What Does The Omer Offering Have To Do With The Jewish Holidays?
What Does The Omer Offering Have To Do With The Jewish Holidays?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In Parshat Emor, we read through the laws and details of the Biblical holidays. But this section also includes a few other laws - like the Omer offering, and agricultural laws like Pe’ah and Leket. Why are those laws included with the Jewish holidays? Join Rabbi Fohrman and Rivky as they re-examine the Emor text, and discover its subtle shared language with a few other texts of the Torah — and never about Parshat Emor the same way again.
Watch Rabbi Fohrman's related course: Celebrating Shavuot: What's So Exciting About Laws?
Rabbi Fohrman: Hi, everybody, this is David Fohrman.
Rivky: This is Rivky Stern.
Rabbi Fohrman: We are here with Parsha Lab. It is Parashat Emor. Rivky, this is a Torah portion which we have covered now and then in some of our holiday courses, aptly enough because the Torah portion speaks of – drum roll please – the holidays.
Rivky: Emor contains Parashat HaMo'adim, the section which kind of runs through all of the holidays pretty quickly.
Rabbi Fohrman: In the middle of that section, it has something which seems decidedly on holiday alike and that's what I want to talk with you about today. We've got all the holidays we know and love. We've got the Sabbath, we've Passover, we've got Shavuos, we've got Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos. Right there, if we play one of our favorite games, which one of the things is not like the other, Rivky, what do we have right, slam, bang in the middle of this that just doesn't seem much like a holiday at all?
What Is the Omer Offering Doing Here?Rivky: All right. I think I know what you're saying and I actually think this is a particularly apt time to be talking about it. What we have is we have the omer offering that we bring right between Passover and Shavuos.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. We've got this omer-offering ceremony which we bring between Passover and Shavuos. We actually bring it on the day after the first day of Passover.
Rivky: "Mimacharat ha'Shabbat."
Rabbi Fohrman: "Mimacharat ha'Shabbat." You know, the whole omer situation is a little bit odd. What is this doing in the middle of Parashat HaMo'adim? It's a regular offering, it should belong with the other offerings and somehow, you know, we get a whole bunch of verses devoted to this. I want to talk with you about what it's doing here in this holiday section and exactly how it is that we understand it.
How Do the Omer Laws Connect to Jewish Holidays?Now, this is a topic which we actually talked about in one of our really fantastic holiday courses, one that's very near and dear to my heart. Well, we think it's fantastic. I'm allowed to say that. I have a personal affinity for this course. I think we did it for Shavuos last year, if I'm not... was it Shavuos? Yes, it was Shavuos last year. So you can look at that. We'll try to put it in the show notes for you to click on.
I want to touch on some points which we began to sort of tease in that holiday course on Shavuos but didn't really get to explore the tendrils all that much. So let me just jump in with you without any further ado. What I want to show you, Rivky, today is that we've got a classic case of an intertextual triangle here going on.
Rabbi Fohrman: I know, that sounds really scary and kind of intimidating. Let me ask you, Rivky, what could I possibly mean thinking about an intertextual triangle?
Rivky: Well, we have something called intertextual parallels, which is where you have two different texts and there seems to be a bunch of both thematic and linguistic parallels between those texts. Those parallels kind of shed light not only on the second story that recalls us back to the first story but sometimes also, when we go back to that first story, we can begin to think of it a little bit differently because of its parallels with the second story.
What seems pretty interesting about the idea of triangle is that now I think we're going to have three different stories, three different texts that the Torah is trying to tell us, hey, when you look at this one, you have to look at it in the context of these other two and they're all going to be shedding light on one another; A sheds light on B; B sheds like on C; C sheds light on A. It's pretty cool how these... I'm excited, but I'm nervous, Rabbi Fohrman. It seems like there's going to be a lot happening here.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly, there's a lot happening for one little modest podcast, but that's exactly what we're going to try to do. We're going to look at an intertextual triangle which is a trio of texts that seem to be intertextually related where, as, Rivky, you so eloquently said, they all shed light on each other in a stereo kind of way. Right at the center stage in that triangle is this omer text which seems so out of place in the holiday section.
Okay. So let's take a look at this omer text again. The function of the offering, Rivky, is what? What does the omer do? It's an offering that's not just something you're supposed to give at some point in the year, but it actually has a halachic function. It changes things. How does it do that?
Understanding the Meaning Behind the Omer OfferingRivky: So I think if I remember it correctly, what the omer offering does is... we just went through Passover. We just went through this break where we are not allowed to eat bread at all. We're not allowed to any chametz. What the omer offering does is it brings us out of that place and it brings us to the place where we're now allowed to engage with new fruit and new... I think the omer offering, davka, if I remember correctly, is supposed to be chametz.
Rabbi Fohrman: Well, actually, almost. The shtei ha'lechem, which comes during Shavuos, is chametz. So let's just leave chametz aside. You're right in the sense that there are these two days, one after another, in which bread is the main focus. In other words, we have Passover and the whole point of Passover is that you're not supposed to eat chametz kind of bread.
The whole point of the omer offering has to do with another aspect of bread, not the chametz aspect of bread. If it's on Passover, you're already not eating chametz. You're eating unleavened bread. It has to do something else and that is that it's matir chadash, which is to say it allows you to eat from the new crop of grain. Until Passover time, until the omer is brought, all of the grain that was harvested cannot yet be used. What allows you to use the new grain is the bringing of the omer offering.
Even today, by the way, there will people that even without offerings until this time of year, until the time of the omer would be brought, they're stringent on yashan, so to speak, which is to say that they will only eat old grain. Old grain doesn't mean that it's moldy and rotten and gross. Old grain just means that it was harvested before the time of the omer and the omer is what permits it. The omer is what gives us the ability halachically to be able to eat the new grain.
All of this is really right here in these verses in Leviticus 23. When we look at these, though, the question is it just seems like a magical hodgepodge of laws. There's this random law having to do with this omer offering that once you bring it from the barley, it's going to allow you to eat this new grain. It just seems like just a bunch of random laws that don't really mean anything and why – is there any logic behind it? So I think if we trace this intertextual triangle, we'll get a sense of the logic.
So I'm going to give you two or three aspects of Leviticus 23 and we're going to play a little game, one of our favorite games over here in Aleph Beta Land, where have we heard all this before? We'll see if we can add up these different aspects of omer and you tell me if there's another portion in the Torah, another section of Torah that seems to remind you of.
Connections to the Omer in the BibleSo here we are, the first thing is the omer. The omer is this unusual term. It's a measurement of grain, probably about as much grain as like a single-serve portion for a regular human being. It says that when you come into the land – over here in Leviticus 23, Verse 10 – when you come into the land that I'm going to give you, "u'ketzartem et ketzirah," and when you harvest the grain, "va'haveitem et omer," you should bring an omer, which just, again, means this amount of grain, "reishit ketzirchem el ha'kohen," you bring the beginning of your harvest to the priest.
So Element Number 1 in our little game of where have we heard these words before is going to be just the designation omer which is a very rare designation. Where is the other time we have an omer? Just as a hint, the other time we have omer in the Torah comes along with the very next idea we have in this omer offering, which is the idea of the Sabbath and specifically the notion of tomorrow associated with the Sabbath.
Look at the very next verse, 23:11. "V'heinif et ha'omer," the priest waves this offering, the omer offering, "lifnei Hashem lirtzonchem," to be pleasing, "mimacharat ha'Shabbat yenifenu ha'kohen." Of course, it's a strange way of speaking about Passover and everyone tries to figure this out. What this means over here is the word Shabbat in this context seems to refer to the first day of Passover.
It's a very roundabout way of referring to the first day of Passover. The day after Shabbat doesn't really mean Sunday. It means the day after the first day of Passover. That's how at least the Pharisees understand this. This is one of these famous debates between the Pharisees and Sadducees.
The question is, okay, so where else do we have the word omer mentioned in the Torah where Sabbath is also an issue and particularly tomorrows associated with Sabbath. Over here, you bring this omer offering on the morrow of the Sabbath. So that is going to be Element Number 2.
Element Number 3 will actually take us to the culmination of the omer process. Because what happens when you bring this omer is you're going to start counting and the omer is going to culminate or the counting of the omer is going to culminate in the next holiday which is Shavuos where we bring two loaves of bread. We bring two loaves of bread, "lechem tenufah shtayim."
