shabbat and Pesach share shemira, i.e. the underlying theme of guarding. Guard the Shabbat, Guard the Matzos, Guard the Pesach, Guard the spring month. Guarding/watching encompasses the entire character of Shabbat and Pesach, for they are to remain separate and distinct (7) Thus the essential character of Shabbat and Pesach are very much linked – guarded from external intrusions.

Now, Maharal [Gur Aryeh, Vayikra, 23:11] – who simply teaches that Shabbat [as opposed to Yom Tov/Moed] implies stoppage. That which preceded, has now stopped or been broken off. A new phase may now begin. Thus the Torah calls Pesach Shabbat specifically in the context of counting, for a new count implies a new phase and a new place of being.

Finally, Zohar compares the omer [seven week] count to the nidah/zavah [seven day] count. In Mitzrayim, we were impure, like the menstruant (who touches death by shedding the potential of life inherent in the endometrial lining). In Egypt we were impure, immersed in life-draining practices. On Pesach we left Egypt. The forces of death and dehumanization have stopped (Shabbat). But we must transition towards life. That transitional phase – that move towards life, is the omer count, a time uniquely endowed with the spiritual potential for change and growth. When that is done, we can finally taste life and appreciate it. We are now ready to receive our holy Torah [Shavuot].

First however, we must Shabbat! break (or a take a break) from the past to contemplate what we want that life of Torah to look like. Modern, technologically savvy man finds it hard to stop. If we learn how to stop, we may just get to where we want to go.

Good Shabbos

1. Beit Yosef, O.C. 131 states: בחודש ניסן מצאתי בשם רש”י (ספר הפרדס עמ’ שמב, סידור רש”י עמ’ קע) יש מקומות שאוסרים ליפול על פניהם

משנכנס ניסן לפי ששנינו במגילת תענית (ריש פ”א) מריש ירחא דניסן וכו’ וגם במסכת סופרים פרק אחרון (פכ”א ה”ג) אמרינן לפיכך אין אומרים תחנונים כל ימי ניסן ואין מתענין עד שיעבור ניסן ולא היא דבטלה מגילת תענית (ר”ה יט:) וכן מנהג אצלנו שאין חוששין בכך ונופלים על פניהם

2. Till this very day, fundamentalist Christian groups celebrate Pentecostal Sunday.

3. Cf. Rambam, Avos, 1:2

4. Cf. Menachos 65a-66a

5. Even as the proofs start Talmudic, they continue throughout the generations with Rambam, Yehuda HaLevi, K’sav Vekabalah, R. Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and contemporary scholars weighing in on the a p’shat level.

6. Bnei Yissaschar teaches that Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat preceding Pesach is thus called to contrast it with the other Shabbat coming up, Pesach (aka shabbat hakatan). Maharitz Chayot writes that the first day of the omer is yom echad and not yom rishon to uproot the notion that the omer count must always begin on a Sunday. Similarly, Rambam teaches that the pomp and public nature of the omer cutting was davka to uproot the mistaken Boethian notion

7. Thus we find that women are uncharacteristically obligated in positive time bound mitzvot of Shabbat – for the positive mitzvot (zachor) are forever connected with the guarding (shamor) . Similarly women are obligated to eat matzah (and from there the other positive mitzvot of Pesach night) because of the linkage between the chometz prohibition and matzah imperative.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.