TIMING IS EVERYTHING
By Gil Marks
The parsha of Va'era contains seven of the Ten Plagues, including that of hail, the consequences of which were (Exodus 9:31-32), "And the pishtah (flax) and the seorah (barley) were smashed; for the barley was aviv (literally "green ears"), and the flax had geevol (formed bolls). But the wheat and the emmer (an ancient form of wheat) were not smitten; for they ripen late."
The plague of hail marks the opening of the third and final round of plagues, this group proving much more severe than the previous six. Commenting on the text "For I will this time send all My plagues (9:14)," Rashi stressed, "We learn from here (the use of "all") that the plague of the first ripe ears outweighs all the other plagues." What was it about the loss of the flax and barley, two items to which Westerners rarely give a second thought, that "outweighed all the others?"
The Hebrew word pishtah, possibly from pashat ("to strip"), as the filaments were stripped off the stalks, refers to the flax plant, while pishtan generally applies to linen woven from the flax. Flax (Linum usitatissimum), a slender, erect annual herb, has been cultivated since prehistoric times. Flaxseeds, also called linseeds, were ground to make a meal (one difficult for humans to digest) that served as animal feed and a poultice for wounds, or pressed to release an oil used in lighting, medicine (particularly to combat coughs or constipation), cosmetics, soaps, wood polish, and varnishes. Of much greater importance, however, were its fibers, the primary source of cloth until the growth of the cotton industry in the 19th century. After processing, the fibers were combed and spun into linen threads of varying grades -- coarse, intermediate, and fine. Besides furnishing the oil, flax plants through the fibers also provided the preferred lamp-wicks (Isaiah 42:3). The finest linen, shesh in the Torah, was the usual dress of the Egyptian upper class (Genesis 41:42) as well as the wrapping for mummies. Similarly, the garments of the high priests (Exodus 28:39) and the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1) were made from shesh. Even the Egyptian peasants wore linen, though of a poorer quality. In ancient Egypt, without flax there was simply no practical clothing.
Seorah ("long hair") refers to the extended, hairy-looking awns of barley, for a long time the most widely grown and possibly the world's most ancient cultivated plant. One of the reasons for barley's early widespread usage was its high yield potential, its drought and heat tolerance, and an ability to thrive in poor or alkaline soil better than other grains. And barley ripens a full month earlier than wheat, even when planted simultaneously. In biblical times, when someone said bread, unless otherwise specified, they meant from barley. (This was a period before the popularization of modern bread wheat.) In addition, barley was used to make beer, practically a necessity, even for children, in a time when plain water all too often proved unsafe, not to mention its nutritional value and alcoholic properties. Although wheat was the preferred grain of the wealthy, barley in the form of bread and beer served as the staple of the Egyptian diet. Workers were commonly paid, as there was no currency, with barley. Under the Roman Empire, wheat, in the newer form of common wheat and durum, emerged as the primary grain of the Near East and North Africa and barley was thereafter reduced to being poor man's food and animal fodder. Today, barley is generally overlooked as a food and is primarily used as the essential ingredient in beer and many whiskies. It was quite the contrary in ancient Egypt where barley was of vital importance.
In addition to specifying the items affected by the hail, the text stressed the seasonal timing of this plague, the varying states of ripeness of the four noted plants relating when it occurred. As Rashi explained, "It (the barley) had already borne fruit and was standing on its stalks, and the hail broke it and it fell. And similarly the flax had already grown and become hard enough to stand with its calyxes." On the other hand, in reference to the wheat and emmer, "they are late (in ripening) and, therefore, still soft (flexible) and able to withstand (something) hard." Thus wheat and emmer were spared this destruction.
In Egypt, agriculture was based around the annual fluctuations of the Nile. Aklet, the season of inundation, began around July 19, by which time all crops had to be gathered. The river subsided during Pert, around November 15, leaving a fresh layer of rich silt behind on the Kemet (the fertile "black land" near the river). Afterward, barley and wheat were both sown. The grain germinated in the late fall, then fell dormant upon the arrival of cold weather, which promotes head development, and remained that way until spring, at which point they began a growth spurt. By early spring, the husks opened on the barley revealing dark green grains. This early stage of ripeness lent its name to the first month of the Jewish year, Aviv (literally "green ears"), which came at the time that the barley grains were green, usually sometime in March. Around two weeks after the appearance of the green ears, they begin turning dry and yellow, while the stalks change from green and flexible to yellow and brittle, a sign of maturity. In Egypt, the barley usually began to ripen in Stem, around March 16. The various species of wheat follow suit in about a month. According to Pliny, the Roman naturalist, in Egypt barley was ready for harvest in six months and wheat in seven. This account aligns with empirical evidence as well as events in the parsha, the barley having ripened to the point of green ears, while the wheat and emmer were still in an early, more flexible stage of development.
