Monday, April 9, 2012

Yom HaBikkurim, urban legend

The title of this blog post is meant to catch your attention.  "Yom HaBikkurim, urban legend"!  Can it be true?

Well, not exactly.  Let me explain.

In Messianic Jewish circles, I regularly encounter references to the first day of the omer count as "Yom HaBikkurim."  I grew up with this being taught to me and continue to encounter it both on blogs and in books.  (Not to mention the omer count debate.  Seriously...don't mention it.  Not going there on this post.)  [Update: The reason for this teaching is to justify using the name Yom HaBikkurim as a "kosher substitute" for the term "Easter," the latter being something a non-sequitur of a name for those who didn't grow up within a tradition that uses it.  The underlying assumption is that Yom HaBikkurim is the Biblical holiday on which the resurrection of Yeshua took place.  For examples, simply Google "Yom HaBikkurim."]

However (unless one of you can persuade me otherwise), I'm strongly leaning towards the conclusion that "Yom HaBikkurim" refers not to the first day of the omer count at all--but rather, to the day AFTER the LAST day of the omer count.  In other words, Yom HaBikkurim is not a complete urban's another name for Shavuot.

Let's start by considering Numbers 28:26:
On the day of the firstfruits, when you offer a grain offering of new grain to the Lord at your Feast of Weeks, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work.
This verse equates "the day of firstfruits" (yom habikkurim) with "your Feast of Weeks."  A.k.a. Shavuot.

Case closed, right?

No--there's more!  Let's check out Leviticus 23--the chapter that holds all the answers, right?
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, so that you may be accepted. On the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it." (Lev 23:9-10)
Let's see: waving firstfruits, day after the Sabbath ...maybe (ignoring Num 28:26 for a second) this is Yom HaBikkurim?

I see two problems with this reading.  The first problem is that "firstfruits" are also mentioned later on in the chapter:
...count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the Lord. You shall bring from your dwelling places two loaves of bread to be waved, made of two tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour, and they shall be baked with leaven, as firstfruits to the Lord. (vv. 16-17)
and again in verse 20:

And the priest shall wave them with the bread of the firstfruits as a wave offering before the Lord, with the two lambs. They shall be holy to the Lord for the priest.
The second problem is that the word בִּכּוּרִים, bikkurim, does not appear in Lev: 23:9-10.  (Say what?)  That's right, the reference to "a sheaf of the firstfruits" in 23:10 is actually a translation of the phrase (עֹמֶר רֵאשִׁית, omer reisheet).  When the word bikkurim does appear in verses 17 and 20, it is referring to Shavuot.

I am aware of the section of mishna Zeraim called Bikkurim, but in my (limited) searching so far, I've seen no reference to the first day of the omer count as Yom HaBikkurim.  Strong's concordance 1061 also seems to concur with me here: "day of the first-fruits (Pentecost) Numbers 28:26."

In support of the first day of omer count as Yom HaBikkurim idea, I have only two observations (neither of which I find convincing):

First, many Bibles have a header above Leviticus 23:9-14 such as "The Feast of Firstfruits."  While that certainly predisposes readers of those Bibles to see that passage as describing such a festival (even leading some Biblical conspiracy theorists to speculate about why the feast of firstfruits "disappeared" from the Rabbinic calendar), it hardly constitutes an authoritative interpretation of the passage itself.

Second, there is the statement by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 15:20:
But in fact Messiah has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 
Paul is certainly using the language of harvest to describe Messiah's resurrection.  But I'm not convinced we can infer that the first day is "Yom HaBikkurim" in any official sense solely on this basis...only perhaps in a symbolic sense.

We might also ask whether Leviticus 23:9-14 is meant to be read as a distinct section from 15-22, but [see below] rather than going on, I think I'll simply close by restating my thesis as a question:

Is there any basis for referring to the first day of the omer count as Yom HaBikkurim?  Show me what I'm missing, friends!

Oh yeah, and happy Omer/Bikkurim to you all.

Update: I'm sure I'm not the first one to point this out.  So, wrong or right, if you want to point me towards articles addressing what I bring up here, I'd appreciate that too!

Second update: I had briefly suggested that perhaps Lev. 23:9-14 and 23:15-22 were not two distinct units, but verse 15 brought me back to reality: "From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks."


Anonymous said...

well... the imagery of Paul would suggest the earlier date. If Yeshua is the first fruits.. followed by the harvest... you have to wait a couple of months for the harvest, and we are still waiting for the resurrection of the rest of us...

The language allows for the earlier date although its a bit sketchy...

If you interpret it one way or the other, why not explain how this will change our lives or at least our understandings of Biblical events or truths? - and if it doesn't... then... what?

Yahnatan said...

Thanks for asking why this matters, Dr. Schiffman. I added the following comment above (without which those who were unfamiliar with the usage I'm addressing would think I'm addressing some arcane point with little relevance):

"The reason for this teaching [about Yom HaBikkurim being the first day of the omer count] is to justify using the name Yom HaBikkurim as a "kosher substitute" for the term "Easter," the latter being something a non-sequitur of a name for those who didn't grow up within a tradition that uses it. The underlying assumption is that Yom HaBikkurim is the Biblical holiday on which the resurrection of Yeshua took place."

Why does this matter? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, right?

Perhaps. On the other hand, if people started calling Shavuot "Hag Ha-Asif," would it be worth pointing out the discrepancy?

Dr. Schiffman said...

I have no problem with Easter.. its someone else's holiday.

Yahnatan said...

I feel the same way.

Anonymous said...

Yahnatan, for what its worth, I also grew up with Yom HaBikkurim as a concept for Yeshua's Resurrection and had my own series of "aha" moments for myself regarding this curious switch-up that led to the consensus Messianic terminology. Somewhere along the line (I don't think it was on my watch ;), Word of Messiah Ministries edited the book Messiah in the Feasts of Israel by Sam Nadler to reflect what you discovered! So be encouraged! :-)

We still wanted a Firstfruits referencing name for the start of the omer - both in light of Yeshua's resurrection, and to keep continuity with the fact that it is called Firstfruits by Messianics - and went with "Reisheet."

Yahnatan said...


Nice! The term "Reisheet" actually occurred to me as well. I actually thought it sounded familiar, so I'm glad to know that Word of Messiah (among others?) is using it.

The other term I thought of was actually "Pesach"--which reflects the non-English speaking church world's use of the term Pascha to refer to Easter. For them Pascha includes not just Sunday morning, but the whole week leading up to it and the eight days after (I think). Pascha of course derives from the Hebrew Pesach; it is found in our Apostolic Writings and is used to refer to the Paschal lamb, the day of Passover, the week of Passover/Unleavened Bread, and the
sacrifices offered throughout that entire week. (See my previous blog post, Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?.)

Using the term "Pesach" in this broader sense would not only unite our Messianic Jewish practice with a vast segment of the body of Messiah worldwide, but also establish just as clearly how our current practice and celebration is the source from which theirs springs. These overlaps are masked by the more simplified approach to the calendar which sees Easter as just a day (or morning)...rather than play into this as a false dichotomy, we could embrace our sister tradition while simultaneously immersing ourselves in our own tradition.

Of course, it would also mean adding great significance to motzei Shabbat on Pesach II (or Shabbat Pesach Ch''M, depending on how we reckon) and the following morning. To me the "traditional Jewish way" to make the night
special is obvious: all night study session!!!