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Dvar Torah - Emor

"And you shall count from the day after the Shabbat (mimacharat haShabbat), from the day that you bring the waved grain offering of one Omer, they shall be seven complete weeks. Until after the day after the seventh week (mimacharat haShabbat), you shall count fifty days, and you bring as a sacrfiice a grain offering to Hashem." -- Vayikra 23, 15-16.

These verses are some of the most enigmatic in the Torah. They refer to the commandment to count the Omer. However, on what day do we start counting? I have translated here the term mimacharat haShabbat as referring to after a day of rest (here assumed to be the first yom tov of Pesach) and after a week, referring to after the seventh week of counting the Omer. Indeed, the term Shabbat in the Torah can mean rest, day of rest, week, yom tov, Saturday day, or the seventh day of the week.

The confusion around Shabbat's meaning extends to a practical debate about when to start counting the Omer. Since Shavuot is the day after the count of forty-nine days finishes, Shavuot's date is also affected. According to the Karaites, the count always begins on the Sunday after the Shabbat in Pesach. As such, Shavuot also always falls on a Sunday. Its date will be between the fifth and the eleventh of Sivan. According to the Samaritans, Shavuot also always falls on a Sunday. For the Qumran sect, the count always began the Shabbat after Pesach ended, and Shavuot always fell on a Saturday, and because of their unique 364-day calendar, it had a set date of the fifteenth of Sivan as well. As Rabbinic Jews, we believe that the count begins the day after the first Yom Tov of Pesach, that Shavuot will fall between the fifth and seventh days of Sivan, and that it has no set day of the week.

However, why does the Torah introduce this ambiguity? Why not tell us clearly that the count begins on the sixteenth day of Nissan, as in many other places? I once heard from Rabbi Michael Rosensweig of Yeshiva University that the Torah deliberately uses an ambiguous term here. The holiday of Shavuot marks the anniversary of our receiving the Torah. We commonly think of the Torah as the five books of Moses, as a scroll that we keep in the Aron at Shule. However, as Jews, we believe the Torah is far more than this. It is those five books and the Oral Torah that explains and expands upon them. The festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the Torah, is also the festival that relies the most on the Oral Torah. Without an interpretive tradition, we wouldn't even know when it is! It reminds us of the many ways G-d uses to communicate with us. Sometimes it is through the plain meaning of a text. Other times the communication is more subtle and more profound.

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