Is the Autumn Ingathering Festival at the Beginning, Middle, or End of the Year?
In Exodus 23:14–17, the Israelites are commanded to observe three annual pilgrimage festivals: a festival of unleavened bread in the spring, a festival of the first harvest, and a festival of agricultural ingathering. However, as noted by scholars, the timing of this last festival within the calendar year is ambiguous:
שמות כג:טז …וְחַג הָאָסִף בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה בְּאָסְפְּךָ אֶת־מַעֲשֶׂיךָ מִן־הַשָּׂדֶה׃
Exod 23:16 … and the Feast of Ingathering at the tzet of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field. 
What does the phrase בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה mean? Scholarship has proposed three options.
1. The Middle of the Year
A common translation of the verb י.צ.א is “leave” or “exit,” but what does it mean to say the year is leaving? A number of scholars turn to the parallel text in Exodus 34, in what is known as the Ritual Decalogue:
שמות לד:כב …וְחַג הָאָסִיף תְּקוּפַת הַשָּׁנָה.
Exod 34:22 …And the festival of Ingathering at the tequfah of the year.
The phrase תְּקוּפַת הַשָּׁנָה seems to be synonymous with the more common term תְשׁוּבַת הַשָּׁנָה, both of which mean something like “the turn of the year.” If so, it likely refers to the middle of the year (as LXX translates it), envisioning an elliptical cycle with the tequfah being the point when the year “turns back.”
If Exodus 34:22 is meant to be parallel to Exodus 23:16, why would this midpoint be called “when the year is leaving”? One option, advocated by David Miano, is that it means “the final half of the liturgical year.” Another possibility, suggested by Sacha Stern, is that “it indicates the end of the year’s agricultural cycle or cycle of festivals, with the new year beginning in the following spring.”
This reading, in which the festival of Ingathering occurs at the year’s midpoint, assumes that the text is working with a spring calendar, and that the festivals are all celebrated in the first half of the year, beginning with the festival of Unleavened Bread and ending with the festival of Ingathering.
2. Ending of the Year
A simpler interpretation of the phrase בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה is that it literally means the end of the year. This is the translation preferred by LXX and KJV, as well as by modern scholarly translations such as NJPS, NRSV, Everett Fox, and Robert Alter, among others. It is also the translation offered in the BDB dictionary (s.v. יצא) and has been the most common translation since the 1971 essay of Ernst Kutsch (1921–2009) on this phrase argued forcefully for this translation.
What does it mean for Ingathering to be at the end of the year? This depends on which kind of calendar the text assumes. If it envisions an agricultural calendar, perhaps it means that the festival marks the end of the agricultural year, with the new agricultural year starting again after the festival. This agricultural calendar would be “loose”: not tied to specific dates but only to when the ingathering would actually commence.
Alternately, the phrase could simply mean the end of the calendar year. According to this reading, Exodus 23:16, which is part of the ancient law collection known as the Covenant Collection (CC), is not following the Priestly spring calendar that dominates other passages in the Torah and counts Nissan as the first month and Tishrei as the seventh. Instead, it assumes an autumn calendar along the lines of the rabbinic Jewish calendar, which celebrates Rosh Hashanah on the first of Tishrei. John Hayes even suggests that the festival may have marked the end of the regnal year.
If Ingathering was celebrated at the end of the calendar year, this would mean that the festival calendar was slightly different than that of rabbinic Judaism. Perhaps CC’s tradition celebrated Ingathering earlier than we now celebrate Sukkot—during Ellul, as was the practice in Ugarit (RS 1.003, RS 18.056).
“Turn of the Year”?
According to this approach, how are we to understand Exodus 34:22’s “turn of the year”? First, it is possible that the phrase refers not to the midpoint of a calendar, but to an equinox or a solstice, when the ratio of daytime to nightime “turns.” If so, this verse would refer to the autumn equinox which falls around the time of Ingathering.
