Class Notes - Class #21

Mitzvah #299 requires that the community bring appropriate mussaf sacrifices on all seven days of Passover.  We will see parallel mitzvot for each of the other holidays.  The same mussaf was brought on each day of Passover.  Like the mussaf for rosh hodesh, it consisted of two bulls, one ram and seven lambs.  Those are brought as olot, sacrifices that are entirely burned.  There is also one goat brought as a hattat.  The author says these various mussaf sacrifices help contribute to the atmosphere of the Temple on holidays by making those days seem more special.  We have already discussed sacrifices and we will not go into the details of each mussaf. 

            The author deals with two other topics of interest in this essay.  First he discusses which sacrifices are “m’akev” to other sacrifices.  We have seen the concept of m’akev before.  Sometimes we are required to do several related actions. Perhaps we succeed in doing some of those actions and not others. When we ask if two actions are m’akev to each other, we are asking whether doing half a job is doing something significant or whether doing half a job is equivalent to doing nothing.    If doing some of those actions is significant in itself, even if we have not done all of the actions, the actions are not m’akev to each other.  If our actions are only significant if we do all of the related actions, the actions are m’akev to each other.  The author asks which of the sacrifices we are required to bring on Passover are m’akev to each other, and he also considers which sacrifices on Shavuot are m’akev to each other.  Feel free to follow up the details of the discussion on your own if you like.

            At the end of each mitzvah/essay, our author has explained to whom each mitzvah applies.  In this essay that turns out to be complex.  The mitzvah would seem to apply to male cohanim, as it was there job to process the Temple sacrifices.  If the cohanim failed to bring the mussaf sacrifice, those cohanim bore the responsibility and ordinary Jews did not. But these sacrifices were brought on behalf of the entire Jewish community, so other Jews are not entirely free of responsibility.  Thus, if the cohanim are falling down on the job and other Jews can facilitate getting the job done, the other Jews are responsible to do so.


Even though the second day of Passover is not a Biblical holiday, it was the day of a special sacrifice called the “omer.”  The omer was a measure of newly ripe barley brought as a communal minchah.  It was brought only once, on the second day of Passover.  Passover occurs in spring, when the earliest produce is ripening.  Certain crops which are coming ripe may not be eaten until after the omer sacrifice is brought. As we will see, the omer sacrifice begins a process of expressing thankfulness for the grain harvest; that process ends on Shavuot.  Mitzvot #302 – 305 deal with the omer.

            The omer is sometimes called “minchat bikurim,” the minchah of the first fruit.  That recalls the mitzvah we saw earlier about bringing samples of newly ripe fruit to the Temple as a way of thanking God for the harvest.  Similarly, we bring a sample of newly ripe grain as a way of recognizing that we would not have the upcoming grain harvest without God’s help.  The omer is barley because barley is the first of the grains to ripen. The author says we will be blessed with an abundant harvest if our deeds make us worthy of it. 

The source verse the author relies on for the mitzvah to bring the omer, Lev. 23:10, is clearly a mitzvah to bring the omer sacrifice.  But Lev. 2:14 says “if you bring a minchat bikurim.”  The word “if” makes it sound like bringing the omer is optional rather than required.  The author cites the midrash halachah for the notion that the word “im,” if,” usually does describe an optional act.  But there are three exceptions, and this is one of them.

The source verses for mitzvah #302, Lev. 23:10 – 11, requires us to bring the omermimacharat hashabbat,” “on the day after Shabbat.”  Other Jewish sects in the tanaitic period interpreted that verse to mean the omer should be brought on the first Shabbat after the beginning of Passover.  But the Pharisees disagreed.  Onkelos understands the word Shabbat in that verse to mean the day of rest that is the first day of Passover.  Thus, the omer is brought on the second day of Passover.  In the Temple, that day would have been “hol hamoed,” one of the intermediate days of Passover.  (Our author will teach us about hol hamoed when we get to the mitzvot of Succot.)  On the first day of Passover we are busy paying careful attention to the Exodus from Egypt.  The second day of Passover is the first opportunity to bring the omer.

