In modernity, after the destruction of the second Temple, the food most associated with Passover is matzah. However, Passover was originally known as Hag Ha-Aviv (the holiday of spring) and it was connected to the beginning of the barley harvest. The newly harvested barley could not be eaten until after the first sheaves of grain were offered to the Priests the second day of Pesach. The word Omer means “a measure or portion” (referring to the grain), and the Counting of the days of the Omer, in biblical times, coincided with the time period between the barley harvest and the harvesting of the first spring wheat, traditionally when Shavuot was celebrated.
The Romans and Greeks in ancient times prayed to their Goddesses of grain for a productive harvest. The Jews, however, prayed to God to watch over the crops during the typical windy season in Israel. A northern wind could bring rains that would destroy the new barley crop and a southern, hot, wind could stop the growth of the new wheat before it was to be harvested. Barley was the mainstay of the Jew’s diet in biblical times because it was a very adaptable plant to cultivate in the different climates of Israel and very resistant to the dry desert heat.
Barley has been around since the Stone Age and cultivated in the Levant for more than 5000 years. Remnants of the grain have been found in Egyptian pyramids and recipes for barley beer appear in Sumerian and Egyptian writings.
Although the majority of barley grain is used today in making malt for beers and feed for livestock, barley has seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years. In order to make it palatable for human consumption the outer hull of the barley is ground off, “pearled”, three times and the bran is removed so that it will absorb water and swell. Although cracked, hulled, barley grains can be found in health food stores, pearled barley is readily available in supermarkets and is easier to use in most recipes.
Whether you live in a climate that is still cold during the early period of the counting of the Omer this year or whether summer has already preempted spring, enjoy the following barley recipes to commemorate Hag Ha-Aviv.
Eat in Good Health!