So where else do you have the notion of two loaves of bread? So, Rivky, I'm going to give you those three things together. Just to review Element Number 1 is omer. Element Number 2 is the morrow of Sabbath. That's Sabbath and morrow. Element Number 3 is two loaves of bread. Where is the only other time you ever have all of these elements coming together in the Torah?
Biblical Connections to the Omer MeasurementRivky: Okay. So because I, you know, I spent enough time with you that I actually, I would never know this on my own but I actually do know this answer is in the laws: right after we left Egypt, the first set of laws that God really gave to us was about the manna. God commanded to us that we should be eating manna and the measurement given to us for the manna was "omer lagulgolet," that it was going to be an omer per person. Then, of course, we have the laws of what happens on the Sabbath.
On the Sabbath, we're not going to be gathering in manna, but instead, the day before the Sabbath, we're going to be given a double portion which, of course, is reminiscent both of this idea of "mimacharat ha'Shabbat" and it's reminiscent of "lechem tenufah shtayim," that it's going to be this double portion of the manna, the omer.
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. Good. Rivky is exactly right. The only other time you have this, the only other time you have omer is with the manna. The omer was the amount of single-serve portion that everyone would get for the manna. You were supposed to just gather that. You weren't supposed to hog it and gather more.
By the way, Rivky, if you think about the notion of no hogging with the manna, if you go back into the omer, isn't it interesting? Look at the laws that come right after the omer. What does that remind you of with no hogging?
Rivky: Right. The laws right after the omer, also seemingly completely random in these laws that relate to holidays, are the laws of pei'ah and leket. They're agricultural laws about sharing your field with people who have less than you. People who don't have their own fields, you should leave a corner for them. You should make sure that when things fall, you leave it for them. You should leave it for the poor and the convert, for people who aren't as fortunate as you are.
In the same way, in the manna, you're not supposed to be greedy. You're not supposed to overtake. If you do try to overtake, God doesn't even let you, doesn't give you that option.
Rabbi Fohrman: In a sense, though, what happens if you try and overtake with the manna?
Rivky: It gets destroyed.
Rabbi Fohrman: Magically. If you would collect more than the omer – if you actually look at the story of the manna – I'll take you now into Exodus 16, Verse 16 and 17. So it says, "Zeh ha'davar asher tzivah Hashem," this is what God commands, "liktu mimenu ish lefi achlo," you should gather just what you need to eat, "omer lagulgolet," an omer per head.
Then it says, "Vaya'asu ken Bnei Yisrael vayilketu hamarbeh v'hama'amit," and then everyone went collecting. Some people collected more than an omer and some people collected less. Guess what happened? "Vayamodu ba'omer," they then went home and they measured it against their omer measurements, "v'lo hedif ha'marbeh v'hama'amit," it didn't matter how much you collected. If you collected more, you came home and you weighed it, it was exactly an omer. If you collected less, you came home and you weighed it, it was exactly an omer. God took care of us and actually made sure that everybody had enough to eat.
Isn't it fascinating, as you just pointed out, that immediately after, the laws that sort of echo the manna, this omer offering, we have a similar kind of argument that God is making to us that when we go into the land, we have to be careful on our fields to make sure that everybody has enough to eat? By the way, Rivky, it's the same language. Look at the verb.
Rivky: Yeah. So it says, "v'leket ketzircha lo telaket," and if you go back to the manna, it says, "liktu mimenu," and then it says, "vayilketu ha'marbeh." It's clearly the same sort of idea. It's interesting not just linguistically but thematically. No one leaving overproduce on the field is going to starve. They have enough. Maybe you want a little more, but you have plenty. The same thing God is saying with the manna, "ish lefi achlo lekato," everyone will have enough for what they actually need.
Rabbi Fohrman: So it really feels like if you just look at this intertextual connection that if you had to sum it up, there is a certain rhyme or reason to omer. The omer offering seems to be connected to the manna, almost seems to be a way of remembering the manna.
Now we might understand what it's doing in this holiday section. It just so happens that it's right between Passover and Shavuos, right after Passover and Shavuos. If you think about where this comes from, if what's happening is that this a law that's based upon our experience of the manna; well, when did we get the manna?
Rivky: Right, the manna is after the exodus itself. Of course, the manna is right after the exodus itself and it's before we received the laws on Sinai which is what we associated with Shavuos. It's interesting also, "mimacharat ha'Shabbat," which is the day after Passover, the day after the first day of Passover and also the manna is right after the exodus.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes. So it's the food that we got to eat after we used up our matzah, so to speak. So you eat your matzah and then the next day, bang, you got this omer offering which is reminding you of the manna. So it just fits in chronologically. Okay. So now for the triangle, there's another section which seems to be intertextually connected to both of these. I want to take you, Rivky, into the Book of Joshua.
Rivky: Wow! We don't spend so much time there. I'm excited.
The Omer and Jewish HolidaysRabbi Fohrman: We don't spend so much time there. So if you can just open your handy-dandy Bible or Sefaria or whatever you have in front of you to Joshua, Chapter 5. I just want to look and see what happened as the people of Israel come into the land. Remember, they're eating manna this whole time. For 40 years, they're eating manna. So when does that stop? What happens?
So they come into the land. It turns out that for the 40 years in the desert, there hasn't really been the opportunity for people – for new babies being born – people to circumcise themselves. So what happens is that the people stop and everyone circumcises themselves as they're coming into the land and it seems to be a certain time of year. It seems to be Passover time of year.
So let's read Chapter 5, Verse 8. "Vayehi ka'asher tomu kol ha'goy lehimol v'yeishvu tachtom ba'machaneh ad chayotam," so they go and they all are recovering from this operation, this circumcision operation. At that point, God says to Joshua, "hayom galoti et cherpat Mitzrayim mei'aleichem," today I have taken off from you, folded off from you the disgrace of Egypt from upon you.
The idea is, now you've raised yourself up from the Egyptians, you've entered into the covenant; you've left behind Egypt for good in entering the circumcision covenant. "Vayikra shem ha'makom ha'hu Gilgal ad ha'yom ha'zeh," and they called the place Gilgal, a play off of "galoti et cherpat Mitzrayim," when He called the place Gilgal. "Vayachanu Bnei Yisrael ba'Gilgal," and they then went and encamped in Gilgal.
Now, you're going to see this is the beginning of Gilgal. Gilgal is going to be a very important place in the Bible, later on in the Book of Samuel, where Samuel is going to go and bring Saul to coronate him and to renew the kingship. It's an important place. This is the beginning of Gilgal.
And now, Rivky, to play our little intertextual game, if we think about our other two pieces of the triangle here, the manna and the omer, is there anything in either of them that reminds you just a hair of this place name Gilgal?
Rivky: Yes. So I don't see the connection explicitly with omer, with the story in our Torah portion, but I do see a connection between the manna because the manna is called "omer lagulgolet."
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes. Also, Rivky, from your perusal of biblical Hebrew, that Gimmel-Lamed, Gimmel-Lamed thing, that's not, like, an everyday occurrence. As a matter of fact, when you thought "omer lagulgolet," you didn't even know what gulgolet was. You probably had to look in the English or look at one of the commentators to figure out that gulgolet really means a head, an omer per head, an omer per skull. It's not a common word. Over here, it seems to have this very strong echo in this place named Gilgal. Okay. So let's continue. So here they are in Gilgal, and what do they do, Rivky? "Vaya'asu et ha'Pesach."
Rivky: "Ha'Pesach." So we have that holiday connection.
Rabbi Fohrman: Look what time of year it is. We've got that holiday connection. So it's that first day of Passover, which means what's going to be the next day, Rivky?
Rivky: "Mimacharat ha'Shabbat", "mimacharat ha'Pesach."
Rabbi Fohrman: That's going to be the next day. Anyway, they do the Passover on the 14th day of the month "ba'erev b'arvot Yericho," right on the outskirts of Jericho. Now, look what happens. "Vayochlu mei'avur ha'aretz," they now eat for the very first time from produce from the Land of Israel.
Rivky: Because they're not allowed to do it until after the omer.
