Most Jews observe Sivan 6, most Christians observe Sunday...

Which Day is Pentecost
(the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot)?

Modern Christianity finds itself tangled in an ancient debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Unlike the other holidays, Pentecost (the day of offering the firstfruits of the wheat harvest) is not given a fixed calendar date but rather we are commanded in the Bible to celebrate it at the end of a 50 day count often referred to as "The Omer" (=Sheaf). This suggests (to Sadducees, Karaite Jews and most Christians) that Pentecost was not intended to be observed on a fixed calendar date. The Pharisees (and most modern Jews) prefer a fixed date, Sivan 6.
The Rabbis respond that, when the calendar was maintained by observation prior to Hillel II, Nisan could be 29 or 30 days, so that 50 days reached to Sivan 5 or 6. Pentecost was not a fixed calendar date.

The commencement of the 50 day period is marked by a "wave sheaf offering" of the first sheaves of the barley harvest brought before God on the "Morrow after the Sabbath" during the seven Days of Unleavened Bread (ULB).

Exodus 34:22 "And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest,..."

Deuteronomy 16:9-10 "Seven weeks shalt thou number unto thee: begin to number the seven weeks from such time as thou beginnest to put the sickle to the corn [=barley]. {10} And thou shalt keep the feast of weeks unto the LORD thy God..."

Leviticus 23:15-17 "And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete: {16} Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days [Pentecost (Greek) = Fiftieth]; and ye shall offer a new meat [=food] offering unto the LORD. {17} Ye shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two tenth deals: they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baken with leaven; they are the firstfruits [of the wheat harvest] unto the LORD."

Arguments revolve around the word "Sabbath". It is used three times in Lev. 23:15-16. Does it always mean the same thing? If it always means "weekly Sabbath", then both the Wave Sheaf Offering and the Feast of Weeks are on the day after a weekly Sabbath. If the first "Sabbath" means "Annual Sabbath", and the other "Sabbaths" mean "period of 7 days" then the Feast of Weeks would now be observed on a fixed calendar date. But the hypothesis that "sabbath" can mean "any period of seven consecutive days" lacks supporting evidence.

Iain Ruairidh mac Mhanainn Bód writes in "Principles of Samaritan Halachah", Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1989, p. 332-3:
A striking incidence of ... the verse that is inexplicably vague or ambiguous, is Lev. 23:11, 15, which give the method of calculating the time of Pentecost each year. As is well known, the expression "morrow after the Sabbath" has been used to support four different and incompatible ways of calculating the date. The Rabbanites and Dositheans take the word "Sabbath" to mean the first day of the Passover week; the Falashas, the translators of the Peshitta, and apparently the author of IV Ezra, take it to mean the whole Passover week; the Karaites, Boethusians, and all Samaritans except the Dositheans take it to mean the Sabbath day that falls somewhere in the Passover week; the author of the Book of Jubilees and the Qumran sect take it to mean the first Sabbath day after the Passover week. The verses will support all these opinions.

In late second temple times a famous debate arose between the Sadducees [particularly the priestly family of Boethos] and the Pharisees about whether the "morrow after the Sabbath" refers to the day after the Saturday Sabbath during ULB or the day after the First Day of Unleavened Bread, a Holy Day Sabbath. The Sadducees (and the modern-day Karaite Jews) count the 50 days of the Omer from the first Sunday during the Feast of Unleavened Bread and consequentially always celebrate Pentecost (The Feast of Weeks, Shavuot) on a Sunday. The Pharisees and most modern Jews count from the day after the First Day of ULB, and so always observe Pentecost on Sivan 6.

The Beta Jews of Ethiopia count 50 from the day after the Last Day of Unleavened Bread, another Holy Day Sabbath. For them, Pentecost is on Sivan 12.

The Pharisees and modern Rabbis argue that in the phrase "the morrow after the Sabbath" the Sabbath referred to is the First Day of ULB. While the first day of ULB can be referred to as a Sabbath [a day of rest] as work is explicitly forbidden on that day, nevertheless the Bible never calls this day a Sabbath as it does the weekly Sabbath and the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:32).

Furthermore, we are commanded in Lev 23:16 "Until the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall you count fifty days". If the "seventh Sabbath" means seventh Saturday, then Pentecost must be on Sunday. But "Sabbath" also came to mean "week, ending on a Sabbath", so the Pharisees stretched "day after the Sabbath" to mean "day after the seventh period of seven days". Thus the Pharisees require two meanings of "Sabbath" in two verses: (i) from Sabbath = Annual Holy Day, (ii) Seven Sabbaths = seven periods of seven days, (iii) to Sabbath = period of seven days.

Another passage which indicates that the Wave Sheaf offering has to be the Sunday during ULB is Joshua 5:10-12 "And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and kept [i.e., sacrificed] the passover on the fourteenth day of the month at even in the plains of Jericho. {11} And they did eat of the old corn of the land on the morrow after the passover [15th?], unleavened cakes, and parched corn in the selfsame day. {12} And the manna ceased on the morrow [16th?] after they had eaten of the old corn of the land; neither had the children of Israel manna any more; but they did eat of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year."

The Rabbis argue a different timetable in which the unleavened bread eaten on the 15th was made from "old corn", and the Wave Sheaf was on the 16th. Alternatively, "the morrow after the passover" was on the 16th, and the Wave Sheaf was on the 16th also, so that the "parched corn" could have been old or new barley. The Karaites question whether the Hebrew, abur, really means "old corn", or just "corn".

The Children of Israel were forbidden to eat of the new crops until the day of the Wave Sheaf offering: Leviticus 23:10-14 "Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest unto the priest: {11} And he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it. ... {14} And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor green ears, until the selfsame day that ye have brought an offering unto your God:"

"The selfsame day" in Joshua 5:11 appears to reference Lev. 23:14 and so means "the same day as the Wave Sheaf Offering."

When was the meaning of the "Morrow after the Passover"? The Passover sacrifice was carried out towards the end of the 14th of Nisan "Between the Evenings" i.e., the beginning of the 15th (cf. Exodus. 12:18; Deut. 16:4). The question arises then whether the "Morrow after the Passover" is the morning of the 15th (i.e. the following morning, the morning of the First Day of ULB) or the morning of the 16th (i.e. the morning of the next calendar day).

The "Morrow after the Weekly Sabbath" refers to Sunday morning since the Sabbath is a 24 hour event ending on Saturday night. By comparison the "Morrow after the Passover sacrifice" should be the morning immediately following, i.e., the morning of the 15th. This speculation is confirmed by Num. 33:3 which tells "And they travelled from Ramses in the first month on the 15th of the month; on the morrow after the Passover the Children of Israel went out with a high hand in the eyes of all Egypt." In the two parallel halves of Num. 33:3 the day of the Exodus is variously described both as the 15th of the first month and as the "Morrow after the Passover". Clearly then the "Morrow after the Passover" refers to the morning of the 15th of Nisan.

It is then clear that the "Morrow after the Passover" on which the Wave Sheaf offering was brought in Josh. 5:11 was the morning of the 15th of Nisan. Since this was the First Day of Unleavened Bread, the Sabbath on the day before the Wave Sheaf must have been the weekly Sabbath. So the First Day of Unleavened Bread must have fallen out that year on a Sunday. And, in that year, the Omer would be counted from the First Day of ULB, not, as the Pharisees later claimed, the Second Day.

This example also solves the problem as to whether the Wave Sheaf Offering is on the day after the "weekly Sabbath during ULB" or "the day during ULB" after the weekly Sabbath. This is crucial when the First Day of ULB (Nisan 15) falls on a Sunday, so the Last Day of ULB (Nisan 21) occurs on a Saturday-Sabbath. The evidence from Joshua 5:11 and Num. 33:3 is that the Wave Sheaf Offering occurs during ULB, so it would occur on Nisan 15, not Nisan 22, the day after the Last Day of ULB.

The Megillath Ta'anith, "Scroll of Fasting" (ca. 150 A.D.) states that Nisan 8-22 are special commemorative days.

