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How to Bring Biblical Agricultural Traditions to Life

How to Bring Biblical Agricultural Traditions to Life

Horse drawn cart in mid-1940s omer festival on Israeli kibbutz

Ear of grain in the field, bowed in the wind
from the weight of its seed, which is great…
Arise, o arise,
look, children of the villages. 
The tall grain has already ripened
in the meadows. 
Harvest, extend the scythe –
it’s time for the beginning of the harvest. 
-- “Shibolet Basadeh” (“Ear of Grain in the Field”) Israeli folk song

In the mid-1940s, two kibbutznikim (kibbutz dwellers), both pioneers who immigrated from eastern Europe 20 years earlier collaborated to create a new Jewish holiday specifically for agricultural settlers who were bringing the Jewish people back to the work of the land (ha’aretz) and to the work of The Land (Eretz Yisrael) – the Land of Israel.

When Leah Bergstein, who had a background in folk-dance, and Mattiyahu Shelem, a talented songwriter, read the Torah’s command to bring to the priest the first sheaf of the new harvest, which begins the day after the first day of Passover and continues for 50 days until the Shavuot (“Weeks”) holiday and the brining of First Fruits (bikkurim) to the Temple (Leviticus 23:9-21), they had an idea for Jewish innovation. Although this extended harvest celebration is somewhat known through its preservation in the Counting of the Omer (meaning, sheaf) ritual practiced by Jews today, knowledge of what happens on kibbutzim is far-less commonplace. 

Removing the agricultural significance of this Torah ritual, medieval Judaism gave it enhanced theological significance through Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) – after all, Jews weren’t farmers in the Middle Ages. Bergstein and Shelem (like others among the founding generation of pre-State kibbutzim) brought agronomic restoration to contemporary application of the Torah, even as they reworked the omer mitzvot by removing the “religious” elements; their new ceremony contributed to building a new secular and Zionist Judaism. On their kibbutz, Ramat Yochanan in the north of Israel, they called this new holiday, the Festival of the Omer – and it’s been celebrated there annually since 1946.

In 1945, Shelem wrote “Shibolet Basadeh” the folk song for which Bergstein created the choreography – and it became the centerpiece of the ceremony, which includes scripted readings, colorful folk costumes, and dramatic cutting of ears of grains. Watch this charming archival video in which Ramat Yohanan kibbutznikim celebrate the festival, and listen to this classic 1950s rendition of the song, Shibolet Basadeh, by the duo Ran and Nama or this stirring one by Miriam Makeba, the famous South African folk singer.

Beneath the surface of this kibbutz innovation was the profound cultural and communal need that was being met through this new ceremony, and how Jewish tradition came to provide the foundation for innovation. According to kibbutz researcher, Shalom Lilker in Kibbutz Judaism: A New Tradition in the Making:

There were no holiday observances at all in the early years of Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan. Work and pioneering provided the necessary spiritual content for those difficult years. But the exhilaration of the early years of kibbutz settlement inevitably wore off…Once the promethean joy of creation declined something had to replace it.  Fortunately, the Jewish past provided the revolutionaries with a hold upon the present when the new culture they had hoped for failed to emerge. The religion of pioneering ran out of steam but the holidays were there to assure continuity with the Jewish past. As put by a founder of Kibbutz Yif’at: “The holidays saved us, and not we the holidays.”

Despite the trend to privatize kibbutzim in recent decades, there are close to 30 that still celebrate the beginning of the Omer period using Ramat Yochanan as their inspiration. From a distance and, because of the way Israel was taught to me from my earliest experiences in Jewish education, I deeply appreciate the way these kibbutz-created music, dance, and folk traditions have brought the Torah’s huge focus on agriculture back to life.  But I regret that I never have been to one of the kibbutz agricultural festivals myself.

Someday I’d like to imagine myself enjoy singing and dancing among the sheaves, not necessarily in Israel, to show my thanks to those people who work hard to bring us bread. In the meantime, however, during this year’s Omer period, I pledge to recite the motzi, the blessing over bread – Praised are You, Eternal our God, who brings forth bread from the earth – in a way that brings secular kibbutz consciousness to play by also thinking of field workers, farmers, and agronomists everywhere and their role in bringing forth bread from the earth.  Living in the city, I can still dedicate to them the middle stanza of Shelem’s classic Israeli folk song:

A pure field of barley
is crowned with a holiday wreath
an abundance of produce and blessing.

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.  His prior experience in re-thinking Israel engagement comes from work on innovative initiatives in the North American program of the Jewish Agency for Israel.  

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald
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