The author describes the entire process of bringing the omer sacrifice. Before Passover the Sanhedrin would identify appropriately ripe barley; they looked for barley that looked fresh and moist so it obviously had just ripened.  Best was to use barley growing in or near Jerusalem, but if none of that was ripe, barley from farther away in Israel was identified.  The barley was cut at night, right after the end of the first day of Passover, even if that was Shabbat.  Three teams would go out to the fields, each team was supposed to collect one “se’ah” of barley.  (Se’ah is a volume measure equivalent to 144 eggs.) People came to watch the cutting.  The author quotes the ritualized call and response that took place before each team cut the barley.  The fanfare helped make the omer seem special and important, but it was also a response to the other denominations that held the omer ceremony should take place on a different day.

The omer was offered as a sacrifice the following morning. The three se’ah of barley were brought to the Temple. One “issaron” was taken off and sifted thirteen times.  (Issaron is a volume measure equivalent to approximately 43 eggs.) The rest of the barley was redeemed for money so that it became ordinary food that anyone could eat.  The redeemed barley was subject to “hallah,” the portion of bread dough or baked bread that had to be given to a cohen, but was not subject to other taxes. The issaron of barley was processed like other minchah sacrifices; it was mixed with oil and frankincense was put on top.  But a cohen would wave it in six different directions before taking it to the corner of the altar.  A handful of the omer was burned on the altar, and the rest could be eaten by the cohanim. 

This mitzvah applies to men, but not to women because it is a positive mitzvah that needs to be done at a particular time.  It only applies when the Temple is functioning.  As we saw in the essay about the mussaf sacrifices on Passover, this mitzvah falls primarily to the cohanim.  But other Jewish men share some responsibility to facilitate getting the mitzvah done. 

Passover occurs at about the same time as the beginning of the grain harvest.  Mitzvot #303 – 305 specify that we may not eat the new grain until the omer has been brought.  Mitzvah #303 prohibits eating bread made of the new grain, mitzvah #305 prohibits eating the sheaves of grain that have been toasted whole, and mitzvah #304 prohibits eating individual grains toasted, a common treat.  Since these are three separate mitzvot, someone who eats a k’zayit of bread, another of grain roasted on the sheaf and another of toasted individual grains would be punishable by three sets of malkos.  People were allowed to eat the new grain after the omer was brought, but the m’nachot in the Temple had to be made out of the prior year’s grain until the special minchah of Shavuot was completed. 

The author explains the shoresh of several different mitzvot by saying they help us express our gratitude to God for providing the things we need to survive.  Here our author expands that notion.  Grain is among the most basic of foods so it makes sense to have a special way of expressing our gratitude for that.  We make ourselves more worthy to receive God’s goodness by showing we appreciate what we have. But there is also a negative element to this approach.  If we eat the food God provides us without expressing gratitude, we have taken something holy inappropriately.  That is why we say a blessing before eating food God has provided us.  We wait before eating the new grain crop until we have brought the omer and thereby expressed our gratitude.

The prohibition on eating the new grain applies to five types of grain: wheat, oats, rye, barley and spelt.  In Temple times, people could begin eating the new grain once the omer was brought, so people in Jerusalem paid attention to exactly when that happened.  Outside of Jerusalem people waited until midday, but they were allowed to assume that the omer had been brought by then. Although the mitzvah to bring the omer only applies when the Temple is functioning, the prohibition on eating the new grain applies even now.  So by Torah law, according to our author, we should wait to eat grain from the new crop until the following day, the third day of Passover or the seventeenth of Nissan.  And in places where people observe holidays for two days people should not eat the new grain until the day after that.

