Shavuot – Counting of the Omer from Passover to Pentecost

Today is Pentecost Sunday! Yes, we know that the Church celebrated it on May 15th this year (2016) but according to how God in Scripture commanded the Jews to determine the date of Pentecost (called Shavuot for “weeks”), it is today, June 12th.  For us, it began at sundown on Saturday night.

The timing of Shavuot, is determined from when Passover falls, and as covered in an earlier article, Passover’s Significance to the Church (http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/passovers-significance-to-the-church/), the date that Passover falls each year wasn’t known until the “new moon” appeared that month.

[Orthodox Jews have since replaced the Biblical way of determining when the new moon is, with a fixed calendar however Karaite Jews still use the Biblical method of sighting the new moon.]

Passover is the first holiday following the start of the first month of the Biblical calendar, and falls 14 days after the sighting of the “new moon”.

new moon over Jerusalem April 9 2016
new moon over Jerusalem April 9 2016

Once the new moon is sighted, the first month is said to start. The date of Passover is on the 14th day of that first month, which is called Nisan [or Aviv, in the parts of Scripture from before the Babylonian exile].

Note: The 'fixed' Rabbinic Calendar, was developed in the 4th century CE, by Rabbi Hillel so that the beginning of each month (and the beginning of the first month by which all other dates are determined)  was pre-set. This meant that Jews that were scattered from the Land after the destruction of the Temple in 30 CE and the expulsion of the Jews under the Romans in 135 CE, would know when to celebrate the Passover and all other holidays. This is the so-called "Jewish Calendar" that is followed by most Jews, today. According to this fixed calendar, every month of the year has a set number of days, except for three (that have a pattern for determining how many days they have).

Biblical Pentecost is not simply 50 days after Passover on the Biblical lunar calendar, as some people think. In fact, when Pentecost began was one of the most fiercely contested matters between the Pharisees and Sadducees. More on that below…

"Christian Pentecost" does not fall on the same date as "Biblical Pentecost". Christian Pentecost falls 50 days after "Easter Sunday", on a 'fixed' solar calendar -- adopted by the Church at Rome around the time of Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, or just before. At this point in time, the Church abandoning the Biblical calendar established by God in Scripture; a lunar calendar of 354 days -- in favour of a solar calendar of 365 days.  Their reasons for doing so were much the same as the reasons for the adoption of the 'fixed' Jewish Calendar, adopted in the 4th century; so that the date of all the holidays was known in advance. 

Church records document that the believers, including the early Church father Polycarp (80 – 167 CE) commemorated the death of Jesus on the Passover on the 14th day of Nisan according to the Jewish (lunar) calendar, as he maintained he had been taught by the Apostle John to do.  Polycarp and many other bishops were almost excommunicated from the Church of Rome because they wouldn’t adopt the new practice of commemorating of the death of Jesus on the Sunday following Passover on this new ‘fixed’ Roman (solar) calendar — a day the Church now calls “Easter Sunday”. With the adoption of the Roman solar calendar, the date of “Easter Sunday” is ‘fixed’ and “Christian Pentecost” was set as falling 50 days after “Easter Sunday”. [see http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/early-church-including-polycarp-continued-to-celebrate-passover/]

At first glance, determining when Biblical Pentecost is to start seems fairly straight forward, however when to start counting is not agreed upon by all sects of Jews. 

“You are to count 50 days until the day after the seventh Sabbath and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord. Bring two loaves of bread from your homes as a presentation offering, each of them made from four quarts of fine flour, baked with yeast, as firstfruits to the Lord.”

Leviticus 23:16-17

Jews start counting 7 sets of “weeks” from “the day after the seventh Sabbath (following Passover)“.  The 7 sets of weeks totals 49 days and the “day after the seventh Sabbath” adds 1 more day, totalling 50 days until Pentecost, but “which Sabbath” do we start counting from?

“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, so that you may be accepted. On the morrow (day) after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it.’”

Leviticus 23:10

The Pharisees (who wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud and from whom today’s Orthodox rabbis descended) argued that Pentecost is to be counted from the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which they designated a “Sabbath.”

The Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls began the 50-day count to Pentecost on a different Sabbath from the Pharisees. The Essenes had a 364-day solar calendar which began every year on a Wednesday and had fixed lengths for each month, so being a solar calendar, Pentecost always fell on the 15th day of the third Hebrew month. The Essenes began their count to when Pentecost started on the Sunday after the seven-days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

The Sadducees who made up the Temple Priesthood, believed the 50-day count to Pentecost began on the weekly Sabbath that falls during the seven-days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 

We know from Josephus that the Pharisees interpretation was the one that prevailed as he writes that “all prayers and sacred rites of divine worship are performed according to their [the Pharisees’] exposition” (Antiquities 18:15), and that the Sadducees “submit to the formulas of the Pharisees, since otherwise the masses would not tolerate them” (Antiquities 18:17).

Orthodox Jews today also count the Omer the same way the Pharisees did, by starting on the second day of Passover. Karaite Jews (a very small sect) do not recognize the authority of what the Pharisees and today’s Orthodox Jews call “Oral Torah” (i.e. of the Talmud or Mishnah) and follow only the teachings in the Old Testament (Tanakh).  Karaites count the Omer is accordance with a clear reading of the text (which was the same as the understanding of the Sadducees) which is also the way by which we determine when Shavuot falls.

“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, so that you may be accepted. On the morrow (day) after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it.’”

Leviticus 23:10

“You are to count 50 days until the day after the seventh Sabbath and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord. Bring two loaves of bread from your homes as a presentation offering, each of them made from four quarts of fine flour, baked with yeast, as firstfruits to the Lord.”

Leviticus 23:16-17

Counting from Passover until Pentecost — beginning on the day after the Sabbath

The way the Sadducees and today’s Karaite Jews (and the way we do), determining the timing of Pentecost is based on a straight forward reading if the text; Since Sabbath is on Saturday, the “morrow after the Sabbath“, is a Sunday.

In Temple times, the “wave offering” of the first stalks for grain cut during Passover is called the Feast of First fruits, and in Jesus’  day, would have fallen the day after the weekly Sabbath.

The timing of Pentecost, as God commanded the Jews to observe it, has profound implications to the Church and in retrospect, we know that the Sadducees had the correct interpretation for determining it’s date, because exactly 50 days after the Feast of Firstfruits, the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost. 

The year that Jesus celebrated “the Last Supper” (more accurately the “Last Seder” with His disciples), Passover fell on a Thursday night. Remember that Biblically the new day begins at sundown the evening prior, so Thursday night after sundown is the beginning of Friday.  The day Jesus was crucified (called “Good Friday” by the Church) was the day of the Passover. The next day was Saturday, the Sabbath.

Jesus rose from the dead on the Sunday (“Resurrection Sunday”) – which was the “morrow after the Sabbath” of Passover — the day of the wave offering, the “Feast of Firstfruits” and Scripture says that He is the “first fruits from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:23).

“But now Messiah is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Messiah all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Messiah the firstfruits, afterward those who are Messiah’s at His coming.”

1 Corinthians 15:20-23

The night of Jesus’ last Seder with His disciples, the Feast of Passover fell on Thursday night, which by the Jewish reckoning of days is the beginning of Friday (days begins at sunset, the night before). Jesus was crucified later that day (by Jewish reckoning) which is the “next” day by the way the days are determined by non-Jewish custom. This Friday is what the Church has called “Good Friday“. So the “Sabbath of Passover” was the one between Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection.

Now here is where it gets very interesting…

It was that Sabbath — the Sabbath during Passover from which is the “morrow after the Sabbath of Passover” (a Sunday) was determined.  It is that Sunday of the wave offering, on the Feast of Firstfruits — from which the “counting of the Omer” began that year. When one adds one day to the 49 days (7 weeks of weeks) in accordance with Leviticus 23:15 — on the year that Jesus went to the cross and rose — that year, Pentecost fell on a Sunday… Pentecost Sunday!

It is important to remember that the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, so the year following Jesus’ death, Pentecost would have fallen on some other day than Sunday i.e. it was not “Pentecost Sunday” the year after, or even the year after that.

Pentecost (Shavuot) in Judaism has come to be associated with the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai although this is not explicit in the Biblical text.  While Shavuot was one of the three Pilgrim festivals — one of the three times a year that every Jewish man was commanded to ascend to Jerusalem and present himself before the Lord in the Temple, the reason for this festival is not stated by God, in Scripture.  He simply commanded us observe it as outlined above, and that it is a Sabbath.  It is only with the coming of God’s Messiah. that we understand the significance of the day — as the one in which the Holy Spirit was given, as recorded in the New Testament book of Acts.