In the Biblical Garden at Temple Sinai in Cranston, religious school students will soon sow three ancient cereal grains that are native to the Near East and were first domesticated by farming communities over 10,000 years ago: einkorn wheat, emmer wheat and barley.
Ancient strains of barley and wheat were grown throughout the Fertile Crescent and into Egypt, providing forage for sheep and goats. The ability to sow and harvest these grains facilitated the transition from nomadic herding to settled communities throughout the biblical world.
Ancient Israelites depended on cereal grains – mostly consumed as bread – for the majority of their calories. Making bread was a central activity of the household, requiring intensive labor to harvest, thresh and grind the grains into meal or flour. Barley meal or wheat flour was usually mixed with oil, and sometimes fruit, to make flat cakes, which were baked on a hot stone or in a clay oven. The grains could also be boiled into a porridge, sometimes supplemented with legumes and spices, or steeped in water and fermented to make beer.
The secret of leavening – allowing the dough to rise before baking – was discovered by the Egyptians well before the Israelites arrived in the region. Dough could be leavened in two ways, either by setting the dough in the open air to be exposed to spores of wild yeast, or by adding a bit of “starter” dough from a previous batch of leavened bread. The production of leavened bread was a time-consuming process, passed down through generations as an important cultural and economic element, tied to the land and the crop cycle.
Shepherds, however, relied on unleavened bread. Tova Dickson of Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, writes on Neot Kedumim’s website (http://bit.ly/2lVaP6t): “Nomads cannot carry a heavy oven with them as they travel from place to place, nor can they wait for dough to rise, as was the case when the time came for the Israelites to flee from Pharaoh and the Egyptians.” And the Passover story relates: “The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, ‘We shall all be dead.’ So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders.” (Exodus 12:33-34.)
“The key word in understanding the matzot that the Israelites baked when leaving Egypt is ‘haste’,” Dickson writes. “Matzah is a coarse, basic food that by its very nature symbolizes liberty and freedom. … This helps us understand the severity of the prohibition against eating hametz on Passover. Eating matzot on the eve of the exodus was in and of itself symbolic of the transition from slavery to freedom; from the culture of slaves whose lives depended on the Egyptian leavened bread to the culture of matzot – the bread of free shepherds, our early forefathers.”
During this coming season of liberation, we have the opportunity to tell the Passover story once more, to consider what freedom means in our own lives. Matzah might just suffice to remind us that we can cultivate lives of greater authenticity, simplicity and ruach if we choose.
CATHERINE WALTERS tends the Biblical Garden at Temple Sinai. For information about the garden, contact Walters at 401-419-7698 or firstname.lastname@example.org.