The following is chapter 8 in my book “Mysteries of Judaism.” My followup book “Mysteries of Judaism II: Why the rabbis and others changed Judaism” is arriving in the US within days. If you want either book and agree to write a review and post it on amazon, even if the review is short, I will send you a PDF copy (one you can read on the computer).
The Strange Practice Of Counting Weeks, while Jews Think They Must Count Days
The ancient religious Jewish group Pharisees, who existed from about 320 BCE until 70 CE, and the rabbis who followed them changed all of the Jewish practices and holidays in some ways. Let’s look at the laws of counting the omer, called in Hebrew Sefirat Ha’Omer, and the holiday of Shavuot.
Leviticus 23 speaks about the holidays of Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month and the seven day holiday of The Feast of Unleavened Bread that begins on the fifteenth day. In 23:15 and 23:16 the Torah states: “You should count from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the Omer that is waved [a weight of barley grain]; seven weeks; they should be complete; until the day after the seventh Sabbath, you should count fifty days” [when a new offering is brought in the temple of the newly harvested wheat grain]. The fiftieth day is called Shavuot, or “weeks,” because it concludes the seven weeks from “the Sabbath” in Exodus 34:22 and Deuteronomy 16:10, and Feast of Harvest in Exodus 23:16 and Day of First fruits in Numbers 28:26.
The plain sense of this command is that the Israelites should observe the celebration of the wheat harvest on the fiftieth day after the Sabbath following the holiday of Passover. The time begins on a Sunday and Shavuot is to be observed on a Sunday. In essence, the holiday has no significance in the Bible other than a harvest festival. The word “Sabbath,” used twice in the command is the seventh day; “they shall be complete [weeks]” is seven days from Sunday through Saturday; and the command to count does not require a verbal counting, just as a verbal counting is not required when the Torah states that a menstruate “must count seven clean [bloodless] days” before becoming clean (Leviticus 15:28) and the Israelites didn’t have to physically “count seven cycles of Sabbatical years” until the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:8). It is also no surprise that the Bible was unable to set a date when Shavuot would occur since the date of the Sunday when the count began varied from year to year. However, the Pharisees and rabbis created a law requiring all Jews to count each day between Passover and Shavuot, gave an entirely new significance to Shavuot, and set the sixth day of the month Sivan as the date of Shavuot.
Why did the Pharisees require Jews to count? Who were the Pharisees? Why did they change the day the count began? Why did they give Shavuot a new purpose?
The answers are in chapter 9.