Counting the Omer
Leviticus 23:15 "'From the day after the day of rest -that is, from the day you bring the sheaf for waving -you are to count seven full weeks, 16 until the day after the seventh week; you are to count fifty days; and then you are to present a new grain offering to YHWH."
The counting of the days to Shavuot is intended to remind us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus and the Resurrection; and Shavu'ot, which commemorates the formal giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Ruach haKodesh (Holy Spirit). During Shavuot we read Exodus 19:1 thru 20:23; Numbers 28:26-31; Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12. (Also, see Acts 2, John 14:15-18, Ephesians 2:11-22).
The theme of accepting Torah is mirrored by the Book of Ruth, which is to be read on Shavuot. Ruth is born a Moabite, and becomes the first known convert to Judaism. When her husband dies, she tells her Mother-in-Law Naomi that she will go with her, and accept her people. Ruth says the words, "Your people are my people, and your God is my God."
The last day of Omer kicks off the Feast of Shavuot. The Israelites were freed from their lives of slavery in Egypt on Passover; and 50 days later on Shavuot they accepted YHWH's Torah which made them a nation committed to serving YHWH. This Feast was fulfilled by the coming of the promised Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) on the disciples of Yeshua in the Temple. It represents the beginning of the body of Messiah on Earth, in which ALL believers, redeemed through the blood of Messiah, are lifted up before ADONAI and set apart as holy.
Every year at Passover time the question arises: "When do we start counting the Omer?" This is a great question, because the Scriptures are simply not clear on the distinction of which "Shabbat" is inferred as to the beginning of the count! So, how can we properly determine this?
Leviticus 23:5 "'In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, between sundown and complete darkness, comes Pesach for YHWH. 6 On the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of matzah; for seven days you are to eat matzah. 7 On the first day you are to have a holy convocation; don't do any kind of ordinary work. 8 Bring an offering made by fire to YHWH for seven days. On the seventh day is a holy convocation; do not do any kind of ordinary work.'"
We now know from verse 5 that Pesach can be any day of the week - it is late afternoon the 14th of the Hebrew Calendar month, and the 1st day of each Hebrew month begins with the moon, and that can be any day of the week. We also know from verse 6, that the festival of matzah begins the next day, so it, too, can be on any day of the week. We learn from verse 7 that the first day of the festival of matzah is a holy convocation - a High Shabbat ("miqra" in Hebrew). So we know that that High Shabbat can be on any day of the week. We know that these "special Shabbats" are called "holy convocations".
Since the commandments were already given (see Exodus 20:8), the weekly Shabbat was already made special, and the fact that YHWH reiterated in Levitucus 23:3 that the weekly Shabbat was special, we can solidly infer that these "holy convocations" cited in Leviticus 23:7 and 23:8 are "special Shabbats" or "High Shabbats".
But just when we believe we have begun to understand Leviticus 23:5-8, Leviticus 23:10-11 throws a monkey wrench into the works:
Leviticus 23:10 "Tell the people of Isra'el, 'After you enter the land I am giving you and harvest its ripe crops, you are to bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the cohen. 11 He is to wave the sheaf before YHWH, so that you will be accepted; the cohen is to wave it on the day after the Shabbat.
On which "Shabbat" is the First Fruits waived? Is it the day after the High Shabbat (i.e., the first day of the Festival of Matzah), or day after the regular, weekly Shabbat? Well, take a look at Leviticus 23:15-21 and 37-39:
Leviticus 23:15 "'From the day after the day of rest -that is, from the day you bring the sheaf for waving -you are to count seven full weeks, 16 until the day after the seventh week; you are to count fifty days; and then you are to present a new grain offering to YHWH. 17 You must bring bread from your homes for waving-two loaves made with one gallon of fine flour, baked with leaven -as firstfruits for YHWH. 18 Along with the bread, present seven lambs without defect one year old, one young bull and two rams; these will be a burnt offering for YHWH , with their grain and drink offerings, an offering made by fire as a fragrant aroma for YHWH.
