Harvesting the Omer on Shabbat

Menachot (10:1) | Yisrael Bankier | 15 days ago

The tenth perek discusses the minchat omer. The Mishnah explains that on the night that follows the first day of Pesach, they would harvest barley near Yerushalaim, grind it into fine flour and offer it as a mincha offering the next day. From the time the omer was offered, the consumption of newly harvested grains was permitted (chadash). The first Mishnah records debates regarding whether the harvest differed on Shabbat both regarding the amount harvested and the number of individuals involved. Regarding the later, the Chachamim maintained that there was no difference and three people were involved in the harvest, with each returning with a basket containing the barley, while R' Chanina segan ha'kohanim maintained that it was reduced to one person on Shabbat. R' Chanina maintained that considering that the harvest of the omer involves melachot of harvesting and carrying, when coinciding with Shabbat there is a need to reduce this desecration. With R' Chanina's position in mind, we shall try to understand the position of the Chachamim.

First, we need to understand why it was necessary to involve more people in the harvest in general. The Bartenura explains that it was in order to publicise that the mitzvah of harvesting the omer was on night of the sixteenth of Nissan. The Mishnah (10:3) later explains that the harvest was performed with much fanfare with all those in the surrounding area in attendance. The reason for the public display was because the Baitusim, who disregarded the oral tradition, maintained that the Omer was always brought on Sunday, irrespective of which day the first day of Pesach occurred. Since the counting of the Omer is described as starting "the day after 'Shabbat'", they read the verse literally (see the Bartenura that addresses the position of the Chachamim in more detail). The Mishnah explains that the harvest being performed in accordance with the oral tradition was publicised in order to reject that stance. The Bartenura explains that the involvement of more people in the harvest was part of the public display.

One may ask, despite the need to assert the authority of the oral tradition, how did this justify the increased desecration of Shabbat by involving more people?

The Shaagat Aryeh (59) explains that according to the Chachamim there is no difference in the desecration to Shabbat if one person performs more melachot or many perform less considering that the total melachot performed will be the same. Ordinarily, it may be that the Chachamim preferred that one perform a melacha that overrides Shabbat rather than many. Nevertheless, in this case they deemed that the necessity of publicity overrides this stringency.

The Chatam Sofer (Responsa 6:99) however explains that the actions were based on the following pasuk: "… and Bnei Yisrael kept the Shabbat in order to make Shabbat". The Gemara (Yoma 85b) explains that in certain extreme situation one can desecrate one Shabbat to ensure that many future Shabbatot will be observed. The Chatam Sofer explains the increased desecration was permitted in this case, since it was necessary to overtly reject the position of the Baitusim since their position, if adopted, would ruin the calculation of the future festivals (Shavuot).1

Another answer may be found in the explanation of the Rambam on the first Mishnah. The Rambam explains that three witnesses were required by the Torah in order that the process could be finished quickly "…as is explained after [this Mishnah]". The Chazon Nachum explains that the Rambam is referring to the next Mishnah that teaches that the Omer must be brought from a location close to the Beit HaMikdash. The reason is that one should not "pass by" a mitzvah. In other words, if the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah is available, it should not be delayed. That being the case, the requirement of using three people to harvest the Omer is part of the mitzvah and not just for publicity. Consequently, since the mitzvah is performed even if it coincides with Shabbat, the use of the three people would also be required on Shabbat.


1 Recall that when we learnt Rosh Hashanah we saw the debate regarding whether those that witnessed the new moon on a very clear night were allowed to travel to Yerushalaim, thereby desecrating Shabbat. R' Akiva maintained that it was unnecessary since others nearby would have also clearly seen the moon. Rabban Gamliel however corrected him, that they should always travel to Yerushalaim out of concern it would deter them from coming in the future when they are indeed needed. The Chatam Sofer explains that the license for them to desecrate Shabbat based on this practical consideration is similarly based on the above pasuk.

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