26 June 2008

More on Boethusians: Why a Debate about the Date of Shavuot?

After having received a communication regarding the Boethusians from my previous posts (I & II), I wanted to go back and quote some more from Raymond Harari's PhD dissertation on the Boethusians. This posting is specifically on the instance that gets the most mention in Jewish discussions throughout the year - that of the dating of the holiday of Shavuot. The Boethusians disputed with the Pharisees regarding the dating of the holiday, but no reason is given for this dispute in rabbinic literature. The crux of the argument one can easily hear nowadays is that the Boethusians denied the Oral Law, however, "at no point are the Baytusim characterized as a group which denied the overall authority of the Oral Law."1
He continues by saying that
Even if the arguments of the Baytusim were based on the biblical verse (as the Scholion presents it), we are not told that their interpretation was part of a general tendency towards literalistic understandings of the Bible or motivated by a {208} rejection of the sages' authority to interpret the Bible.2
(For a continuation of the text, see below.)
After a lengthy discussion, Harari concludes, saying that
It seems more likely, therefore, that the Baytusim are not depicted as having questioned or rejected the entire calendar determination employed by the Court. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case; having accepted the way in which the months were consecrated, the Baytusim wanted to prevail upon the sages or Perushim with respect to the determination of the holiday of Shavuot. What social or {225} political motivations underlies the view of the Baytusim is never made clear. In fact, only the Scholion provides us with the scriptural base of their argument. Nonetheless, their argument appears to have been viewed as one over a particular detail of rabbinic law and not over the determination of the calendar as a whole or the general authority of the Oral Law.3 (emphasis added by Drew)
(For the immediately preceding section, see below.)
Okay, I realize that Shavuot has passed for this year (2008/5768), but, for next year, it's up. So it may not be that the Boethusians fundamentally rejected the Oral Torah.
Here is the continuation from above:
This contrasts with the approach taken by some scholars such as J.M. Grintz and M.D. Herr.
This view of the Baytusim has been explained by scholars as having been motivated by a variety of factors. As we have seen above with respect to the reaping of the 'omer, A. Geiger argues that the biblical reading of the Perushim is actually older and presumably more in keeping with the plain meaning of the verse. The Baytusim rejected the Perushi interpretation out of resentment to the Perushim for having arrogated the power of the court. A. Guttman, while seeing both the Baytusi and Perushi interpretations as within the peshat (plain meaning) of the biblical verse, argues that the Baytusi reading must have been older, given the general leaning to literal interpretation on the part of the Seduqim. S. Zeitlin argues that the Jewish calendar was originally solar, with Shavuot always falling on Sunday. (Zeitlin apparently understood this calendar to consist of 364 days, divisible by seven.) With the change to a lunar-solar calendar, the Seduqim interpreted the verse literally, thereby {209} maintaining the celebration of Shavuot on Sunday.

L. Finkelstein characteristically sees this controversy as social in nature. The dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees (--for Finkelstein, the views of the Seduqim and Baytusim were identical) represent yet another example of the influence of each group's social standing and place of residence. The Pharisees, who were urban plebians unconnected to the soil, attempted to find meaning in the fixing of the date of Pentecost. For them, the revelation at Mount Sinai, commemorated on the sixth of Sivan, was paramount. Consequently, they reinterpreted the biblical verse so that Pentecost would fall on that same date every year. The Sadducees (actually the Baytusim), on the other hand, who were rural farmers, saw no need for such a tradition.

A fuller understanding of the view of the Baytusim regarding the dating of Shavuot and the reaping of 'omer is possible only by an understanding of sectarian calendars present during late Second Temple times. Relevant sectarian calendars are recorded, or alluded to, in the Pseudipigraphical books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch and in {210} several scrolls and fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. After a brief survey of the calendars employed in these works, we will be able to better determine when exactly the Baytusim are viewed to have placed the 'omer ceremony and the holiday of Shavuot and whether this dating was perceived as apart of an overall departure from the calendar employed by the sages and rabbis.4
Here is the section immediately preceding the conclusion from this section:
Nothing in rabbinic sources can conclusively decide this issue. Complicating the task is the fact that the stipulation that "the reaping of the 'omer is not [done] at the conclusion of the festival" is so vague that it can only be assumed to imply that the ceremony had to take place on Sunday. In other words, it can only be assumed {223} that rabbinic views of the Baytusim regarding the 'omer and Shavuot may be harmonized. Nevertheless, indications seem to be that the rabbis viewed the Baytusim as having chosen the Sunday of Passover and did not perceive the Baytusim as having adopted the Qumran-Jubilees calendar, or for that matter, any other non-rabbinic calendar. Several factors account for this:

First, had there been a more fundamental dispute between the sages and the Baytusim regarding the method of calendation, one would have expected some mention of it in one of the sources under study in this chapter. Instead, these sources limit the controversy with the Baytusim to the dating of the 'omer and Shavuot. Moreover, there is absolutely no allusion to any other calendar dispute between the two groups elsewhere in rabbinic literature. As we have seen, on many occasions, the rabbis freely criticized the Baytusim for erroneous halakhic and theological opinions. It would appear that a sweeping criticism such as this would not have been missed.

Secondly, parts a-c and f of the Scholion to Megillat Ta'anit introduce rabbinic criticism of the position of the {224} Baytusim, specifically targeted at their dating of Shavuot. These parts may admittedly represent a later layer. Nevertheless, the present location of these parts indicates that their aim was to refute the claims of the Baytusim regarding Shavuot. This specific focus conveys, therefore, at least one rabbinic perception that the challenge of the Baytusim related specifically to the determination of the date of shavuot. Thirdly, part c, which reads "And if so [i.e. if it is on Sunday], it will be found that sometimes it will be fifty-one, sometimes fifty-two until fifty-six" would not be understandable if the Baytusi calendar were equivalent with Jubilees-Qumran calendar. That calendar always had the same number of days betweren Passover and Shavuot.5

1 Raymond Harari, "Rabbinic Perceptions of the Boethusians" (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1995), 207.
2 Harari, "Rabbinic Perceptions of the Boethusians," 207-208.
3 Harari, "Rabbinic Perceptions of the Boethusians," 224-225.
4 Harari, "Rabbinic Perceptions of the Boethusians," 208-210.
5 Harari, "Rabbinic Perceptions of the Boethusians," 222-224.

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