19 Offer one male goat as a sin offering and two male lambs one year old as a sacrifice of peace offerings. 20 The cohen will wave them with the bread of the firstfruits as a wave offering before YHWH, with the two lambs; these will be holy for YHWH for the cohen. 21 On the same day, you are to call a holy convocation; do not do any kind of ordinary work; this is a permanent regulation through all your generations, no matter where you live.
Leviticus 23:37 "'These are the designated times of ADONAI that you are to proclaim as holy convocations and bring an offering made by fire to ADONAI -a burnt offering, a grain offering, a sacrifice and drink offerings, each on its own day - 38 besides the Shabbats of ADONAI, your gifts, all your vows and all your voluntary offerings that you give to ADONAI. 39 "'But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered the produce of the land, you are to observe the festival of ADONAI seven days; the first day is to be a complete rest and the eighth day is to be a complete rest.
Notice in verse 15 we are to count 7 full weeks (49 days). Also notice that on the 50th day, an offering is made. Then take special note in verse 21, "that same day" (i.e., the 50th day), it is a "holy convocation" - a High Shabbat...This is Shavuot.
Finally, take a hard look at verse 38, highlighted in red above. YHWH says, unequivocally, that the designated times He has just listed are BESIDES the (regular weekly) Shabbats! So we know the "Shabbat" referred to in verse 15 is NOT the weekly Shabbat, rather, it is the special Shabbat of verse 7. These designated times are "each on its own day" (verse 37). Notice something else that you may not have realized: If we start counting the weeks from day after the regular weekly Shabbat (taking the meaning of "Shabbat" in Leviticus 23:11 as the regular weekly Shabbat), then the 49th day would always be a Saturday. This means Shavuot would ALWAYS fall on a Sunday!
Thus, if it were correct to start the omer count from the day after the regular weekly Shabbat, we would have no reason to expect YHWH's instructions in Leviticus 23, verses 15 and 16, to contain the requirement to count 50 days. It would only be necessary to say: "count to the day after 7 Shabbats". Saying "you are to count 50 days" becomes unnecessary if it is tied to a weekly Shabbat. But some argue that verse 15 does not say to "count weeks", but to "count Shabbats". However, this is an incorrect understanding of the use of the word "shabbat" in the Hebrew context of the verse. In verse 15 it clearly means to count 7-day periods, and not to "count Shabbats". We see the Hebrew context of "shabbat" as a count again in Leviticus 25:8 in the counting of years to the Jubillee:
Leviticus 25:8 "You are to count seven shabbats of years, seven times seven years, that is, forty-nine years.
The Hebrew actually says to count "shabbatot" in Leviticus 25:8, as it does in Leviticus 23:15 and the former clearly means to count 7 years, while the latter clearly means count 7 days. That is, it is the "count of 7" that is important, and not the count "from a weekly Sabbath". So we see that the proper interpretation of Leviticus 23:15 is to count periods of 7 days and not to count "Shabbats".
We see this meaning of "Shabbat" again in Leviticus 23:27-32 in the description of Yom Kippur. This High Holy Day, Yom Kippur, is identified as the 10th of the month of Tishri, and verse 32 says (about it): “It will be for you a Shabbat of complete rest, and you are to deny yourselves; you are to rest on your Shabbat from evening the ninth day of the month until the following evening.” So here we have the same Hebrew word, “Shabbat”, yet here it is clearly understood as describing Yom Kippur as “a day of rest”, and most certainly NOT as the “7th day of the week”. So the premise that the word “Shabbat” in Leviticus 23:11 must be the weekly Shabbat is already negated within the same Chapter of Leviticus.
The Stone edition of the Tanach has an interesting footnote for 23:16. It says: "Shavuos is not identified as a specific day in the calendar, but as the fiftieth day after the Omer-offering, recalling the days when the Jews excitedly counted the days, each day elevating themselves, so that they would be worthy of receiving the Torah." Now this may be simply a rabbinic embellishment, however it provides an important clue as to when the Omer count should begin.
