“The Sadducees and the Counting of the Omer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the 63 mitzvot (24 positive and 39 negative) found in this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, is the mitzvah of counting the “Omer” (see Emor 5763-2003).

The Torah in Leviticus 23:15 declares: וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה, שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה, You shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the day of rest, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving, seven weeks, they shall be complete. The very next verse, Leviticus 23:16, states that the count is to continue until the morrow of the seventh week, for 50 days, when a new meal offering shall be presented to the L-rd.

The mitzvah of “Omer” עֹמֶר requires that before any grain product of the new season may be eaten, a measure of barley, an Omer, must be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem on the second day of Passover as an offering to G-d. Once the Omer of barley is brought, all grain (not only barley) that had already taken root prior to the second day of Passover, may be eaten. Grain that takes root after that day, cannot be eaten until the following Passover, when a new Omer offering will be brought. Although all five species of grain are permitted for general use after the Omer offering has been made on the second day of Passover, none of these grains could be used for sacred purposes in the Temple, until the festival of Shavuot, 50 days later, when the two special loaves of bread are offered.

The Sadducees, or צְּדוֹקִים, were a sect of Jews who were active in Judea during the Second Temple period. Priests of the Sadducean persuasion became dominant by the end of the Hasmonean period, when the priesthood became corrupt, and was often sold to the highest bidder. Followers of the Sadducees became increasingly influential and flourished until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE.

The name “Sadducees” is generally assumed to derive from the name of the High Priest, “Tzadok” צָדוֹק, who served in the first Temple, and established the priestly cast of the “Sons of Tzadok.” Eventually, the priests from the house of Tzadok and their followers, the Sadducees, became so influential, that they were charged with both administering the Jewish state domestically and representing it internationally. They participated in the Sanhedrin, the High Court of Israel, assumed the authority to collect taxes, had command of the army, regulated relations with the Romans and mediated domestic disputes.

The primary feature of the belief system of the Sadducees was based on a literal interpretation of the Torah, which they regarded as the sole source of Divine regulations and authority. The Oral Code that was so essential to the belief of the Pharisees, or the פְּרוּשִׁים (traditionalists), was rejected by the Sadducees. The Sadducees denied belief in fate and in the immortality of the soul. They also rejected the idea of the afterlife, and maintained that there was no reward or punishment after death.

Because they rejected the Oral Code, they frequently found themselves in disagreement with the Pharisees and the rabbinic tradition.

One of the best known and most formidable disagreements between the Sadducees and Pharisees concerned the counting of the Omer.

The Pharisees and rabbinic tradition maintain that the words of Leviticus 23:15, “And you shall count for yourselves,” meant that each individual must count every one of the 49 days separately, and out loud. The phrase, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, from the morrow of the Sabbath, was the major point of dispute. As Rashi says, the word “Sabbath” in this instance cannot possibly refer to the ordinary weekly day of rest, since there are 52 Sabbaths each year. They, therefore, interpreted the word “Sabbath” to refer to the day of Passover itself, since it too is a rest day, when ordinary work is forbidden. Thus, the counting begins on the day after the first day of Passover.

The Sadducees (some say it was another heretical sect, the Boethusians), on the other hand, interpreted the word, “Sabbath,” to mean literally the Sabbath itself, identifying the first day of counting as the first Sunday that followed the commencement of Passover, which, of course, could be as many as six days after the first day of Passover.

Another of the well-known disputes between the Pharisees and the Sadducees concerned the interpretation of the verse (Exodus 35:3) forbidding the kindling of fire in one’s house on the Shabbat. Rabbinic tradition stated that if one lit a fire before Shabbat, the fire can certainly burn unattended during Shabbat. The Sadducees, and later the Karaites, however, insisted on the very literal interpretation of this verse, refusing to kindle any fire in their homes on Shabbat. These interpretations made life very difficult for the Sadducees, and probably led to the decline in popularity with their followers.

The Karaites, in later generations, also interpreted the verse prohibiting leaving one’s home on Shabbat (Exodus 16:29) as a literal injunction against leaving one’s home throughout the duration of Shabbat. Rabbinic tradition interpreted the prohibition of leaving one’s home to mean that one may not walk more than 2,000 cubits outside the city limits.

Many texts are brought to support the contention of an Oral Code. One of the most prominent is Deuteronomy 12:21, “And you shall sacrifice…the way I have commanded you,” which refers to the Jewish method of slaughter known as “Shechitah” שְׁחִיטָה. Nevertheless, nowhere in the Five Books of Moses are there any instructions given regarding the very complicated and precise mechanics of kosher slaughter, implying that the instructions had already been given and were transmitted by G-d orally to Moses at Sinai.

It is assumed that the later Karaite movement, a movement that also rejected the Oral Code, which developed during the Gaonic Period (7th to 9th centuries CE), drew its beliefs and many of its customs and practices from the earlier Sadducees. Small Karaite communities still exist in various parts of the world. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE, references to the Sadducees become increasingly infrequent.

Maintaining the traditions of Judaism has never been easy. Most of the time, the primary challenges are of external origin, but at times the challenges are internal, as we see in this instance. At least in this case, being “stiff-necked,” has served our People well.

May you be blessed.

Yom Ha’Zikaron, Israel Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, is observed this year on Sunday night, May 4th, and all day Monday, May 5th, 2014.

Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, will be observed on Monday night, May 5th, and all day Tuesday, May 6th, 2014.

Yom Ha’Atzmaut Samayach!