Rabbi Fohrman: Look at the next words. "Vayochlu mei'avur ha'aretz mimacharat ha'Pesach." On the next day, the day after Passover, they're eating, Rivky, the very first chadash, the very first new grain, the grain that's so new that they've never tasted this grain. It's not just this year's new grain; it's the new grain in the history. It's the first time they've ever tasted the grain of the Land of Israel.
Look at the next words. "Matzot v'kaluy b'etzem ha'yom ha'zeh," they eat it, matzah, and they eat kaluy, which means roasted grain, on that very day. Rivky, where else do you have those words, "matzot v'kaluy b'etzem ha'yom ha'zeh?
Rivky: In our portion, in Emor, we are told, "v'lechem v'kali." It's bread and not matzah, but that word kali is there as well, that you are not allowed to eat bread and roasted grain and here, "mimacharat ha'Pesach," they are eating unleavened bread and roasted grain.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. Specifically, if you go back to our, this week's portion, Emor, in Leviticus 23, you're going to hear what the omer says is that you can't eat the new grain until that day, but the new grain, the words for the new grain are sort of evocative. "V'lechem v'kali v'karmel lo tochlu," you can't eat bread and you can't eat roasted grain, "ad etzem ha'yom ha'zeh," until that very day. That was Leviticus 23.
Fast-forward into Joshua, what are the Israelites doing? They're eating from the grain of the land, "mimacharat ha'Pesach," on the day after Passover, that omer-sounding day, "matzot v'kaluy," of course, it's Passover, so they're eating matzah and not bread and they're eating that roasted grain, "b'etzem ha'yom ha'zeh," on that very day they're tasting the very first fruits of the land. Look at the next verse, Rivky, Verse 12 in Joshua 5.
Rivky: "Vayishbot ha'man mimacharat b'achlam mei'avur ha'aretz," it's that Sabbath language, mimacharat again.
Rabbi Fohrman: There's that Sabbath language with the manna. The manna finally rested. The manna, which is how we learned about rest in the first place, the very beginning of the Sabbath for us came when we understood that on Friday, you took a double portion and on the Sabbath, there wasn't going to be any more manna. Now the manna rested and it rested forever. We never saw manna again because now we had food from the land.
And so what happens, Rivky, is that when you look at, you see the beautiful intertextual triangle here. You have Leviticus 23, which is telling you about the omer and the omer, in Leviticus 23, is reminding you of something in Exodus and foreshadowing something in Joshua. It's reminding you of the manna and it's foreshadowing the moment that we will come into the land and we will taste from the very first fruits of the land. I think if you ask for one of the –
Rivky: Let me just clarify this for myself for one second. What happens when we eat from the omer, what happens when the omer is matir chadash, the omer lets us suddenly eat this new food, that, in Joshua – 40 years later, when Joshua is actually entering the land with the people of Israel – that is the first time that we actually implement this, that we actually eat chadash. We actually eat this new grain, the first of the new grain of Israel, when we finally enter that land.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. I think what you're struggling with is, okay, so what does it all mean?
Rivky: Right, that's exactly where I'm at.
What Is the Significance of the Omer Offering?Rabbi Fohrman: What it sort of all means is that the Torah, so to speak, God, looking into the future, says in Leviticus, it says, look, I know I'm going to bring you into the land. I know I'm going to give you this new grain. When I do, the manna is going to stop. But when the manna stops, it can't be forgotten. What is it that's matir chadash?
It's not that you snap your fingers and you do some voodoo magic and now you can eat the new grain. You've got to remember something to eat the new grain. You have to remember how I took care of you for 40 years. You have to understand that in the land, even though you're doing the planting, God, I'm doing the rain and I'm giving you the land and this grain is coming from me and I'm still taking care of you.
Therefore, the same way that I took care of you the first time and when I took care of you since I was giving you the food, God says, it was subject to the way I do things which is, take care of the poor and make sure there's enough for everybody. So you have to understand in the land, you're not the one in charge. You're not the one who makes this whole thing, and it's all capital that you've created there to dispose of as you see fit and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and who cares about everybody.
No, it's still coming from me, which means you still take care of the poor, which is why, in the omer laws, immediately after that, you hear about the laws of taking care of the poor, "v'leket ketzircha lo telaket," you got to leave some over for them on the fields the same I did it in the manna.
