Some biblical words, like, say, ‘abomination’ carry great emotional baggage and cause social revolutions. But there are some words that are rather technical but have actually caused full-on religious schism. This week’s Torah episode, entitled ‘ Emor’, contains one such word, seemingly simple, surprisingly complex. The word is ‘Sabbath’ but it is NOT just any Sabbath. The historical schism in question, 2,000 years old, stems from two different ways of determining the context for this particular Sabbath, resulting in two different Jewish calendars, and two opposing doctrines dealing with biblical translation/interpretation. Is the Bible literal or not? How open is it to human analysis and adaptation? This IS the stuff religious wars are made of, then and now.

The context for this problematic ‘Sabbath’ is the instruction to count fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, from the Exodus to the Revelation at Sinai. But when do you start counting exactly? In the late Second Temple era, the Pharisees went against the Sadducees in determining this crucial date. At the time, these two views represented the two main sects of Judaism. Today, the debate is no longer an issue, the Pharisees won – but there is something about this controversy that it both timeless and timely.

Leviticus chapter 23, verse 15 reads:

‘And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the Sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. ( Etz Chayyim)

The ’sheaf of elevation offering’ is known as the Omer, and the counting of the seven weeks, leading to the 50th night, usually begins right at Passover. The word ‘Sabbath’ according to the current understanding refers to the First Day of Passover– not to the Sabbath that falls during the Passover week. In this context the word ‘Sabbath’ means ‘Holy Day’ – not necessarily ‘Seventh Day’. The countdown to Sinai begins, according to this reading, favored by the Pharisees, on the day following the Seder.

In accordance with this view, the Orthodox Artscroll Torah translates this verse as:

You shall count for yourselves—from the morrow of the rest day when you bring the Omer of the waiving—seven weeks; they shall be complete.

But the Sadducees liked to read the Torah literally, and insisted that the word ‘Sabbath’ does not mean ‘holy day’ but rather what it usually means – ‘the seventh day’. According to this system, the counting of the Omer begins on the first Sunday during Passover week. This of course results in a different date for the celebration of Shavuot, and in accusations of heresy, on both sides of the debate.

The interpretation of this word became one of the major points of controversy between the two sects. While the Sadducees controlled the High Priesthood, the Pharisees controlled the judicial courts and intellectual leadership. Eventually, the Temple burnt, and the Pharisees, known also as the Rabbis or the Sages, took over the leadership. An interpretive reading of Bible, based on the oral tradition, prevailed, and has been the backbone of Jewish scholarship, and strife, ever since.

We’re tempted to endorse the postmodern approval of multiplicity and pluralism, imagining a reality where neighbors celebrate the same holiday on two different dates and it’s not a big deal. But there are, of course, the down sides to this approach, where diversity becomes anarchy. Modern Jews don’t argue about when Shavuot occurs these days, but how are the residues of this ancient debate still shaping and shaking our attempts at being a united people, once again on the road to Sinai? Who are the current day ‘literal’ readers of Scripture and where are the fighters for an ongoing human understanding of the ancient revelations? The answers to those questions are not so simple – and we’d love your thoughts.

The countdown to Sinai continues.

27. Achrei Mot Kedoshim
29. B’Har Bechoktai

Verse per Verse

The WEEKLY STORAH (2006-2007), presenting you with an EZ pass into Judeo-Biblical Knowledge, one verse at a time. Each week offers a new entry, composed by Lauviticus, a consortium of storah scribes, highlighting a single verse or word from the weekly installment of the Torah, focusing on issues of translation and contemporary relevance.

View all >