The Jewish people are a most contentious one. We argue about (almost?) everything and then some. Debate is most healthy and part and parcel of our tradition, reflecting the vitality of our people, and the seriousness with which we address the issues of the day. There is little that is sadder than having one’s views ignored, not even deemed worthy of debate. Ideally all involved in debate, fierce as they may be, share a common set of values and beliefs as they seek to properly understand the Torah. They may argue vociferously but it is done with the understanding that, “These are those are the words of the living G-d” (Eiruvin 13a).

Yet this is not always possible as oftentimes the interlocutors cannot agree on the basic ground rules, and the divisions run so deep that no resolution is possible. While this is not a new phenomenon, modernity has undoubtedly helped widen many of the divides amongst our people. Debates today revolve not only around how to observe the Torah but whether much of the Torah is still binding. We cannot even agree as to who is and who isn’t Jewish.

Thankfully, one topic about which all Jews agree is the calendar. We may not agree how to celebrate Shabbat, Pesach or Yom Kippur but thankfully we all agree when those days occur. I shudder to think of a situation where one group of Jews would observe Yom Kippur on a Wednesday and another on Thursday. Such a scenario would mark the end of these groups as part of the same people.

It is for this reason Rabban Gamliel took such a harsh stance against Rabbi Yehoshua when the latter argued that the Yom Kippur should be a day later. Rabban Gamliel as the Nassi, head of the community, ordered Rabbi Yehoshua to desecrate the day he was observing as Yom Kippur, the antithesis of religious freedom, but something necessary to preserve the unity of the Jewish people. Thankfully, Rabbi Yehoshua acquiesced (Rosh Hashana 25a).

A more “vicious” debate played out between the Boethusians, Jews who rejected the rabbinic understanding of the Oral Law, and those loyal to the rabbinic tradition. The Boethusians famously argued that the counting of the omer, must always begin on a Saturday night as they (not without good reason) interpreted the phrase memacharat hashabbat as referring to the day after Shabbat i.e. Sunday, and not as the rabbis insisted the day after [the first day of] Pesach.

The Boethusians used subterfuge, false testimony and false communication in their attempt to have the new moon declared in such a way that Shavuot would fall seven weeks later on Saturday night, Sunday. They would send (false) witnesses to testify as to the sighting of the new moon, and would light fires on mountaintops to inform far away communities of the new moon on the days they wanted to declare Rosh Chodesh (see Mishna Rosh Hashanah Chapter 2). Due to the confusion caused as to the proper dates, the Sages were forced to send licensed messengers to the Diaspora informing them of the correct date, and so begins the need for yom tov sheni shel galuyot[1].

As is often the case when debates get intense, the original issues are long forgotten and the debate takes on a life on its own.

“Rav Yochanan ben Zackai tagged along [with a group of Boethusians] and said to them: Fools, what is your source” that Shavuot must fall on Sunday? The Gemara relates that there was silence with the exception of an old man who explained that “Moshe Rabbeinu loved the Jewish people and he knew that Shavuot is only one day. Therefore, he arose and established it after Shabbat, in order that the Jewish people would enjoy themselves for two days” (Menachot 65a).

Rav Yochanan ben Zackai responded by saying that if Moshe loved the Jewish people so much why did he turn an 11 day journey from Sinai to Israel into 40 years of aimless wandering in the desert.

This is a very strange discussion. The view of the Boethusians is rooted in a very plausible understanding of the Biblical obligation to bring the omer memacharat hashabbat i.e. in Sunday (see here as to why the Sages disagreed with the understanding of the Boethusians). Why did this old man ignore the obvious and better biblically rooted argument and replace it with some wild conjecture?[2] Apparently, he was unaware of the true reasons for the dispute and instead saw religion as a matter of convenience. Holidays were no longer times for religious growth but a time to enjoy a long weekend.

This may explain Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai’s harsh and almost mocking response, one that makes little logical sense. It’s not as if it is Moshe’s fault that the Jewish people had to wander for 40 years. His love of his people remained undiminished throughout. Moreover, Moshe pleaded with G-d to forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the spies, even arguing that it was in G-d’s own best interest to do so. (see Bamidbar, Chapter 14) The Jewish people wandered in the desert despite, not because, of the best efforts of Moshe Rabbeinu.

This answer was such a non-sequitur that the old man responded, “With this you dismiss me?” leading Rabbn Yochanan ben Zackai to adduce biblical proof for the rabbinic view that Shavuot could occur on any day of the week.

When in Rome do like the Romans. The Rabbis also used strong measures—honest ones—to demonstrate that the omer was to be harvested the night after the first day of Pesach, whatever day of the week that might be, and offered on the altar on the morrow.

On erev Pesach messengers of the Beit Din would go to the field from which the omer was to be harvested and mark the barley stalks that would be used for the omer. As the first day of Pesach ended people from all the surrounding towns would be encouraged to come out to the field “so that it be harvested with great fanfare”. When darkness arrived the one tasked with harvesting the barley would ask “Did the sun set? And all would answer yes”. He repeated the question two more times as he prepared to perform the mitzva. This same three-fold scenario[3] continued as he asked “With this sickle?”, “In this basket?”, “On this Shabbat[4]?”, “Should I harvest?” And "Why so much" the Mishna enquires; “Because of the Boethusians who used to say: there is no harvesting of the omer on the night Yom Tov departs”.


[1] In the year 922 Aaron ben Meir, the leading Gaon in the land of Israel, declared that Rosh Hashanah should be two days earlier and for two years this split played out in reality. The unity of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora was at risk and if not for the strong leadership of Rav Saadyah Gaon the Jewish people would have irrevocably broken apart. For more on this debate see here.

[2] Please G-d, in our next post we will discuss that his argument is not as crazy as it sounds. There is much in our tradition we do for reasons of convenience  

[3] A more familiar use of three-fold repetition is during the nullification of vows that is traditionally done on erev Rosh Hashanah. There were many who opposed the entire notion of annulling vows – and even the rabbis note that permission to annul vows is “floating in the wind and they have no source to support it” (Chagigah 10a). To emphasize the validity of the practice the custom developed that the “beit din” repeats three times, “It is permissible to you, it is permissible to you, it is permissible to you.”

[4] The harvesting and offering of the Omer overrode the Shabbat.