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D'varim/Deuteronomy 16:1 Keep the month of Aviv and make the pesach offering to the L-rd your G-d
The verb that opens the verse - , a Qal infinitive absolute from the root - can mean "to guard", "to keep" or "to observe" and can overlap with the root which has similar meanings in the range "watch, keep, observe". Within the Jewish world, you'll hear someone who is committed to observing the shabbat regulations as shomer shabbat and G-d Himself is named , the Guardian or Keeper of Israel (Psalm 121:4). Whilst most translations render this verse using the word 'keep' or 'observe',Rashi opts for the 'guard' meaning. It is also noticeable that in this instruction and the ones in the verses that follow, regarding the other pilgrimage feasts (Shavuot and Sukkot), no specific dates are given, so most commentators assume this section of text is talking about the general times of year rather than a particular day. Given the proximity of the other feasts, the Ramban suggests that "keeping the month" means being sure to go up to Jerusalem to attend the feast there.
The month-name, Aviv, is here used with a definite article (as again later in the same verse), which causes the commentators to take it as more than just a name. The word comes from the root , which is not used in biblical Hebrew, but the equivalent Aramaic verb means to bear fruit and generates a whole series of nouns: fruit, greenness, verdue. In particular Aviv has the meaning "green ears of corn", so that our text could have the meaning "in the month of the newly growing grain". The word is used this way when describing the firstfruits meal offering: "new ears parched with fire" (Vayikra 2:14). Since Judaism has a lunar calendar, which is short of the solar calendar by some 11 days each year, there would be slippage around the annual cycle if some remedial action were not taken. Rashi comments, "Before its arrival, that it should be fit for first-ripened produce to offer as the offering of the Omer. And if not, add a month to the year." The grain must be ripe enough to be 'ripened' (Sifrei 127), so an extra month - Adar II, lengthening the spring, giving more ripening time - is inserted before the month of Aviv/Nissan in a year when the grain is not yet ripe so that the grain will be fully ripe at Pesach.
Nechama Leibowitz takes a slightly different approach and after confirming the need to intercalate the calendar and align the seasonal boundaries correctly, points out that "Sukkot is also motivated here by the following reason: 'because the L-RD your G-d will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you shall be altogether joyful' (D'varim 16:15, NASB)." Whilst the festivals appear to be primarily agricultural, in the same manner as harvest festivals the world over, the feasts of Israel are unique because they also act as appointed periods of rest and worship, and provide timed markers throughout the year so that the Israelites don't lose track of G-d and His special relationship with them, His chosen people. This is another reason to intercalate the calendar so that the seasonal activities stay close to their physical or nature-driven cues.
The prophets use that same series of agricultural triggers to link to events that will happen in the future. Joel, speaking of the restoration of Israel and G-d's judgement upon the nations for the way in which they have mistreated and abused Israel, says, "Let the nations be aroused and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, tread, for the wine press is full; the vats overflow, for their wickedness is great" (Joel 4:12-13, NASB). The same metaphor is employed by Jeremiah, predicting the L-rd's retribution against Babylon for the cruelty they displayed against Israel: "For thus says the L-RD of hosts, the G-d of Israel: 'The daughter of Babylon is like a threshing floor: at the time it is stamped firm; yet in a little while the time of harvest will come for her'" (Jeremiah 51:33, NASB).
Similarly, the gospel writers anchor Yeshua's parables in the milieu of the ancient Near East by using agricultural events as the time markers for turning points in the stories. For example, when Yeshua retells and applies Isaiah's vineyard parable (Isaiah 5:1-7), He starts: "Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey. And when the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce" (Matthew 21:33-34, NASB). In an agrarian society where physical money, although small denomination coins existed and were used by everyone for every day transactions, was not available in large quantities, the "rent" for the vineyard had to be paid in produce: grapes, trodden grape juice or wine; and that had to be done at harvest time because that was when it was available. It was no use to ask for fresh grapes in the spring or summer because they weren't there. Again, when Yeshua taught about the kingdom of G-d, He uses the readiness of the grain as an indicator that the time of harvest has come: "And He was saying, 'The kingdom of G-d is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts up and grows -- how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come'" (Mark 4:26-29, NASB). The crop is harvested, not in August or September by some arbitrary calendar, but when the crop is ready. Even the farmer does not know when that will be, but uses the state of the crop as his indicator that it is time to harvest.
More critically, perhaps, Yeshua uses the agricultural symbols as progress indicators for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. He told the disciples, "Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest'? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest" (John 4:35, NASB). Be aware of the time in in which you are living, He is telling them: you think that you are still in mid-summer, but you need to know that the harvest is white - ready for gathering; the time is closer than you think. Again, "He said to His disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the L-rd of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest'" (Matthew 9:37-38, NASB); every man is called to the pumps for the days are shorter and the work more than anyone thinks. We are to work in the harvest - reaching Jew and Gentile alike with the gospel, encouraging growth in the body of Messiah, praying for an increase and that the weather won't break until the whole harvest is in - so that the L-rd will bless the harvest and the work of our hands.
Further Study: Matthew 13:24-30; Hosea 6:11; Revelation 14:19
Application: It is time to raise our awareness of the annual Jewish calendar as a means of keeping abreast of the developments in the larger biblical calendar. Observing the feasts and marking the time through the year sharpens our focus upon the times that we live in and the need to work in the harvest. What's the date today?
© Jonathan Allen, 2010i
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