In Egypt, flax was customarily planted in early January. The shoots emerge seven to twelve days later, eventually growing two to four feet high. About 45 to 60 days after planting, between mid to late February, the green stems bear light blue or white flowers that remain for two to three weeks. If too much water is present after this point, however, blooming can continue for a lengthy period. The flowers in turn produce bolls (five-celled capsules, geevol in Hebrew from "swollen") each consisting of five segments usually containing 2 yellow or brown oval seeds. If the flax is intended for linen, it is picked while still green, then piled up and dried in the sun. When grown for the seeds, the fibers of the mature plant become too tough for weaving, but can be used for making mats and ropes. Flax intended for linen is pulled up whole when the leaves have fallen off and the lower part of the stem turns yellow, 20 to 25 days after flowering. If not picked, the flax reaches maturity 10 to 20 days afterward, at which point about 90 percent of the bolls turn brown as do many of the stems; drier brown stems being much less flexible than green ones. The total time from planting to maturity is 90 to 105 days. The text's expression "become hard enough to stand with its bolls" reflects that the flax had passed the flowering stage and was just reaching the state of maturity to be picked for the fiber, 70 to 90 days after planting.
Forty years after the plague of hail, Joshua sent two spies to scope out Jericho and, Rahab hid the spies under stalks of flax (Joshua 2:6). There were two methods of treating the dried flax. After drying, the plants were soaked in water for three to four weeks. Or it was spread out and left to the elements, allowing the rain, dew, and microorganisms to partially decompose it in two to eight weeks. Hence the flax Rahab had scattered on her roof. In either case, the tough outer fibers separated from the soft inner part. The presence of the flax on the roof reflected that the incident occurred in Aviv shortly before Passover, a dating confirmed shortly in the text, "and they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at even in the plains of Jericho (Joshua 5:10)."
There is a matter of disagreement as to exactly how far along in development the wheat and emmer were. Ibn Ezra observed that ahfilot comes from the word "dark," meaning that "they were still underground and had not appeared," reflecting a date in early March. This is a slightly earlier timeframe than Rashi, who noted that ahfilot means, "they are late (in ripening), and still tender (flexible) and able to withstand something hard," indicating a time even closer to the month of Nisan, in mid to late March.
The agricultural signs refute the opinion that the ten plagues occurred sequentially on a monthly basis with the hail transpiring in Kislev (November-December). On the other hand, it lends support to Ramban's contention (Genesis 10:4) that "the hail came down during the month of Adar, not before … Then in one month's time, in the month of Nisan, the wheat and spelt grew." Since the barley and flax had both reached an early stage of maturity, yet were still in the fields, from an agricultural perspective, it appears that the plague of hail occurred on or around the vernal equinox (March 21), with the remaining three plagues occurred in the ensuing three- to four-week span culminating with Passover.
The ramifications of the hail at that precise time of year were incredibly grave, practically wiping out two of the three necessities of life -- food and clothing. Only shelter, the remaining necessity, prevented widespread loss of life, as Moses warned, "for every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die (9:19)." Indeed, hail was the first plague to seriously threaten human life. Yet without food and clothing, shelter ultimately proves worthless. The loss of the year's barley crop meant that the multitudes would have no bread or beer, the staples of the diet, and the absence of flax eliminated the clothing. The timing of the plague, destroying the flax and barley at the stage of ripeness where they had not yet produced mature seeds, not only impacted the upcoming year, but, without seeds for future planting, for several years to come. This is why the hail "outweighs all the other plagues," it threatened a countrywide famine as soon as all the reserved food stocks were depleted. Yet through the precise timing of the seventh plague, God had left a way to avoid all out famine, the wheat and emmer, which were still young and flexible enough to withstand the hail. All the Egyptians needed to do was to let the Israelites go.
