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I'm trying to work out the Jewish holidays as a modern Christian, and am having trouble with it.

Passover starts on the 14th of Nisan (a Saturday Sabbath). The next day (a Sunday) starts the feast of unleavened bread. Leviticus 23:11 says that the feast of firstfruits starts on the day after the Sabbath - evidently that was taken to be the Monday after the start of the feast of unleavened bread, since the feast of unleavened bread was also a holiday (so says Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews: "But on the second day of unleavened bread, which is the sixteenth day of the month, they first partake of the fruits of the earth, for before that day they do not touch them.").

The problem is that Israel was required to eat unleavened bread on the first day of the feast of unleavened bread (the Sunday), but was also required not to eat any grain products until after their firstfruits offering:

Leviticus 23:14 "And you shall eat neither bread nor grain parched or fresh until this same day, until you have brought the offering of your God..." ESV).

If we place the feast of first fruits at this traditional time (which, I should note, the passage doesn't clearly prescribe), aren't the commands concerning these two holidays mutually exclusive of each other, as in "You can't do both."? What did/do Jews do about this? Or have I just misunderstood this whole thing?

Bonus: If Pentecost comes 50 days after the feast of first fruits (a Wednesday?) how is that "the day after the seventh sabbath" (Leviticus 23:16)?

  • Nisan 15, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Chag ha-Matzot), is a Sabbath, but not necessarily a 7th-day-of-the-week-Sabbath. It can fall on any day of the week. You need to do more research on this topic, and be wary of what you read, as there is a lot of misinformation out there on this subject. – Der Übermensch Nov 16 '18 at 19:14
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    Indeed. My recognition that there is bad information floating around is what leads me to ask for some help from someone who might know. – Truth Nov 16 '18 at 19:15
  • Welcome to BHSX. Thanks for the question. Note that the OT used the "sabbath" in two senses - a weekly (Saturday) sabbath and the six annual sabbaths. The six annual sabbaths did not necessarily fall on a weekly Sabbath and most often did not. – Mac's Musings Nov 16 '18 at 19:32
  • @ Dr Peter McGowan - Can you provide evidence of that? I have only found the word Sabbath used to refer to the 7th day of rest and to the day of atonement. If there are other examples I'd be interested to see them. – Truth Nov 16 '18 at 19:36
  • look in Lev 23 where almost all the annual holidays are referred to as sabbaths. Further, "sabbath" was also used of the seventh year in Lev 25 & 26. – Mac's Musings Nov 16 '18 at 21:22
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Firstfruits and Unleavened Bread
In addition to the command to eat unleavened bread at Passover and during the 7-days of Unleavened bread, bread for the sanctuary had to be made every week of the year and the priests could eat the week-old bread:

“You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD's food offerings, a perpetual due.” (Leviticus 24:5-9) [ESV accept as noted]

A prohibition not to eat grain conflicts with the requirements to eat unleavened bread on the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and to eat the Bread of Presence in the sanctuary.

Firstfruits (barley) and Shavuot (wheat) celebrated harvests of two different crops. Even though the command to avoid grain is explicit only in the instructions for the barley harvest of Firstfruits, logic applied the same standard to the wheat harvest of Shavuot:

According to the Bible, it was forbidden to eat the new barley crop until the barley Firstfruits (omer) were offered on the Feast of Firstfruits. The same principle applied to the wheat crop. Therefore, the numerous meal offerings and showbread for the sanctuary were not made from the new wheat crop until after the wheat Firstfruits were presented on Shavuot.1

As practiced, the conflicts were resolved by taking the instructions as speaking about the new harvest. That is, none of the new years grains would be eaten until after the ceremonies of Firstfruits (for barley) and Shavuot (for wheat).

Also, the word קָלִי which is commonly translated as "parched" means something roasted, parched, i.e. grains of wheat, or barley roasted in the ears. It describes a method of cooking, not a type of grain. There are parallel instructions for the lamb and bread at the time of Passover. The lamb was to be roasted not boiled or eaten raw (Exodus 12:9); the grain was to be ground, mixed with water and baked as bread, not roasted and eaten as (raw) kernels of grain.

Day of Observation
The command to observe Firstfruits does not specify a day by number:

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. (Leviticus 23:9-11)

Kevin Howard and Marvin Rosenthal state this led to different interpretations:

The Sadducees, and later Karaite Jews, understood it to refer to the first weekly sabbath (Saturday) which occurred during the week of Passover season. However, the word sabbath also designated any holy day on which work was prohibited, no matter which day of the week it occurred (Lev. 23:24, 32, 39). The majority opinion, held by the Pharisees, was that the sabbath in question was Nisan 15, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. That day was to be "a holy convocation" (Lev. 23:7) on which no work was performed. This same description was given to the weekly sabbath (Lev. 23:3) and to holy-day sabbaths held on other days of the week (Lev. 23:24-25, 28, 32, 36, 39).

