The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. He is to wave the sheaf before the LORD so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath… You must not eat any bread, or roasted or new grain, until the very day you bring this offering to your God. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD.'" -Leviticus 23:9-11, 14-16
Driving across the Jezreel Valley these days, you can't miss the biblical echoes of the landscape. On Pesach we are to eat only cereal products made from the last year's harvest, baked with no leavening – and at the same time we are to clean out completely any remnants of any grain products from the old supply. At Pesach we begin the wheat harvest, bringing an offering of the first sheaf on the day after the first day of the holiday (that is the rabbinical understanding of "Sabbath" in the above passage). Before the calendar was set, leap months (to compensate for the fact that the lunar year is shorter than the solar year) were added by observation – if it appeared that the wheat would not start to ripen by Pesach, a second month of Adar was added to delay Pesach.
During the next seven weeks after that first offering we count off the days as the wheat ripens – as it is indeed doing right now in the broad fields of the Jezreel Valley and the expanses of the northern Negev. The "counting of the Omer (sheaf offering)" for 49 days is traditionally a time of mourning, when weddings are not held. The traditional explanations are not very satisfying, but the anthropological/agricultural reason seems clear: as the grain ripens it is very vulnerable. One late-season hailstorm can destroy a whole year's crop. So we walk on eggs around God, keeping a low profile, not letting ourselves act too happy or carefree, praying that we and the crop make it unscathed until the harvest ends at Shavuot.
The beautiful fields of grain glowing in the spring sunshine can be a little deceiving in their expanse – Israel actually imports the 96% of its grain supply, mostly from Russia, the Ukraine, and the US. Today, the variety of tasty and interesting breads, even in the supermarket, is almost overwhelming – and new boutique bakeries keep springing up, on every urban block. Sourdough, multigrain, with sun-dried tomatoes and sunflower seeds, with olives, with nigella seeds – you name it, you can find it (even if it costs you $5 a loaf); and today, bread-baking workshops with master bakers are a popular activity for the middle class. For all that, bread remains basic. Every child growing up here has learned to bake challah in kindergarten, and pita over the campfire is de rigueur on youth group outings. And the iconic "standard bread" remains a fixture of Israeli culture: a two-pound oblong loaf (not baked in a loaf pan), with a shiny, chewy crust and a dense texture, available in "white" or "black" (= unseeded rye); piled up, unwrapped, in plastic crates, in any neighborhood grocery. As a vestige of our socialist past, the standard loaf is price-controlled, selling for about 90 cents. No one should have to go without bread.
The grain we grow here is, at this point in our history, of more symbolic significance than economic; still, that symbolic connection between Torah, land, and lunch is worth a lot.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah