Sefirat ha-Omer and Pesach's Missing Eighth Day (Ideas #80)

What are the properties of Jewish festivals (i.e. the pilgrim festivals, known in Hebrew as the shalosh regalim)?
At first glance, it appears that Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot have very little in common. If we momentarily look only at Pesach and Sukkot, however, there is much more room for comparison. Indeed, the structure (both consist of opening and closing holidays separated by five or six intermediate semi-festive days of chol ha-moed), timing (both begin in the middle of one of the two first months of the year), and theme (both celebrate different aspects of the exodus from Egypt) of Pesach and Sukkot are highly similar. In fact, the famous medieval halachist, R. Ya'akov ba'al haTurim, long ago pointed out that the natural time for Sukkot is the same as for Pesach (Orach Chaim 625).

Still, there is one glaring difference between the last days of the two festivals. Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Sukkot is not really a part of the latter. It can be described as actually coming after the end of Sukkot. (While Shemini Atzeret does share certain attributes of Sukkot, the rabbis point out that, from a halachic point of view, it is a distinct and independent holiday.) By comparison, Pesach lacks a separate holiday coming after its conclusion.

Paradoxically, it may be precisely the difference between the last days of Pesach and Sukkot that will show how the structure of both holidays is essentially identical, and how Shavuot is really not an exception to the structure of the former at all.

Ramban (Vayikra 23:36) draws a comparison between Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret by explaining that Shavuot serves the same function for Pesach as Shemini Atzeret does for Sukkot.  Thus, both Pesach and Sukkot last for seven days, with a semi-independent eighth day holiday that culminates the main one. (Ramban further notes that Shavuot is always referred to as Atzeret in rabbinic literature.) Based on this approach, Ramban makes the assertion that the days of sefirat ha-omer are really a type of chol ha-moed.

The skeptic may wonder how we can say that the structure of Pesach and Sukkot are really identical, since it forces us to give Pesach almost seven weeks of chol ha-moed whereas Sukkot has only six days. In this case, however, the difference between the two holidays has little to do with the structure of Jewish holidays per se, but rather with the distinction between the entire Tishrei season and the Nissan-Iyar-Sivan season, as will be explained.

In Tishrei, Jews are expected to have already been working hard to bring G-d into their lives before the Day of Judgment, Rosh HaShanah. This work intensifies as we prepare for Yom Kippur. By the time Sukkot comes around, there is hopefully very little need for work. Indeed, Sukkot is called zeman simchateinu, the time of our joy, a term which expressly connotes a lack of struggle and toil. The Jewish people are able to bask in the memory of G-d's closeness when He took them out of Egypt. Indeed, on Sukkot Jews relive that closeness as they leave their homes to live in the shadow of G-d's dwelling. The last day, Shemini Atzeret, comes automatically and effortlessly as a day to internalize the religious meaning of the events of Elul and Tishrei.

In Nissan, the Jews relive a delivery that could not have been preceded with adequate spiritual preparation. As the angels reminded G-d at the splitting of the ReedSea, the Jews were not deserving of G-d's salvation and revelation when He took them out of Egypt. We relive Pesach in the same way - there is no institutionalized spiritual preparation for Pesach as there is with the holidays that precede Sukkot. Thus, the overwhelming power of retelling the events of Pesach jolts us onto a high plane of spirituality that we cannot truly be ready to internalize. In this respect, it is interesting to note that the Torah reading of the last day of Pesach does not end where we would expect, with the joyful songs of the Jewish men and women who had just experienced their greatest level of national prophecy ever - a level which, in some respects, was even greater than at Mount Sinai. Rather, it ends anticlimactically with the Jews complaining about not having water to drink. The Jews were not ready to internalize the message of Pesach on the seventh day and we too are not able to culminate Pesach on the eighth day from Seder night.

We require time and effort to internalize the message of Pesach before we can be ready to go back to our regular lives with the enhanced spirituality that is characteristically engendered by Jewish holidays. It is for this reason that we are given sefirat ha-omer, days that accentuate the preparation necessary for the eighth day of Pesach which actually comes only at Shavuot.  It is also perhaps for this reason that the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11a) curiously identifies Nissan and Iyar as a single entity.

It is due to semi-prophetic Jewish intuition that the counting of the days between Pesach and Shavuot has become a very spiritually charged time, far beyond what is prescribed in the Torah. Jews have understood that, as opposed to Shemini Atzeret, Shavuot is a day we have to prepare for. Not because Shavuot is holier than Shemini Atzeret (it is interesting to note that the superimposition of Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret reinforces the comparison of the two days on a thematic level as well), but because Pesach manifests itself differently from Sukkot.

Indeed, there are two beginnings of the Jewish year, one in Tishrei and one in Nissan. These two beginnings reflect different stages in the natural cycle. In the spring, plants come out from the lifelessness of winter and quickly blossom. Nonetheless, it takes time for these blossoms to develop into fruit that will only be offered as bikkurim on Shavuot. In Tishrei, however, crops are mature and can be reaped to provide sustenance for the rest of the year. What is true of the classical vegetation of the land of Israel is true of the people of Israel as well. Nissan is a beginning that erupts dramatically, revealing G-d to the young immature Jewish nation. The Jews develop and grow, so as to present the first fruits of their connection to G-d on Shavuot. At Tishrei, the mature, G-d-aware Jewish nation presents its true fruits to G-d in thanksgiving and bliss. At that time, the Jews are able to feel the tremendous joy and harmony that flows naturally from Sukkot into Shemini Atzeret.

The matter at hand is to appreciate that Pesach is not meant to end on the seventh day, but only at Shavuot. With that in mind, we need to work harder to accept Ramban's charge of making the days of sefirat ha-omer into days akin to chol ha-moed, days of religious intensity.