Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
on the weekly parasha by
Meir Levin

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Emor 5764

Pshat or derash?

As we study midrashic methodology, earlier or later we inevitably encounter passages that appear to mean something different than what the Rabbis say they mean. The problem is compounded when a Halacha depends on this interpretation; not surprisingly, several such passages have served as lightning rods for sectarians throughout the ages. One such passage is found in this week's parsha, Vayikra Ch. 23.

And HaShem spoke unto Moses saying:

10 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye are come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring the sheaf of the first-fruits of your harvest unto the priest.
11 And he shall wave the sheaf before HaShem, to be accepted for you; on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it.
12 And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the waving; seven sabbaths shall there be complete...
16 even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall present a new meal-offering unto HaShem...

The simple meaning of these verses is that the Omer is counted after the first Shabbos after the beginning of Pesach festival. According to this understanding, the "Sabbath" means exactly the same thing each time that it is used, namely, Shabbos, the seventh day.

The Chazal[1], however, explain that the Sabbath in verse 11 refers to the first day of Passover, whether it falls on Shabbos or during the week. The priest always waves the omer on the 16th of month of Nissan. The other Sabbaths in the passage mean not the Shabbos day but rather weeks. The difficulty of course is that the same word is said to mean two different things in proximate verses. This difficulty has not escaped sectarians who gleefully point to it as disproving the traditional understanding of the passage and claim that their understanding of the passage is the original one.[2]

This week we will not discuss a specific midrashic passage. Rather, we will attempt to reach a sophisticated understanding of the Rabbinic exegesis of this particular Biblical passage.

We start with the well-known disagreement between Rabbinic and sectarian definitions of date. Every Jewish child knows that the day begins at nightfall and ends at night- fall of the following day. It may be surprising to realize that there are many Biblical passages that seem to suggest differently - that day starts at daybreak and ends the following morning.

1. "And the flesh of his peace offering for thanksgiving - it shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall e left until the morning" (Vayikra 7:15)

2. The Flood lasted "forty days and forty nights," Moshe ascended Har Sinai and remained there "forty days and forty nights," and after the Flood God promises: "So long as the earth remains, sowing and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and DAY AND NIGHT shall not cease" (Genesis 8:22)

3. 'And it was evening and it was morning' (Genesis 1,5) The Torah does not say here 'it was night and it was day,' but rather 'it was evening' - for the first day was coming to an end, the light was setting,'and it was morning' - the end of the night, for the dawn was breaking. And thus the first of the six days, mentioned by God in the Ten Commandments, was completed. And then began the second day… The Torah does not mean to teach us here that evening and morning constitute a day, for we need only understand how there were six days: DAYBREAK CAME AND THE NIGHT WAS FINISHED; HENCE ONE DAY ENDED AND THE SECOND DAY BEGAN." (Rashbam, Genesis 1:5 [3])

There are other, albeit more arguable passages as well.

On the other hand, as Ibn Ezra points out in Iggeres Hashabbos, we have two clear and unambiguous Torah passages that indicate the day starts and ends at nightfall.

"In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month IN THE EVENING shall you eat matzot, until the twenty-first day of the month IN THE EVENING." (Shemot 12:18)

"It is a Shabbat of Shabbatot to you, and you shall afflict your souls, on the ninth of the month in the evening; FROM EVENING UNTIL EVENING shall you commemorate your Shabbat." (Vayikra 23:32)[4]

See also Megillas Esther (4:16): "Fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days NIGHT AND DAY.

One can reconcile the contradiction by posing that in fact there existed two different counting systems for "day" - one that went from daybreak to daybreak and the other that was reckoned from nightfall to nightfall. The former may be termed "natural day" and describes phenomena of nature; the other is the "ceremonial day" and is used for purposes of festivals and rituals. This type of "day" lasts from night to night.

One must realize that Omer is a ritual inextricably associate with the passage of seasons and new crops - it, therefore, unless specifically mentioned, would be counted using the "natural" counting scheme. Yet, it is also a part of festival system.

It follows, therefore, that the Torah uses the term Sabbath precisely to indicate that we must use the ceremonial count just as we do for Yom Kippur in the verse above. There is no other term that would carry this meaning[5]. On the morrow of Sabbath means this kind of the day, not the one that goes from morning to morning. More specifically, it means that the kohen shall perform Omer waving on the morrow of the day that ended at nightfall, in other words, on the 16th, not 15th of Nissan.

We once again find that what at first glance appeared to be an indefensible reading, is in fact the actual and only possible meaning. Moshe Emes V'Toroso Emes.

The preceding analysis demonstrates that the Sabbath must be counted from nightfall to nightfall. If so, we would expect it to be specifically stated somewhere in the Torah. But where?

Homiletically, the prohibition to make Shabbos day + night can found in the following verse (Genesis 8, 22):

While the earth remaineth, in seedtime and harvest, and in cold and heat, and in summer and winter, day and night they shall not keep Shabbos.'

1 Toras Kohanim here and Menachos 66

2 "If we interpret "Sabbath" as a Yom Tov, that is, as a Holy Day [on which work is forbidden], how do we interpret the verse "Seven complete Sabbaths". If the meaning here is a week which contains in it a Sabbath, as the Rabbanites claim, we find that in one instance the meaning of "Sabbath" is Holiday and in another instance its meaning is a week which contains in it a Sabbath. This is untenable for the Torah mentioned "Sabbath" twice in the same breath and it can not have two different meanings unless the Scripture explicitly indicates it does" (http://www.karaite-korner.org/light-of-israel/pentecost_classical_proofs. shtml)

3 This passage is not found in standard editions and has been claimed to be a forgery. It is, however, found in Rabbi David Oppenheim's manuscript, currently at the Bodleian Library.

4 I am indebted to a recent shiur by Rav Meir Spiegelman for many of these sources. A good discussion of the issue for those who do not mind an admixture of non-traditional views is Umberto Cassuto's commentary to the beginning of Genesis.

5 A related discussion regarding the meaning of the word Pesach is found in R. Y.Z. Zevin Festivals in Halacha, Section Pesach. Suffices to say, using "Morrow of the Pesach" would indicate the day that follows the Passover sacrifice - the 15thof Nissan. "Chag" would mean the sacrifice as well, or the entire 7 day Passover holiday. Listing a date would, of course, lead us directly to the "natural", day+ night counting system as above. Thus, Shabbos, already used in reference to Yom Kippur as proxy for "festival" remains the only possible choice and is the one that the Torah selects.