The author says this prohibition applies everywhere and at all times.  He does not write about how to apply it in practice.  Other authorities disagree about when and where this mitzvah applies. Some say that waiting to eat grain grown outside of Israel is d’oraita, while others say that waiting to eat grain grown outside of Israel is d’rabanan.  Some say that if this prohibition applies d’rabanan, it only applies in Israel or in areas adjacent to Israel.  That would make it parallel to certain agricultural taxes which the rabbis imposed in areas adjacent to Israel.  Some say the prohibition applies only to grain grown by Jews and not to grain grown by non-Jews. Also, it is not clear whether a consumer of grain grown outside of Israel need inquire about when the grain was grown.  Rather, the consumer might be protected because of multiple layers of doubt.  Maybe the grain was actually from the prior year’s crop.  Maybe it was from the new crop but the plants were fully established before Passover, which would mean it counts as the old crop.  Maybe the grain was grown by non-Jews.  Many Jewish communities, including the communities in Eastern Europe, did not distinguish the old grain crop, “yoshon,” from the new grain crop, “hadash.”  That might be because of different climatic conditions.  In Northern Europe in the middle ages, spring was called “starving time” because the store of food kept over the winter had been exhausted and the new crop was not yet ripe.  For more on this topic, see the articles on the web sites of the Orthodox Union and the Star-K.

It may seem odd that these mitzvot allow us to eat the new crop of grain beginning on Passover.  Our current practice is that we only use the designated five grains that has already been baked into matzah; we make nothing out of whole grain or flour on Passover.  In earlier times people cooked and baked with grain on Passover, but they were careful the grain they used did not become hametz.



Mitzvah #306 requires that we make a connection between Passover and Shavuot by counting the days.  The shoresh for this requirement is that we celebrate receiving the Torah on Shavuot and the counting reminds us of the centrality of Torah.  This is often called “sefirat haomer” because we are counting from the day the omer is brought to Shavuot.  But there was only one omer, and it was brought on the second day of Passover.

God’s purpose in rescuing the Jews from slavery in Egypt was so that the Jews would accept the Torah, honor it and study it.  By counting the days from the exodus until the day of the revelation on Sinai, we indicate that we understand that the exodus was only in service of our accepting revelation.  The author compares this experience to someone who is longingly waiting for something wonderful to happen and therefore counts the days to the upcoming wonderful moment.  We count the days of the waiting period that have passed rather than the days left to go because it would be too depressing at the beginning of the count to keep reminding ourselves of how many days we still have to go. We might be tempted to switch in the middle, counting how many days have passed for the first days, and then counting how many days are left when we get close enough so we no longer have to deal with a depressingly large number.  But our author explains that the mitzvah here is to count the days, so we need to pick one method and stick with it.

Two different verses describe this obligation.  Lev. 23:16 says to count fifty days.  Deut. 16:9 tells us to count seven weeks.  One possible way to reconcile these verses is to count each day and also count each completed week.  But the author suggests that we count each day, day by day, and also count however many weeks plus however many days.  Although counting that way is a little bit awkward, the author recommends that formulation since it satisfies both possible ways of understanding what is required.  Indeed, that has become common practice.  We count days “of the omer” rather than counting the days from the second day of Passover; it gives the process more dignity to count from one distinctive moment than from the second day of something.  When we mention the omer, we also remind ourselves of God watchful care over us expressed by the new harvest.

Ideally we count at night so that we can count each day as soon as possible.  But if someone forgot to count at night, the counting could be done any time during the day.  The author says that the authorities in his community ruled that if someone forgot to count one day, the person could continue the count on the next day.  But the author says other authorities disagree and rule that if someone misses counting on one day the person may not continue counting because, having missed a day, the person is no longer counting.  Current practice is that if someone misses a day the person continues counting but no longer says the blessing on subsequent days. 

The author quotes Rambam, who warns us off thinking that the two verses support two different mitzvot because each verse formulates the requirement to count in a different way. Just because we are told to do two actions does not mean that those two actions represent two different mitzvot.  Here, the rabbis understood these two formulations as one mitzvah and therefore formulated only one blessing for the act of counting.

Our author says this mitzvah applies everywhere.  It applies to men but not to women, since it is a positive time-bound mitzvah.  By Torah law, it applies only when the Temple is functioning and the omer is brought, but it applies now by rabbinic legislation.


Mitzvot #307 – 309 are about Shavuot.  Mitzvah #308 requires that we rest on Shavuot and #309 prohibits our doing m’lechet avodah on Shavuot. The author has already covered the relevant material for these two mitzvot in earlier essays.

