In the Beginning: 😊
Long before Passover was conflated with the Exodus myth by the Judean scribes, Pesach was a spring harvest festival, celebrating the first barley harvest after the austerity of winter in the desert. The ancient Israelites ate unleavened flatbread (matzah) made from roasted barley, to quickly ‘break free’ from the food insecurity of the winter season.
The Mesopotamians also celebrated a Spring Barley Festival in the first month of Nisanu in ancient Mesopotamia, to celebrate the sowing of barley.
What foods were traditional at the Passover Harvest FeSTIVAL?
A Spring feast of lamb, parsley and fresh chicken eggs was eaten with the matzah. Sound familiar?
Why lamb, eggs and PARSLEY?
Spring is lambing season. Egg-laying declines in the Winter and increases in the Spring when natural light and temperatures are optimal for egg-laying. Universally, eggs are symbolic of fertility and Spring. Parsley is a sun-loving plant native to the Mediterranean. Parsley was originally used for medicinal purposes to alleviate digestive issues, allergies, bug bites, toothaches and more. The somewhat bitter parsley, was eaten as a medicinal plant that aided digestion and brought the promise of improved health into the new season.
SO MATZAH PREDATED THE EXODUS STORY-LINE?
Absolutely. Unleavened flatbread was a non-perishable staple food that was quick and easy to make. Matzah was not a product of the Exodus tale, it was conscripted into it.
What’s the big deal about Barley?
Barely is a very nutritious, naturally insect resistant grain that slows down blood sugar absorption and is lower in gluten than rye, spelt and wheat. Our ancestors did not know exactly why it was beneficial, but barley was known to the ancient world as a ‘health aid’ that relieved certain conditions, such as dysmenorrhea and gastro-intestinal distress.
It could be grown on small plots of land, sown without a plow, matured earlier than wheat and provided more food security than the frailer crops of wheat.
Malted barley also made great beer, which the ancient Israelites enjoyed at their barley harvest festivities. In moderation, it was considered to be a cure for melancholy.
The Talmud records four different types of beer, [used by the ancient Israelites] brewed from barley, dates and figs…Pesachim 107a
Beer’s popularity with ancient Jews is also evident in the fact that beer is an acceptable substitute for wine in the Havdalah ceremony.Aish HaTorah
High Holidays – Humble RootS
As an agricultural community, harvest times were sacred keys to survival for the early Jews. The agricultural rhythm of preparing the soil, planting, watering, harvesting, and waiting for the earth to become ready for planting again were pivotal events. Judaism began life as a folk religion and the festivities of the early Jews were earth-centric nature festivals.
They came to be associated with etiological myths when the Judeans were writing and rewriting the Hebrew Scriptures. The barley harvest in the early spring was tied to the mythical Exodus. The summer fruit and olive harvest of Sukkot in early fall was tied to the ‘booths’ in the desert that are part of the Exodus myth.
In this way the folk practices connected with fertility took a back-seat to the demands of the deity and the Temple where the priests were in control and feasted on the high quality food brought as “offerings to God.”
Israelites marked the time between the two major harvest seasons by counting the omer (sheaf / measure of grain) during the seven week period between Pesach and Shavuot.
“The ancient Israelites would wave a sheaf toward the night sky in prayer for an abundant Spring harvest.” (Rabbi Yale Levy).
The last day of each harvest festival marked the end of the harvesting cycle.
The rabbis tied the wheat harvest of Shavuot to matan Torah (the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai). The 16th century rabbis of Tzfat completely reinvented Shavuot as a Torah-centric holiday featuring late night Torah study sessions.
Original Passover was simple but significant, earthy but elevated. It was individual, shared and collective work that celebrated the liberating shift from meager Winter to the fullness of Spring.
Hope, gratitude, mazel (good fortune), feasting and some good old beer-cheer was the theme. It had nothing to do with a bloody, violent, melodramatic Exodus from Egypt — but it was significant nonetheless. Even more so, because it didn’t involve “God” murdering all the first-born sons of Egypt and killing all of their innocent farm animals.
The freedom to gather together, share food and be thankful for earth’s bounty was an occasion worth celebrating. L’chayim!