Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

In Parashat Devarim one learns again that the Children of Israel were in the wilderness for forty years.

“It was in the fortieth year…” Deuteronomy 1:3

One learns in the book of Exodus that the Children of Israel came out of Egypt on Passover.  In the book Joshua, shortly before the process of taking possession of the land of Israel, once again the people observed Passover (Joshua chapter 5). Although Passover is called by many names by the Rabbis, one thing is for sure—it is a festival of renewal. As we begin our study of the final book in the Torah, I thought it would be good to answer a question that I have received many times. This question involves Passover and the special command of bringing the first of the barely harvest (omer) to the priest. One can read about this commandment in Leviticus 23:9-16.

People want to know if one can know on what day one should celebrate this commandment, because one learns from the Sh’liach Shaul (the Apostle Paul) that Messiah rose from the dead on this day (see I Corinthians 15:20-23). There was a great debate on which day to observe this commandment between the Pharisees and Sadducees.  This debate focuses on how to understand the phrase found in Leviticus 23,

“HaShem spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them, when you shall come into the land that I am giving to you and reap its harvest, you shall bring an Omer from the first of your harvest to the Priest. He shall wave the Omer before the L-rd to gain favor for you on the day after the Shabbat, the Priest shall wave it.’” Leviticus 23:9-11

The issue is how to understand the phrase “…on the day after the Shabbat” The Pharisees say that the Shabbat that is being referred to here is the holiday of the first day of Unleavened Bread. This day is fixed on the fifteenth day of the month of Nissan, so this would mean that the day for waving the Omer is always on the sixteenth of Nissan. The other view is that the phrase is referring to the seventh day of the week, in other words the normal Shabbat. If this is the case, then the day for waving the Omer is fixed on the first Sunday after Passover. In this case the date for this command is not fixed by a date, but by a day of the week, Sunday.

There are those who want to look at Joshua chapter five, because there the phase in question is changed and some say clarifies the issue. In the book of Joshua one reads,

“They ate from the grain of the land from the day after the Passover offering matzot (the plural of matzah) and roasted grain, on this very day.” Joshua 5:11

This verse is vital because it is forbidden to eat from the new grain until after one offers the Omer (see Lev. 23:14). Therefore because the Children of Israel ate from the new grain and the text from Joshua says it was the day after Passover (first day of Unleavened Bread) this would support the view of the Pharisees and modern Judaism today, that the offering of the Omer must be on the sixteenth day of Nissan. This seems rather clear and hard to debate, right? Unfortunately it is not that simple; remember what we learn from this week’s parasha— that the Children of Israel were in the wilderness forty years. This means that the Passover at Gilgal that Joshua chapter five speaks of took place forty years after the Exodus from Egypt.

The term for the Shabbat before Passover is “Shabbat HaGadol” the “Great Sabbath”. The sages says that on the year that the Children of Israel came out of Egypt that Shabbat prior to Passover was the very day that one has to bring the lamb into his house—the tenth of Nissan (see Exodus 12:3). This being the case, the fourteen day of Nissan would have been on a Wednesday. Why is this important and relevant? Because the Hebrew calendar is cyclical and when the fourteenth day of Nissan falls on a Wednesday, then forty years later it falls either on a Friday or again on a Wednesday. Therefore because the Exodus from Egypt occurred on a cycle where the lambs were slaughtered on a Wednesday, it is most likely that forty years later, when Joshua kept Passover at Gilgal, the fourteen day of Nissan was on a Friday, which means the holiday (Shabbat / Yom Tov) occurred on a Saturday. This being the case the offering of the Omer would take place on a Sunday in both schools of thought.

Therefore Joshua chapter five does not offer any evidence that proves that the interpretation of when to offer the Omer must be on the sixteenth day of Nissan, because under the alternate view there are years when the Omer offering can take place on the sixteenth of Nissan.

Shabbat Shalom

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