Thursday, April 29, 2010

Barley There - Parshat Emor

In case you were wondering where the heck most of the Jewish holidays come from, you'd find the answer in this week's portion, Emor. Most of the heavy hitters appear here - Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. You might have some fond memories associated with these holidays around family, food, traditions and rituals, but the text in the portion takes us back to the agricultural roots of these holidays.

We're actually in one of the agricultural periods described in the portion right now - the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. On the second day of Passover we're commanded to bring part of the barley harvest to the Temple: "when you get to the land that I will give you and you reap a new crop you are to bring the Omer [a sheaf of barley] to the Cohen who will wave the Omer in front of God." You can't eat any grain from the barley harvest before bringing that offering. Starting with the second day of Passover, we count 49 days of the "Omer" until we bring a similar offering from the new wheat harvest on Shavuot.

There are all sorts of spiritual explanations given as to why we still count the Omer when we no longer have a Temple in which to bring offerings. There are also lots of tricks people have for helping themselves or others to remember to count. When I was in SAR elementary school, whoever remembered to count all 49 days of the Omer got to go to a cheese cake party with our principal, Rabbi Cohen. I never got invited because I always forgot to count somewhere along the way. It wasn't until high school, when I learned about counting charts and email reminders, that I got all the way through the 49 days.

One of my favorite website reminders is where Homer Simpson helps you remember to count the "hOmer" and instructs you on how to say the blessing. A teacher of mine in Israel told me about a friend who gave his son a 49ers hat to wear only during the counting of the Omer. Someone asked him if he was a foot ball fan and he looked at them and said - "No, this is my Omer hat!" Sam and I simply keep a little sheet on our dresser that we see each night as we're going to sleep which reminds us to count.

Whatever methods you may employ to remember this Biblical commandment, and whatever explanations you find meaningful behind the counting, the ideas in the portion of Emor bring us back to the roots of the customs and the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. They're about showing appreciation to God for what one was able to grow on the land and understanding the message that giving back is part of that. Within the same paragraph of text that covers the counting and Shavuot, a law from a previous portion is repeated: when you harvest your land you shouldn't cut all the way to the corners of your field and you shouldn't pick up the produce that you drop while harvesting - these items should be left for the poor and the stranger.

This sounds like a built in welfare system - a way to teach the whole community about giving to those who are in need. Between the offering and this law the nation gets the message that even though they will have their own land on which to grow crops, they shouldn't think that they are the ones who made the crops grow or that they own it all. Rather it is because of God that things grow, and they need to share the bounty with others and need to feel a responsibility to do so. As a modern day fundraiser I think this is a great concept for us all to internalize.

To mark the Omer and the Parsha I'm sharing an interesting barley recipe that I came across on With the upbeat predictions for the weekend weather here, I didn't want to send out a heavy recipe like barley soup or risotto, so I was glad to find this recipe for barley with cumin and mint. Now I must say that Sam HATES mint. It's almost like Kryptonite to him - if he get's within 50 feet of the stuff he can smell it and will already be covering his nose and exclaiming incredulously "is that mint?!" I, on the other hand, adore mint and want it with everything in the summer - mixed drinks, salads, fruit, tabuli, ice cream - you name it. If I do go rogue and indulge in a mint dish I'm on kissing probation until the smell dissipates - Sam can always smell when I've had mint. But sometimes it's worth the sacrifice. I don't normally serve mint around Sam but maybe this week there will be an exception.
Also in the spirit of the parsha and this time of year, I'd encourage you to maybe make a little bit more than you need for this dish and share it with someone who is hungry. Or consider donating to a charity in your area. As we start to enjoy the spring bounty let's think of those who we need to take care of in our communities.

Barley with Cumin and Mint
Adapted from a July 2002 Gourmet Recipe found on Epicurios

2 cups water
1 cup barley
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp turmeric
1/4 cup chopped mint leaves
3 tbsp finely chopped shallots
1.5 tbsp fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon cumin
3 tbsp tehina
1 tsp olive oil
pepper and salt to taste

Bring the water to a boil in a medium sauce pot over high heat with the barley, salt and tumeric already in the pot. Simmer for 30 minutes and then drain the barley in a colander. Transfer to a bowl with the mint, shallots, lemon juice, cumin and oil. Sprinkle with tehina, salt and pepper.

Thanks again to Sam for this week's pictures.

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