Ancient Jewish observances agreed with this interpretation. Josephus, the first-century historian, wrote: "But on the second day of unleavened bread, which is the sixteenth of the month, they first partake of the fruits of the earth, for before that day they do not touch them" (Antiquities of the Jews 3.10.5).

Thus the chronology of the Passover season consisted of Passover (Nissan 14), the Feast of Unleavened Bread (7days, Nissan 15-21), and the Feast of Firstfruits (Nissan 16). The second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Nissan 16) was also Firstfruits, a day shared simultaneously by both holidays.2

As noted, the Pharisees observed Firstfruits on Nissan 16, which would be the second day of Unleavened Bread. If the alternate method was used, the day of the month would vary depending on which day the weekly Sabbath after the Passover fell. Since the Passover was Nissan 14, the earliest weekly Sabbath would be Nissan 15 and the latest would be Nissan 20. In this system, Firstfruits could be as early as Nissan 16, and as late as Nissan 21.

Regardless of which method was used the first day on Unleavened Bread is always Nissan 15 and will never be the same day on which Firstfruits is observed.

Shavuot
Like Firstfruits, the instructions on Shavuot do not specify a specific day of the month:

‘And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the LORD. (Leviticus 23:15-16 NKJV)

The 50th day would follow the decision on when Firstfruits was observed. If Nissan 16, then the day of the week on which Shavuot falls will vary each year. However, if Firstfruits was observed on the day after the weekly Sabbath, Shavuot would always fall on the day after the Sabbath.

While the Pharisees interpreted the instructions to mean Firstfruits always fell on Nissan 16, there are good reasons why this was likely a mistake:

  1. Instructions for Shavuot are clear: the day is to follow the Sabbath and there is no other Sabbath at this time of year other than the weekly Sabbath (and the day of Shavuot). Thus Firstfruits must follow the weekly Sabbath in order for Shavuot to be observed 50-days later.
  2. Every other Feast day or period which is to be observed based on the monthly calendar is specifically stated: Passover is on Nissan 14, Trumpets on Tishri 1, Atonement on Tishri 10, Sukkot begins on Tishri 15, and Unleavened Bread on Nissan 15.3 If the LORD had intended Firstfruits always be observed on Nissan 16, He would have said so. The apparent uncertainty on which day of the month Firstfruits is to be observed is a natural consequence of following a weekly Sabbath.

The first and seventh month calendars are symmetric:

Nissan                      Tishri
1 First day of year         1 Blow Trumpet
10 Select Passover Lamb     10 Day of Atonement
14 Passover                 14 Build Booth
15 Unleavened Bread begins  15 Booths begins 
21 Unleavened Bread ends    21 Booths ends
[Note: the 15th and 21st days of both months were days of no work
 therefore, a booth must be built before the 15th.]

If Firstfruits followed the weekly Sabbath, then so would Shavuot. In this case the Firstfruits/Shavuot observations would be symmetric as are the first and seventh month days:

Firstfruits      Shavuot
Weekly Sabbath   Weekly Sabbath
Firstfruits      Shavuot

Every day has a corresponding partner, either in the seventh month or following the seventh weekly Sabbath after observing the Passover.


Note:
1. Kevin Howard and Howard Rosenthal, The Feasts of the LORD, Thomas Nelson Inc, 1997, p. 91
2. Ibid., p. 76
3. Exodus 12:18 also identifies the ending date of Unleavened Bread as Nissan 21.

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The answer is both "Yes" and "NO". This is made clear in Lev 23.

The Passover and Unleavened Bread The Passover was celebrated at twilight on the 14th of Nissan (first month) with the 15th beginning a week of Unleavened Bread festival. The 15th of Nissan was to be one of the annual "Sabbaths" (Lev 23:7, 11) with the 16th to be the day of the "Wave Sheaf" of first fruits. This feast was to commemorate the deliverance of Israel from Egypt as well as the beginning of the grain harvest.

Feast of Weeks - Shavuot A week of weeks (hence the name Shavuot, ie, 50 days by inclusive reckoning) after the 15th of Nissan came the festival of Pentecost. This feast was to celebrate the (near/almost) end of the grain harvest.

The two festivals both had first fruits wave involved (Lev 23:11, 15) and both were intimately connected to the grain harvest. Both had a sacred day (Lev 23:7, 8, 21). The timing of the second was tied to the first by a space of 7 weeks/50 days. Nevertheless, they were separate feasts with separate functions.

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