The case has been made that the Omer count begins on the day after the first High Shabbat of the Festival of Matzah, and the explanation could end here. But let's examine the original counting - the days the people counted during the Exodus, to the giving of the Torah. Let's see how it came out:
Let's turn back to Exodus.
What was the date of the Exodus? Can we tell? We certainly can! In Exodus 12, verse 6, YHWH tells Moshe they are to slaughter the lamb at dusk on the 14th of the month. The month is Abib (modern day Nisan). They smear some of the lamb's blood on the doorposts of their homes, and they eat. That night, now Abib 15, YHWH kills the firstborn in Egypt (verse 29).
Now it is some time in the dark of the morning, well after midnight and Pharoah is up only to discover great wailing in his kingdom (verse 30). He summons Moshe while it is still dark, and tells Moshe and all his people to leave Egypt. Now 600,000 men, plus women, children and a "mixed multitude" (verse 37) had to be mobilized to move - on foot. So all day the 15th of Abib, word had to spread to gather their belongings and go! Those who got word first moved quickly - so quickly their dough that morning did not even have a chance to rise (verse 34).
So the Israelis began their exodus on the 15th of Abib - a HUGE mass of people! It would have taken them all day to get word out they were leaving and to get all the people moving. So their first day "on the move" would have been the 16th of Abib. This would have been the first day they would have counted from their departure from Egypt!
Now consider Exodus 19:1. "In the third month after the people of Isra'el had left the land of Egypt, the same day they came to the Sinai Desert." You have to think about this a bit to understand how we can glean the exact day to which this is referring. The 1st month was Abib (Nisan), the second month would have been Iyar and now the 3rd month would be Sivan. Since they left Egypt on 15 Abib, and Abib would have had 30 days, and Iyar would have had 29 days (Hebrew months typically alternate between 29 and 30 days), the beginning of the month of Sivan means they had traveled for 45 days.
Note then Exodus 19:1 says "the same day they came to the Sinai Desert" which means that the 1st day of Sivan IS the day they arrived! So the wording of the scripture confirms then it is the 1st day of Sivan, and we are justified in concluding they had traveled for 45 days. This was a LARGE CROWD - in excess of 2 million people, so it is very likely that though the first to arrive on 1 Sivan established the camp, it would have taken a couple of days for the entire crowd to arrive and make their camp. This is worth mentioning, but not important since a specific day was given in Scripture.
Next we have a sequence of trips up and down Mt Sinai by Moshe as he receives instructions from YHWH:
Exodus 19:3 – Moshe goes up the mountain.
Exodus 19:7 – Moshe comes down the mountain. This completes one day. Remember, he is on foot!
Exodus 19:8 (end of verse 8) – Moshe has gone back up the mountain. YHWH tells Moshe to go back down and have the people prepare "today and tomorrow"... for on the 3rd day He would appear (verse 10-11).
Exodus 19:14 – Moshe goes back down and talks to the people. This completes another day.
We know that on the third day, YHWH will appear. Let’s count these days:
They arrived at the Sinai Desert on 1 Sivan and set up camp. 45th day (see above)
Moshe went up and down Mt Sinai – 2 Sivan. 46th day
Moshe went up and down Mt Sinai again – 3 Sivan. 47th day. (This was also the 1st of the promised 3 days. See verse 10).
2nd day was therefore 4 Sivan. 48th day
And the 3rd day was 5 Sivan. YHWH came down to Mt Sinai – Exodus 19:20 – and calls Moshe to come up! 49th day
Then Moshe is told to go back down the mountain – this completes another day – it is now 6 Sivan. The 50th day
Moshe then speaks to the people – Exodus 19:25 – and in Exodus 20, the people hear the Ten Commandments and the Torah. Praise Yah!
We have found that the 6th of Sivan was 50 days from the beginning of the exodus from Egypt!
I went through all this to make a very important point. The count of the number of days from the beginning of the exodus to the giving of the Torah was 50 days. But not "just 50 days", rather it was 50 days from the 16th of Abib (Nisan) - the first day "on the move".