The explanation of this holiday according to the Scholiast (a Mishnic commentator on the meaning of the days) is that it marked the triumph of the Pharisees over the Sadducess, in the famous controversy regarding the date of Pentecost. (Solomon Zeitlin, 1922, Megillat Taanit as a source for Jewish Chronology, Philadelphia)

According to Schwab (1897, reported in Burnaby, 1931, p. 263),

[According to the Scholiast, this 15 day period] recalls the ordinance of the Pharisees that the Feast of Weeks - Pentecost - should be celebrated on any day of the week, and not be restricted upon the first day of the week, "the morrow of the Sabbath." The importance of this victory gained by the Pharisees over their opponents consisted in the principle that tradition is superior to the actual words of Scripture. The direction on Lev. 23:16 is that the Feast should be on the fiftieth day counted from "the morrow after the Sabbath" of the Passover. M. Schwab says "It must be believed that for a certain time, under the Sadducees, the Feast of Pentecost had been celebrated in conformity with their teaching, that is to say on the morrow after the Sabbath." The Commentator [in the "Scroll of Fasting"] says that when the Pharisees came into power they changed this day to the fiftieth, counted from the second day of the Passover. In remembrance of their triumph they celebrated all fifteen days, from Nisan 8 to 22, during which the debates lasted. It is further stated by the Commentator that the discussion on the meaning of the Biblical expressions took place between R. Jochanan ben Zaccai, R. Eliezer, R. Ismail, and R. Juda [i.e., between 70 A.D. and 100 A.D.].


(i) The above follows the explanation given by the Karaite Jews, Nehemia Gordon and Devorah Gordon, at

(ii) It is not clear that the constraint "during the days of Unleavened Bread" is required of "morrow after the Sabbath" for the Wave Sheaf offering. It may simply mean "morrow after the first Sabbath (of whatever type) after the first barley becomes ripe", which is around the time of ULB. In view of the precarious nature of ancient agriculture (storms, fires, floods, theft), the farmers would not wait to harvest ripe grain for more than a few days. Further, after a Sabbatical year (when food might run short, Josephus 12:9:5) or in times of famine, the people would be reluctant to wait more than a few days for the Wave Sheaf Offering.

(iii) Josephus (of priestly descent, but also at one time a Pharisee) puts the Wave Sheaf offering on the second day of ULB (Antiquities 3:10:6). But in Ant. 13:8:4, "that festival which we call Pentecost, did then fall out to be the next day to the Sabbath." This would mean that either 1st ULB was on the weekly Sabbath, or, at the time of the Maccabees, they counted from the weekly Sabbath.

(iv) The Christians perceive the Wave Sheaf offering as prophetic of Christ, after the Resurrection, appearing before the Father on the first day of the week (John 20:17 and Matt. 28:9). Jesus was the "firstfruits from the dead" (1 Cor. 15:20, 23) - the first of the spiritual "barley" harvest. Pentecost, Acts 2., is the start of the Church, the firstfruits of the spiritual "wheat" harvest (Rom. 8:23, James 1:18, Rev. 14:4).

(v) The Christian exodus from Jerusalem to Pella, before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., was apparently motivated by the voice in the Temple on Pentecost, 66 A.D., saying "Let us remove hence." (Josephus, Wars, 6:5:3).

(vi) Reasons for observing Sunday rather than Monday Pentecost:
(a) Monday requires exclusive ("starting from") counting. Both Hebrew and Greek favor inclusive counting ("stating with"). "Pentecost" means 50th, implying that Wave Sheaf is "First".
(b) There is no historical or traditional evidence for a fixed "Monday" Pentecost. There is such evidence for both Sivan 6 and "Sunday".
(c) The idea is foreign to Hebrew that any 7 consecutive days comprise a week. It appears that a week was always "Sunday to Saturday." So the day after a "week" would always be Sunday.
(d) In Leviticus 23:15-17, the word is explicitly "Sabbath" (shabath), and not "week" (shabua). So "the morrow after the Sabbath" is Sunday.

(vii) Sherrard Beaumont Burnaby (1931) Elements of the Jewish and Muhammadan Calendars. London: George Bell & Sons.
M. Moise Schwab (1897) Megillath Ta'anith Actes du onzieme congres International des Orientalistes; Quatrieme Section. pp. 199-259.

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