The Egyptians were not innocents. According to Eliyahu Rabbah, they previously had forced Israelite men to plant gardens at the far reaches of the wilderness in order to keep them from home and their wives and, therefore, be unable to be fruitful and multiply, one of the few mitzvot that they had retained. Therefore, God destroyed the plants of Egypt. The original crop losses should have persuaded the Egyptian lower class and army, which subsisted on barley and beer and rarely could afford wheat, to protest to their leaders. At the same time, the privileged class, the group that possessed the legitimate power to effect governmental policy, should have attempted to save the wheat, a grain that was generally their province. Nevertheless, the Egyptians refused to let the Israelites go. To be sure, Pharaoh was king. (The term pharaoh, Egyptian for "great house," was originally the name of the Egyptian king's palace, then during the 19th Dynasty, beginning around 1570 BCE, was applied to the king himself.) But he did not exist in a vacuum. Pharaoh relied on the continuing good will and support of the nobles, army, priesthood, and masses, who should have compelled him to free the Israelites. When Egypt still refused, "they (the locust) did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left (10:15)." Now there was total famine.
Here are a few traditional barley
6 to 8 servings
Barley soup makes a traditional starter during Hanukkah and Tu b’Shevat and is appropriate for any winter meal.
1. Heat the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, parsley, marjoram, and rosemary and sauté for 1 minute.
2. Add the stock, barley, carrots, if using, potato, bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the barley is nearly tender, about 45 minutes.
3. Add the milk and heat through. Remove from the heat. Gradually stir 1 cup of the soup into the egg yolks, then stir the yolk mixture and Parmesan into the soup. Return to low heat and stir until thickened, about 3 minutes. Serve warm.
Spas (Ukrainian Barley Soup): Omit the milk, Parmesan, marjoram, and rosemary. Stir the egg yolks into 2 cups sour cream or plain yogurt, then stir into the soup and heat through -- do not boil.
(6 to 8 servings)
Barley is available in two forms: Scotch (hulled or pot) and pearl. Scotch barley has had only the outer husk removed and requires a long soaking period and 2 to 3 hours to cook. Pearl barley has been further refined by steaming and polishing -- a process that removes the entire husk, leaving only the pearl or inner kernel. Pearl barley requires a shorter cooking time of about 30 minutes.
1. Place the barley in boiling water, cover, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender (about 40 minutes). Rinse under cold water and drain.
2. Stir in the bell peppers, scallions, parsley, and dill. Combine the oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and stir into barley. Chill.
Barley & Chicken Salad: Add 2 cups cubed cooked chicken or turkey.
Barley, Corn & Tomato Salad: Add 2 to 3 cups cooked corn kernels and 1 to 2 pints halved cherry tomatoes; and substitute 1 cup fresh basil leaves for the parsley in dressing.
Barley Vegetable Salad: Add any combination of 2 peeled, seeded, and chopped medium cucumbers, 2 cups cooked green peas, 1 cup cooked corn kernels, ½ cup sliced water chestnuts and 2 chopped zucchini or yellow squash.
(5 to 6 servings)
1. Soak the barley in water to cover for at least 2 hours. Drain. Add the 6 cups water and salt, bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until tender (about 1 hour). Drain and cool.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (175 C). Grease a 1½-quart baking dish.
3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent (5 to 10 minutes). Add the mushrooms and, if desired, bell peppers and sauté until liquid evaporates. Remove from the heat and stir in the barley, then the remaining ingredients.
Spoon into the prepared pan. Bake
until browned and set (about 40 minutes).
(About 1 pound)
This boiled candy is made from water in which pearl barley has been cooked, which imparts a milky appearance and intriguing flavor.
1. In a heavy medium saucepan, stir the sugar and water over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves (5 to 10 minutes). Stop stirring. Add the lemon zest, increase heat to high, and bring to a boil.
2. Cover and cook for about 30 seconds (this dissolves any sugar crystals). Uncover and boil gently, without stirring, until the syrup reaches the soft-ball stage (240 degrees). (The temperature rises slowly till this point, then begins to rise quickly.)
3. Add the lemon juice and boil until the syrup reaches the hard-crack stage (300 degrees on a candy thermometer) but before it begins to caramelize. Dip the pan in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Discard the lemon zest.
4. Pour onto an oiled marble slab or baking sheet and let stand a few minutes until it begins to set, but remains pliable.
Using oiled scissors, cut into strips.
Use 1 teaspoon toasted barley for
every 1 cup water.
Bring the water to a boil, add the barley, and boil for about 5 minutes. Strain and serve hot.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts. Send comments and requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.