Now you know why in Leviticus 23:11 the waving of the First Fruits, and the beginning of the Omer count is the 16th of Nisan, the day after the 1st miqra of Unleavened Bread and NOT the weekly Shabbat which can be up to 6 days later! It is the counting of the 50 days that is important, not the counting of Shabbats. The counting of the 50 days to Shavuot begins on 16 Nisan in complete harmony with and commemoration of the day the Israelis began counting the days from their exodus from Egypt!
(And now it should also make sense to you why Bible translators, including David Stern in his "Complete Jewish Bible", quoted above for Leviticus 23:15-21, use the word "weeks" instead of "Shabbats" in verses 15 and 16. Indeed the original Hebrew actually says "Shabbatot" (plural for "Shabbat", but meaning "weeks", not the "counting of weekly Shabbats")! It is because it is the counting of 50 days that is important and therefore the instruction really is to "count weeks of 7 days", not "count Sabbaths". In Hebrew, a variation of "Shabbat" can mean (for example): "to cease", "the 7th day", "a week", "a group of seven" (as in 7 years, see Leviticus 25:8), or one of the miqra. Even the Tanach, written by Jewish rabbis, uses the word "weeks" in these same verses clearly for the same reason.)
Now it is demonstrable that in the year of the Exodus, 1447 BCE, the 16th of Abib (Nisan) WAS a Sunday, (see "Wheel of Stars", Roth, 2010), and therefore the giving of the Torah was a Sunday as well! But this juxtaposition of the events and the day of the week does not happen every year! This is because the Hebrew calendar is Lunar-Solar, which means months are determined by the New Moon, and the months are balanced to the solar year, equinox to equinox. Because a lunar synodic period is a little over 29.5 days, sometimes, rarely, the alternating 29 and 30 days does not work and there must be two consecutive 30 day months or even two consecutive 29-day months!
Today, the accepted rabbinic (halakhic) calendar carries with it the date of First Fruits as the 16th of Nisan, however it ALWAYS has Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan after the counting of the Omer. But this should not be the rule! Since there are TWO new moons between the 14th of Nisan and the 6th of Sivan, there are two opportunities for that rare extra day to be required to begin the next month on the proper day. Therefore, it is possible for Shavuot to fall on the 5th of Sivan, as it did in 2011. (In 2011, Iyar required that rare 30th day to keep the new moon and the full moon on the proper days. The published rabbinic calendar did not reflect this correction, and is an example how today’s calculated Hebrew calendar with its associated "rules" is sometimes not right!) Also, it is possible that the two intervening months before Sivan could have 29 days each, so the 50th day count would end up on the 7th of Sivan!
And finally, if you are still not convinced that the beginning of the Omer count is on 16 Nisan, please consider the words of Flavius Josephus (Josephus ben Mattathias). Josephus lived in the 1st century CE, in the generation which followed the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah. He was of the royal line of priests, (The Works of Flavius Josephus, Vol 1, Whiston, 1854, pg 7), and thoroughly documented the conduct of Jewish life of his time and of his ancestry. In his "Antiquities of the Jews" he writes:
"But on the second day of unleavened bread, which is the sixteenth day of the month, they first partake of the fruits of the earth, for before that day they do not touch them. And while they suppose it proper to honor God, from whom they obtain this plentiful provision, in the first place, they offer the firstfruits of their barley, and that in the manner following…" (Antiquities, Bk 3, Ch 10)
So here is Josephus, writing to us almost 2000 years ago, that Firstfruits is the 16th of the month of Nisan! Yet still today many argue Leviticus 23:11 means the waving of the Firstfruits is on the day after the weekly Sabbath! As shown here, that simply cannot be the case.
Conclusion. At the onset of this article was posed the question "When do we start counting the Omer?" The answer is: On the 16th of Nisan. Though it was not simple obtaining that answer, it should now be clear. Not only can we see it for ourselves by a careful review of Leviticus 23, but also by a careful study of Exodus 19, and we can consider a valuable ancient record, that of Josephus, which confirms this is the case.