            Mitzvah #307 requires us to bring a special minchah sacrifice on Shavuot.  It consists of two breads made from the new crop of wheat.  Thus a special offering of the new grain crop occurs at the beginning and end of the period of counting from the second day of Passover through Shavuot.  The omer consisted of barley flour, whereas the special minchah for Shavuot consisted of loaves of wheat bread.  The author explains that we recognize that God is providing grain for our animals, barley, as well as food for people, wheat bread.  The author suggests we will be more easily inspired to gratitude if we bring a sacrifice of bread that closely resembles our most basic food.

            This special minchah is called “sh’tei halechem,” “two breads,” for the obvious reason.   Our author describes the process of preparing and bringing it in detail.  The wheat was the first wheat from the new crop to be used in the Temple service.  If no new wheat was available, wheat from the prior year’s harvest was used.  This minchah was baked outside the Temple on the day before Shavuot.  The bread was hametz, which is very unusual for sacrificial food.  Each bread was shaped like a large, shallow box.  That shape was needed because a live sheep was placed on each bread and the cohanim waved the bread and sheep in six directions just as they had done with the omer fifty days earlier.  Then the sheep were brought as shlamim sacrifices, along with a selection of other animal sacrifices which were brought with their attendant m’nachot and libations.  The cohen gadol ate one of the breads and the other cohanim ate the other bread.  All of this was in addition to the mussaf for Shavuot.


Mitzvot #310 through 312 are about Rosh haShannah.  Mitzvah #310 requires that we rest on Rosh haShannah.  Mitzvah #312 requires that a specific mussaf sacrifice be brought in the Temple.  Mitzvah #311 prohibits doing m’lechet avodah on Rosh haShannah.  In that essay the author discusses the term “rosh hashannah,” “new year,” and explains how he understands the significance of the holiday of Rosh haShannah.

The author recounts the famous first Mishnah in Masechet Rosh haShannah, which lists four different “new year” days. 

1.       Nissan, the month in which Passover falls, is normally considered the first of the months. The Mishnah says the first day of Nissan is the new year for “kings and pilgrimage festivals.”  People governed by monarchs typically designate years based on the reign of each new king.  (Our secular calendar, which purports to start in the year Jesus was born, is an example of that system.)  As each new king begins to rule, the year goes back to “year 1.”  That is a pretty confusing system, especially if new kings come to power fairly often.  To simplify a little, the year can be designated to begin on a certain date. The first year of a given king’s reign begins when the king begins to rule, the “second” year of that king’s rule begins on a designated date that stays the same from king to king.  For Jewish kings, that date is the first of Nissan.  The first of Nissan is also the new year for pilgrimage festivals. Imagine that someone vows to bring a voluntary sacrifice within a year.  According to the opinion in this Mishnah, the “year” begins at the next Passover, and the person must bring the sacrifice sometime before the end of the cycle of pilgrimage festivals that begins with that upcoming Passover.  (There is another opinion that the person needs to bring the sacrifice within the year that begins the day the person made the vow.)

2.      The first day of Elul is the new year for “ma’aser b’heimah.”  Someone who raises animals must designate one in ten of the newborn animals to be a shlamim sacrifice.  The sacrificial animals must be from the crop of animals born in that year; the owner cannot designate an animal born in one year as the sacrifice for the animals born in another year.  The first day of Elul is the day that separated one year from the next; it is the beginning of the fiscal year for calculating ma’aser b’heimah.  There are several agricultural taxes that follow the same rule, where the tax for that year must be taken only from the produce of that year and not from the produce of a different year. That system works better if the fiscal year begins at a time when the produce is dormant, so there is no produce ripening around the time when the fiscal year changes.  Thus, for domestic animals whose young are typically born in the spring, the fiscal year begins in the fall.

3.      Tishri is normally counted as the seventh month of the year. But the first of Tishri, Rosh haShannah, is the new year reckoned from the “creation of the world.”  It is also the first day of a new shmittah year and the first day of the new yovel year.  It is the beginning of the fiscal year for agricultural taxes on vegetables.  It is also relevant to calculating the three year term for orlah; if a tree was planted at least 45 days before the first of Tishri, it is considered to be in its second year of growth after the first day of Tishri.

4.      Finally, the Mishnah records a dispute about the date of the beginning of the fiscal year for agricultural taxes on tree fruit.  Beit Shammai thinks that fiscal year begins on the first of Shvat; Beit Hillel thinks that fiscal year begins on the fifteenth of Shvat.


