Barley: Symbol of Iyyar

I’m not sure there can be a more potent symbol of the month of Iyyar, which generally falls between April and May, than barley (שְׂעֹרָה). Many of us are disconnected from the agricultural cycles of our world, and especially disconnected from the agricultural cycles that part of Jewish tradition.  But in the ancient world, and for a few of us moderns, Passover is the beginning of the barley harvest.  Pesach, when we clean out our cupboards of barley and all other grains and refrain from eating chametz (fermented grain) is really a time of sacrifice and cleansing before the new harvest begins on the second day of Passover.  The period called “the counting of the omer,” which begins on the second day of Passover was literally a time of counting the barley harvest in ancient Judea. An “omer” was simply a measure of barley.

According to the The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, barley was the primary food source of ancient Israel, but during the mishnaic period (1st-3rd century CE) it became the grain of poverty and animal feed. Its centrality to ancient Israelites is why our holiday cycle revolves around it, and we see vestiges in our modern practice.

Barley is one of the seven species of Israel, which represent the fertility of the land.   The others, for reference, are pomegranate, wheat, olives, dates, figs, and grapes. It is one of the oldest cultivated grains.   It’s the first grain to ripen in the spring, which explains its importance in the ancient world.  As winter would draw to an end and the stores of dried meats and fruits ran out — people would be praying for the new harvest to come in.  Imagine the relief when those first grains of barley ripened in the field! Barley, if you’ve never had it, is super tasty and super healthy.

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Here’s an idea to help bring the physicality of the barley harvest into your counting of the omer and Iyyar. There’s a little celebrated holiday in Iyyar called Lag B’Omer, literally that just means 33rd Omer, since it falls on the 33rd day of the Omer.  This holiday is celebrated with bonfires, haircuts and dancing in the fields and archery.  This all makes sense when you think about how hard people would have been working during the barley harvest, this was a day of rest and celebration about two-thirds of the way through.

Back to the idea…Why not plan on making a dinner of awesome barley treats for Lag B’Omer?  Invite friends over, and if you live somewhere warm enough — go outside and light fire or barbecue up! Lag B’Omer is also celebrated with archery — so put up a target — or maybe just watch the Hunger Games!  Even if you aren’t really doing the practice of counting the omer, maybe say the prayers this one night — or recite Psalm 67.  If your friends are into ritual, then maybe try out RK’Jill Hammer’s Lag B’Omer “Four Worlds/Five Souls” ritual, and then have a meal of barley-laden goodness!

Here’s some awesome barley recipes to get you started: