This article appeared in my book “Mysteries of Judaism” where I point out that all the biblical holidays were changed radically by the early Israelites, Pharisees, and later rabbis. The following practice is an example of such a change. 

I am repeating it here because the practice will begin this week on the second night of Passover.


The Strange Biblical Mandate to Count Weeks,

While Jews Think They Must Count Days

The ancient Israelites, and the religious Jewish group Pharisees, who existed from about 320 BCE until around 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.

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 [a weight of barley grain] that is waived; 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 (another name for Shavuot) in Exodus 23:16 and Day of First fruits (still another name for Shavuot) in Numbers 28:26.[1]

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 changed every part of the practice. They translated Sabbath as Passover, ignored the requirement that there be seven full weeks from Sunday through Saturday, set a date for Shavuot as the sixth day of the month Sivan, created a new law to count each day between Passover and Shavuot with a blessing, and gave an entirely new significance to Shavuot as the “season” of the giving of the Torah.[2] Why did the rabbis give Shavuot an entirely new meaning? Because the primary celebration on the holiday was a sacrifice, and sacrifices were discontinued when the temple was destroyed in 70 CE.


[1] What is the purpose of the biblical Shavuot? I understand it to be the number seven, which is important in Judaism because it reminds Jews of the seven days of creation, that there is a God who created or formed the universe and God revealed laws that should be obeyed. The number seven therefore occurs in Jewish holidays and practices over a hundred times, such as in day (the Sabbath), months (the holiday later called Rosh Hashana), years (the Shemitah, seventh year), Shemitahs (the jubilee year), seven days of Passover and Sukkot, etc. The only item missing is weeks, and Shavuot that occurs at the end of seven weeks accomplishes this purpose.

[2] Note: The Torah was not revealed on Mount Sinai. According to the Torah only the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) were revealed there and the exact date of the revelation is unknown. The rest of the Torah contains events that occurred long after the Sinai revelation.