Our author writes at length about the imagery and meaning of Rosh haShannah.  He says Rosh haShannah is the day when all humans are judged for their deeds.  That overall notion has several aspects.

The author returns to the familiar theme that God’s watchful care extends to each individual person.  People are judged individually, like sheep in single file passing before their shepherd.  Having a day every year on which we focus on being judged is a manifestation of God’s kindness.  If we are doing things wrong, we are better off if we deal with our behavior periodically rather than letting our misdeeds accumulate year after year.  That allows God to meet out consequences in small, manageable units rather than in large, devastating events.

Given that, we should behave with reverent awe and fear on Rosh haShannah.  We blow the shofar, described as “zichron t’ruah,” a reminder of a broken sound.  The broken sound reminds us to break the stubborn willfulness that leads us to behave badly.  (Our author promises to discuss shofar in more detail when we get to the mitzvah that requires our blowing the shofar on Rosh haShannah.)  And that theme explains why we do not say hallel on Rosh haShannah.  People standing before a judge do not typically burst into joyous song.

Our author says we can do four things to mitigate the impending punishment:  tzedakah,” giving charity; “tze’aka,” calling out in prayer; “shinui ma’aseh,” changing one’s behavior; and “shinui shem,” changing one’s name.  When someone changes his or her name, the new name serves as a symbol that this is a “new person” who will behave differently.  Every time the person hears the new name, the person will be reminded of the need for improved behavior.

The author draws an image of God holding open three ledgers, one for the righteous, one for the wicked, and one for those in between.   The righteous are people who are completely righteous.  The wicked are people who are completely wicked.  That means that all of us are “in between.”  The judgment of those in between is held in suspense until Yom Kippur.

Most of this imagery is familiar to us from our High Holiday prayers.  But the author takes pains to point out that all of this is imagery, metaphor.  He specifically says the image of the God holding ledgers open is “mashal.”  He says that thinking about Rosh haShannah as the day of judgment is “derech m’litzah,” “flowery language.”

We have seen our author consistently concerned with anthropomorphism.  We talk about God using the same terms we use to describe humans, but we need to remember that those terms are not accurate descriptions of God.  Presumably, if we change the way we relate to God, that impacts on how God relates to us.  But taking this imagery at face value puts God in a strait jacket.  We say God opens the ledgers on Rosh haShannah and makes a final judgment on Yom Kippur.  But Yom Kippur might not be the appropriate moment for a given person to be judged.  The judgment that is made might not remain appropriate if the person’s behavior or circumstances change.  Rosh haShannah is a time for individuals and the community to think about improving.  The purpose of this imagery is to motivate people toward appropriate introspection on Rosh haShannah.  If someone finds the imagery more disruptive than helpful, remember that it is only imagery and flowery language.

Speculating about what happens after someone dies, the author extends the parable of “three ledgers.”   He says that people fall into the same three categories: completely righteous, completely wicked, and somewhere in the middle.  Each person is judged and receives an appropriate reward or punishment.  The rewards are carefully calibrated so that each person gets exactly what he or she deserves.

An enigmatic passage appears in the middle of this discussion.  Our author directly addresses his son and says his explanation clears up a “great difficulty,” but the author does not say what that difficulty is or how this explanation resolves it. 

The translator speculates that the author is referring to a question described in a responsum by Rabbi Shlomo ibn Aderet.  According to the Encyclopedia Judaicia, ibn Aderet (c. 1235 – c. 1310) served as rabbi of Barcelona for forty years.  As a young man he was a financier, but he withdrew from business to devote his time to rabbinic leadership.  He was a major rabbinic authority of his day, author of about a thousand responsa answering questions sent him from many different communities.  He was influential in building the Jewish community institutions in Barcelona. He was a student of Roman law, local Spanish legal practice, philosophy and science. Intellectually he respected Rambam’s rationalist approach as well as Ramban’s mysticism, much as our author does.  Our author has referred to his teacher, and ibn Aderet is probably the teacher he is referring to.  The translator even considers the possibility that our author was the student who asked the question.