A festival of barley

Reap the benefits of this hearty grain.

Grain field (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Grain field
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The primary association of the festival of Shavuot is the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The commemoration of this watershed moment in Jewish history was the culmination of a 49-day period of joyous spiritual ascension, the period of counting of the Omer.
Following the destruction of the Temple, a plague that decimated 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students and a tragic era of blood libels in the Diaspora, this joyous interlude was transformed into a period of mourning during which joviality was diminished.
However, the period of counting the Omer was originally intended as a celebration.
An omer is an ancient measure of volume (corresponding to about 14 cups). The Omer sacrifice, brought on the second night of Passover and consisting of an omer measure of barley, coincided with the barley crop harvest in Israel.
In preparation for this ritual, on the day before Passover, three messengers appointed by the high court (the Sanhedrin) were sent to the barley fields near Jerusalem, where they would tie the moist, growing barley stalks into bundles, still attached to the ground. On the second night of Passover, these appointed agents would return to the fields equipped with scythes and bins, joined by throngs of pilgrims. The procession was accompanied by much fanfare and a ceremonious dialogue between the messengers and the spectators.
The court appointees would then cut approximately one bushel of barley from the previously tied bundles. The barley was threshed, toasted, finely ground and repeatedly sifted 13 times. On the morning of the second day of Passover, an omer measure of this barley flour was mixed with one lug (about two cups) of olive oil and a handful of frankincense.
The kohen (priest) would then wave this barley offering (in a similar way to waving the lulav and etrog on Succot), at the same time offering a prayer to God for rain and dew in their appropriate times and to bless the harvest. A handful of the offering was then deposited on the incense altar and the remainder distributed to the kohanim for eating. Only after the Omer sacrifice was it permitted to eat new grain harvested before Passover.
In the 49 days following the Omer sacrifice, there was a “count up” in anticipation of the 50th day, Shavuot, each day symbolizing an elevation in spiritual level. On Shavuot itself, another sacrifice consisting of two loaves made from wheat semolina (solet) and yeast was brought.
The entire process of the Omer, from Passover to Shavuot, symbolized the inexorable intertwining of nature and spirituality and the link between material livelihood and divine blessing.
Barley is closely botanically related to other grains in the grass family, namely wheat, spelt, rye and oats. Unlike the other grains, barley is more difficult to harvest, as the grain stubbornly sticks to the chaff. Regular threshing methods do not work with barley, and the chaff has to be removed by a process of polishing. The degree of polishing determines the final product. Less polishing yields groats/hulled barley that retain the germ and the bran. More polishing results in what is called “pearl” barley (grissim in Hebrew), which lack bran and germ.
Barley may be used in grain form in dishes like cholent or ground into flour for cakes and bread. Barley is also malted, a process of drying germinated grains to maximize enzyme content required for breaking starch down into sugar. Malted barley is commonly used to make beer, whisky and malt drinks and is used as a dough enhancer in baking. Barley is also a well-known algicide, used to reduce algae growth in fishponds.
Barley constitutes the largest animal-feed grain in the Northern Hemisphere.
Whole (hulled) barley is very nutritious. It contains dietary fiber and eight of the nine essential amino acids required for protein synthesis. Barley is more effective than the other grains in slowing sugar absorption into the blood, which makes it the preferred grain for diabetics. Barley is lower in gluten than wheat, spelt and rye, making it suitable for those who suffer gluten intolerance.
Barley and barley water (the water remaining from cooking barley) have been used for thousands of years to calm the stomach, alleviating symptoms such as diarrhea, cramps and stomachache.
Barley was a dietary mainstay of ancient civilization until it was supplanted by wheat. Not surprisingly, it features prominently in many religious rituals, including the Omer sacrifice. It is our fervent prayer that with the coming of the Messiah, this ancient ritual be resurrected and this period between Passover and Shavuot be restored to its joyous glory of old.
BARLEY PITA Makes 12 pitot Due to its low gluten content, barley is more suited to flat breads than loaves. I recommend using whole barley flour (available in health food stores) to fully enjoy barley’s health benefits.
✔ 7½ cups whole barley flour ✔ 3 cups lukewarm water ✔ 1 Tbsp. salt ✔ 1 Tbsp. sugar (optional) ✔ 1½ tsp. instant powdered yeast Mix ingredients in a bowl and knead for approximately 10 minutes. The dough is slightly sticky, so reserve some of the flour from the recipe for kneading. Leave to rise covered for 1 hour. Preheat oven to the highest temperature (grill).
Divide dough into 12 and shape into round balls. Roll each ball into pita approximately 1½ cm. thick and place on baking trays. Leave to rise another 15 minutes. Bake in hot oven until the pita “balloons” up, about 2 to 3 minutes. Immediately remove from oven and wrap pita (while still hot) in blanket/cloth. Let cool. Place in a plastic bag. Eat that day or freeze. ■ Master baker Les Saidel is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (www.saidels.com).