Bringing the Omer

Author: Esther Ehrman, Sivan 5766/May 2006

"And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying 'When you have come into the land which I give to you, and you reap the harvest thereof, then you shall bring the omer of the first-fruits of your harvest to the priest. And he shall wave the omer before the Lord, to be accepted for you; on the morrow after the Sabbath (mi mochrat ha Shabbat) the priest shall wave it" (Leviticus ch 23 v.9-11).

Our Sages discuss exactly when and how the omer was to be brought. One question raised is the meaning of the words mochrat ha Shabbat, the morrow of the Sabbath. The Sages understood the word, the 'Sabbath', to mean the first day of the festival (of Passover) on the basis of the use of the term Sabbath in other contexts in the Torah. One sect, the Boethusians, who did not accept the Rabbinic interpretations, understood it to mean the Sabbath, literally; The omer would then have been brought at the end of the first Sabbath during Passover, whenever that might be in the festival. To ensure that this was not to be the case, the Sages made the reaping of the omer into a highly public event, which included a confirmation from all of the bystanders, to reap on the Sabbath if the day following the first day of the festival (mochrat ha Shabbat) happened to be a Sabbath. The Mishna records the procedure:

מנחות פרק י משנה ג

כיצד היו עושין? שלוחי בית דין יוצאים מערב יום טוב ועשים אותו כריכות במחבר לקרקע כדי שיהא נוח לקצור וכל העירות הסמוכות לשם מתכנסות לשם כדי שיהא נקצר בעסק גדול כיון שחשכה אומר להם בא השמש? אומרים הין בא השמש? אומרים הין מגל זו? אומרים הן מגל זו? אומרים הין קפה זו? אומרים הין קפה זו? אומרים הין בשבת אומר לחם שבת זו? אומרים הין שבת זו? אומרים הין אקצר? והם אומרים לו קצר אקצר? והם אומרים לו קצר שלשה פעמים על כל דבר ודבר והם אומרים לו הין הין הין כל כך למה? מפני הביתוסים שהיו אומרים אין קצירת העומר במוצאי יום טוב

Menahot, chapter 10, Mishna 3

How did they do it? Agents of the court go out on the eve [the afternoon before] the festival [of Passover]. And they make it into sheaves while it is still attached to the ground so that it will be easy to reap. And all the villagers nearby gather together there [on the night after the first day of Passover] so that it will be reaped with great pomp. Once it gets dark [on the night of the 16th of Nissan] he says to them:

"Has the sun set?" They say "yes". "Has the sun set?" They say "yes"

"[With] this sickle?" They say "yes". "[With] this sickle?" They say "yes".

"[Into] this container?" They say "yes". "[Into] this container?" They say "yes".

On the Sabbath he says to them:

"[on] this Sabbath? They say "yes" "[on] this Sabbath? They say "yes"

"Shall I reap?" They say to him "reap" "Shall I reap?" They say to him "reap"

Three times for each and every matter, they say to him "yes, yes, yes". All of this [pomp] for what matter? Because of the Boethusians, for they say "The reaping [of barley] for the omer is not [done] at the conclusion of the festival".

During the night the barley grains were flailed, winnowed, toasted and ground, then sifted thirteen times. One ephah, about 14 cups, was then used for the omer offering, to be mixed with olive oil and frankincense on the day of the 16th of Nissan and brought to the Incense Altar by the priest as a wave offering.

The preparation of the Omer, the reaping, winnowing etc. overrode Sabbath prohibitions. Only once the omer had been brought, was it permissible to eat the produce of that year.