What allows you to eat the new grain is the memory of the manna. If you can't remember the time when I fed you and the idea that as you go into the land, it's just a seamless extension of that when I'm taking care of you through the land – if you can't remember that, then you don't have a right to eat of the land.
Rivky: Rabbi Fohrman, I think that's a really, really beautiful idea. It's very easy for people, once they are in charge of providing for themselves, once they are planting their own crops, once they are growing their own food and making their own bread, to look at the bread that sits on their table and say, "I made that. I did that. Look what I've created." The same way, it's easy for us today to go into a grocery store, buy some food, put it on a stove, make some elaborate meal and say, "Wow, look what I did. Let me put it on Instagram for everyone to admire my skills."
It's very easy, at that point, to forget about God to say, "Yeah, God provided for us in the desert and that was awesome. He gave us that manna and that so thoughtful. He really did us a solid. But now, I do it." I think what you seem to be saying, Rabbi Fohrman, is that God is giving us this little nudge of, you're forgetting something, you forget that I'm still involved. You're forgetting that now – you're right, you're doing a little more. You had done nothing and now you're doing something, but you're not doing it alone.
We're a partnership and if you're not remembering that we're a partnership, that's how you can say, "Why would I give to that guy? That guy didn't work any land. Why would I give to him? I'm the one who worked my land. Why should I share?" No, God says, you got stuff because I helped you. You have a responsibility to help everyone else now. I think that's a really beautiful message, Rabbi Fohrman.
The Spiritual Meaning of the Omer Offering TodayRabbi Fohrman: It's kind of the basis, I think, of regulation of unfettered capitalism. In other words, the logic behind this sort of Ayn Randian unfettered capitalism with no regulation whatsoever is, it's all mine. I did this all. Therefore, it's a level playing and I'm sorry if there's not enough for the other people, but on what moral grounds can you take away and redistribute wealth? Therefore, government involvement, so to speak, is prima facie illegitimate.
What God is doing is countering that and saying no, this is a capitalistic system, but it's regulated capitalism. There is a moral obligation to take care of the poor because I, God, retain a stake in this. I fed you the manna and I'm feeding you from the land and you're partners with me. It's not just something you're doing by yourself. And if we're a partnership, God says that I set some of these rules too.
The same values that animated the manna, there's enough for everybody and you rest and you take a break and you don't just go collecting, collecting, collecting and there's no value for rest. There are certain values that are God-given values, that no, it's not just all about what you collect.
There's a time to just take a breath and give a break to everybody and there's no collecting today. There's a sense of faith. You make sure there's enough for everybody. Those are godly values. It says look, you know, I'm not coming to you from nowhere when I give you those values. I'm coming to you because I'm a stakeholder along with you, and that's what important to me.
Rivky: Rabbi Fohrman, that's really beautiful.
Rabbi Fohrman: Well, thank you. So if you want to take a look at where these ideas started, again, go back into our Shavuot course. There, if you look at it, you'll actually be able to take the thread back a little bit further, to go all the way back into the exodus experience to the earliest roots of the manna and the omer in the exodus itself with Pharaoh under our, the collecting not of wheat but the collecting of straw for bricks. That also adds a fascinating new dimension to this whole picture. So if you get a chance, take a look at that series on Shavuos last year.
Rivky: Of course, we'll put a link to that in our show notes and a couple of other videos that I think are also really relevant and important to understanding the larger implications of this idea. I'm also thinking about the Eikev video in which we talk about appreciating our Creator.
Thank you so much, Rabbi Fohrman. This was a really fascinating, amazing discussion. Of course, as always, we love to hear feedback. Please e-mail us, firstname.lastname@example.org. If you liked this podcast, please share it with your friends. Please rate and review us on iTunes and please subscribe on Aleph Beta if you want to support our work.
Rabbi Fohrman: And even if you don't like the podcast, even if you just feel like these guys, every week they come out there and they're kind of crumby, but at least they're sweet and they're nice, rate us anyway.
Rivky: We're trying, guys. All right. Thank you so much, Rabbi Fohrman.
Rabbi Fohrman: We'll see you next week.