Festivals of the harvest

Nature contains both overt and hidden miracles.

Kids in a wheat field (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Kids in a wheat field
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In biblical times, the major festivals coincided with primary crop harvests. Passover immediately preceded the barley harvest. Shavuot signaled the beginning of the wheat harvest and Rosh Hashana (New Year) immediately followed the picking of summer fruits.
Of the grains planted the previous winter, barley was the first to ripen, followed by wheat. Passover, in addition to the celebration of our Exodus from Egypt, was therefore also a celebration of the barley harvest, ritualized by the sacrifice of the omer offering of barley in the Temple. It was forbidden to eat any of the newly harvested grains until the festive omer ceremony was performed on the second day of Passover, amid much rejoicing and fanfare. In addition to thanking the Almighty for his bounty, the unleavened omer offering spiritually symbolizes our gratitude to God for the miracle of the manna in the wilderness (also an omer measure).
On the day of the omer offering, a “count-up” of 49 days began, culminating in the festival of Shavuot on the 50th day. Each day was one of heightened anticipation and an incremental increase in our level of holiness and purity, in preparation for the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot.
Shavuot, like Passover, in addition to its spiritual significance, embodied a materialistic component – the wheat harvest. This was celebrated by bringing the “two loaves” offering in the Temple. These two loaves of bread, unlike their unleavened Passover counterparts (matzot) were leavened wheat loaves mixed with a mature sourdough starter for extra flavor and baked in rectangular pans in the Temple ovens on the day before Shavuot.
Interestingly enough, the two loaves offering was one of only two leavened bread sacrifices. The other was the toda (thanksgiving) offering brought in the Temple. All other bread used in the Temple was unleavened.
The two leavened loaves brought on Shavuot and unleavened matza eaten on Passover are diametric opposites to each other and represent the two types of miracles performed by God. Unleavened bread, like matza, represents the straightforward, visible category of miracles – like the splitting of the Red Sea. The components of unleavened matza are similarly simple and straightforward – flour and water. The leavened two loaves, on the other hand, in addition to flour and water, also contain natural sourdough yeast, which works in a “hidden” way in the dough. They thus represent miracles that are hidden or camouflaged from us, working their magic behind the scenes.
Celebration of Passover involves rejoicing in the overt miracles surrounding the Exodus, such as the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, etc., for which unleavened matza is more appropriate and applicable. Once the Children of Israel had settled in the land of milk and honey and begun to fend for themselves, planting and harvesting their own crops, their celebration took on a new unseen dimension of daily miracles that we tend to take for granted, like the cloud that releases the rain, that waters the seed, that grows into the plant that relinquishes its grains to give us our daily sustenance.
Nature contains both overt and hidden miracles; we just need to look hard enough for them and they are readily identifiable. The festivals of the harvest, Passover and Shavuot, are, spiritually speaking, two sides of the same coin of life, bounded on one end by barley and on the other by wheat and our constant expression of gratitude to God for all His miracles, seen and unseen.
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife Sheryl and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (www.saidels.com), that specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.
Shavuot Ladder halla recipe: This traditional halla eaten on Shavuot symbolizes Moses’s ascent to Mount Sinai.
The gematrias (numerical values) of the letters in the Hebrew words “Sinai” and “sulam” (ladder – abridged, without the letter vav) are both equivalent to 130. The ladder has seven rungs to symbolize the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot.
2 cups white flour
¼ cup whole grain flour
²⁄3 cup water
1 egg
2 Tbsp. oil
2 Tbsp. instant powdered yeast
1½ tsp. salt
¹⁄3 cup sugar
Mix dough ingredients and knead for 10 minutes. Leave to rise covered for 2 hours.
Set aside one small handful of dough for the ladder. Shape the rest of the dough into an oval-shaped loaf. Baste this with egg wash (50% egg, 50% water). Divide the handful of dough set aside into 7 smaller pieces and 2 larger pieces. Roll each of the seven small pieces into the rungs of the ladder and stick them on top of the oval loaf. Following this, roll the two remaining pieces into the ladder “uprights” and stick them on either side of the rungs. Gently baste the ladder by dabbing it. Leave to rise for 1½ to 2 hours and bake at 180º for 20 to 25 minutes.