Second, Shimon Gesundheit has argued that calling this “the turning point” of the year may suggest that this verse is part of a later polemical revision of CC:
It is possible that… the substitution of תְּקוּפַת for בְּצֵאת has actually been made here in order to obscure the unequivocal sense of “New Year” implied by the more archaic בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה, and the reason would be that the author of Exodus 34 sought to avoid the tension that might arise from the comparison to the Priestly literature, according to which the calendar year ends and begins again in the spring and not in the autumn.
In either case, according to this translation, the festival of Ingathering marked the end of the year, with the new year commencing immediately afterward or even at the same time.
3. Beginning of the Year
A third translation, advocated by some commentators, such as Koehler and Baumgarter’s important dictionary, HALOT (Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament; s.v., יצא) and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865), in Haketav Ve-haKabbalah (ad loc.), is “the beginning of the year.” The translation fits with the context and with the timing of the Ingathering festival in the rabbinic Jewish calendar, in which Sukkot follows shortly after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Moreover, it also reconciles CC’s calendar with that of the Canaanite Gezer calendar, which describes the (two) months of ingathering (ירחו אסף) as the first season of the agricultural year.
And yet, this interpretation seems philologically problematic. Doesn’t the word י.צ.א mean “exit,” “go,” or “leave”? Can a connection between this root and “beginning” be defended on philological grounds? I believe the answer is yes.
Arguing for “Beginning of the Year”: A Semantic Approach
The terms י.צ.א and ב.ו.א are often translated as “go/leave” and “come,” respectively. This English pair of terms has an implicit directional focus from the perspective of the speaker/writer. If you “leave,” you are walking away from me, and if you “come,” you are walking toward me; but the connotations in biblical Hebrew are a little different.
ב.ו.א—Coming or Entering?
In biblical Hebrew, by contrast, ב.ו.א means primarily “to enter.” While it is true that in some, perhaps even most, contexts, “enter” and “come” conceptually overlap—when I say that someone came to my house, it is usually the case that they entered it—the two meanings are not identical. I might say that “John came to my house,” or “John entered my house,” but the two verbs are not interchangeable: I can “enter” John’s house, but it would be odd for me to say, “I came to John’s house,” unless I were still in John’s house. For this reason, translating בא as “come,” in line with later Hebrew usages of this verb, leads to interpretive problems.
“Come to Pharaoh”?
In the Torah, for example, God commands Moses four times, בא אל פרעה, “bô to Pharaoh.” How could God be telling Moses to “come to Pharaoh”? Several medieval interpreters offered homiletic solutions to the problem. For example, R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th century) suggests (Exod 10:1):
בא אל פרעה – לא היה אומר "לך" כי אם "בא", ביין בלעז שמשמע שאני אלך עמך.
“Come to Pharaoh”—It doesn’t say “go” but come, viens in French, which implies “I will go with you.”
An even more extreme version of this reading appears in the anonymous Midrash Aggada (12th-13th cent., Buber ed.), who writes (Exod 10:1):
מלמד שהקב”ה מלא כל הארץ כבודו
This teaches us that the glory of the Holy One, blessed be He, “fills the entire world” (Isa 6:3).
Nothing in the verse or the context suggests that God is either inviting Moses to come along with him (Bekhor Shor) or standing in the court with Pharaoh and inviting Moses in (Midrash Aggada). Instead, I suggest the meaning here is not “come” but “enter,” and the phrase should be translated “enter into Pharaoh’s presence.”
Sunset: Entering the Sun’s House
Another example is the biblical phrase for sunset, which appears in a number of places. Take an example from Psalms:
תהלים קיג:ג מִמִּזְרַח־שֶׁמֶשׁ עַד־מְבוֹאוֹ מְהֻלָּל שֵׁם יְ־הֹוָה׃
Psalm 113:3 From [the place of] the shining of the sun to [the place of] its setting, YHWH’s name is praised.
The noun that I have translated as the sun’s “setting” derives from the same root ב.ו.א. If the root means “to come,” then that word would mean the “coming” of the sun—hardly an apt phrase for sunset.
However, translating the term as “entering” works well with ancient conceptions of what happened to the sun once it went below the horizon, when it would enter the firmament, which the ancients believed was a physical dome or that the sun would enter (ב.ו.א) in the west at sunset and leave in the east at sunrise.
Thus, Jan Wagenaar writes:
The use of יצא “rise”, and בוא “set”, to indicate the appearance or the disappearance of the sun and the stars may simply reflect the ancient Near Eastern idea of the heavenly bodies leaving from and returning to their “house”.
Unsurprisingly, we find the same set of expressions in Akkadian: sunset is expressed with the verb erebum (cognate with ע.ר.ב in Hebrew),, which has the same meaning as the Hebrew ב.ו.א, and sunrise with the verb (w)aṣum, which is a cognate of י.צ.א in Hebrew.
Euphemism for Sex
Likewise, the Bible uses a verb from the root ב.ו.א as a euphemism for a man having sexual relations with a woman:
דברים כב:יג כִּי־יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה וּבָא אֵלֶיהָ וּשְׂנֵאָהּ׃
Deuteronomy 22:13 A man marries a woman and cohabits with her. Then he takes an aversion to her. (NJPS)
The meaning of the term is clear when we understand that the root means “to enter.” Yet again, we have an Akkadian parallel with the root erebum, which can refer to sexual penetration.
י.צ.א—Leaving or Emerging?
The opposite of ב.ו.א is י.צ.א. If ב.ו.א means “enter” and not “come,” it is likely that י.צ.א means “exit” or “emerge” and not simply “go” or “leave.” And indeed, just as we have seen the setting of the sun described using the verb ב.ו.א, the rising of the sun is sometimes described in biblical Hebrew using י.צ.א; for example:
שופטים ה:לא כֵּן יֹאבְדוּ כָל־אוֹיְבֶיךָ יְ־הֹוָה וְאֹהֲבָיו כְּצֵאת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ בִּגְבֻרָתוֹ
Judges 5:31 So may all your enemies perish, YHWH, and those who love him [be] like the emergence of the sun in its might.
Similarly, לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא, “emerging and (re-)entering,” is a recurring idiom in Biblical Hebrew for leading the people. See, for example, Moses’ statement:
דברים לא:ב בֶּן־מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם לֹא־אוּכַל עוֹד לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא.
Deuteronomy 31: 2 I am 120 years old today. I can no longer go out and come in.
This refers to leading the people out to battle and back home again.
This translation works particularly well with a verse in Psalms that offers a picture of the sun entering into its home and emerging from it, as part of its daily circuit:
תהלים יט:ז מִקְצֵ֤ה הַשָּׁמַיִם מוֹצָאוֹ וּתְקוּפָתוֹ עַל־קְצוֹתָם
Ps 19:7 Its emergence is from the heavens’ edge and its circuit is to their [other] edge.
The verse uses a term with the root י.צ.א as a parallel to a phrase with the word תקופה (circuit), reminiscent of the parallel use of these terms in Exod 23:16 and 34:22, as noted above.
In short, we should understand the terms ב.ו.א and י.צ.א in Biblical Hebrew not as directional in relation to the speaker, but as emerging from a given place versus entering it, regardless of the speaker’s vantage point.
The Emergence of the Year
The meaning of the phrase בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה remains a subject of debate. In his commentary on Exodus, William Propp essentially throws up his hands:
It is unclear whether ṣē(ʾ)t haššānâ connotes the year’s midpoint, when it begins to go out, or its final day, when it ends and a new year begins.
Note that even though Propp does offer the possibility that Ingathering marks the New Year, he still assumes that the literal meaning of the term must be “end of the year.” Nevertheless, if, as I have argued, the primary meaning of י.צ.א is “to go out” or “to emerge,” then perhaps the Ingathering festival is being described as occurring not at the departure of the year just concluded (or concluding), but at the emergence, or beginning, of the newly-arrived year. 
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January 28, 2019
October 20, 2019
Harvey N. Bock is the Hebrew Language Coordinator in the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, where he teaches Hebrew and Aramaic. A graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, he was previously general counsel of Discover Card.
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