Shop עברית

To Wave the Omer

To Wave the Omer

About the omer offering brought on 16 Nissan. Is barley considered a food for humans or animals? On the differences and commonalities between the omer and sotah offerings, and why we bring the omer offering from barley.

Rabbi Zvi Schwartz, Emunat Itecha issue 111, Nissan 5776, April 2016


The omer offering, brought on 16 Nissan, is unique, and several halachic principles are linked with it: (1) from this day on, it is permissible to reap and partake of the new harvest and the prohibition of chadash is lifted from grains throughout the country (with the exception of the Beit Hamikdash). (2) "You must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the L-rd."(Levit. 23:16) We begin sefirat ha'omer: counting 49 days until Shavuot. (3) Not only is the omer offering important; even today, the time barley ripens is considered "spring," "ki hase'ora aviv" "since it was spring for barley" (Exod. 9:31). If the Beit Din sees that the barley will not ripen by Pesach they institute a leap year to uphold the mitzvah "shamor et chodesh ha'aviv" "observe the month of the Spring." (Duet. 16:1). This is to ensure that Pesach will always fall out on the "spring for barley."(4) The omer harvest is also important in and of itself, to the point that it takes precedence over Shabbat, as it is a communal offering.

The omer offering begs the question: all other offerings are brought from wheat, with the exception of the sotah and omer offerings, which are barley-based. How do we understand the equation between the two offerings? A barley offering is appropriate for a sotah, as Rashi explains, "[barley], and not wheat, since she engaged in animalistic behavior, so her sacrifice is animal fodder" (Num. 5:16). But the important omer offering, which takes precedence over Shabbat and so may halachot are tied to it—why does it also consist of barley?! Why is it of a lesser quality?

Barley: food for humans or animal fodder?

In the preface we cited Rashi's explanation about the sotah offering, brought from barley, which he calls "animal fodder," rather than the mishna in tractate Sotah (2:1), which is Rashi's source. According to this mishna, one can explain that the sotah offering is considered animal fodder not because it consists of barley, but rather as it is from course, unsifted flour. The mishna reads as follows:

"All meal offerings (menachot) come from wheat, but this one (sotah offering) comes from barley. The meal-offering of the omer, though it comes from barley, comes from that which was sifted, but this one (sotah offering) comes from unsifted. Raban Gamliel said: Just as her deeds were like those of an animal, so too her sacrifice is from food for animals."

We can understand Raban Gamliel's comment in two ways: it is possible that he is referring to the beginning of the mishna: "but this one comes from barley." However, he might very well be referring to the end of the mishna: "it comes from the unsifted." Rashi's understanding is that Raban Gamliel's comment is linked to the beginning of the mishna. The Chizkuni, however (Num. 5:16), reads Raban Gamliel's statement as a reference to the end of the mishna: that the sotah offering is not sifted, rather brought with the course fibers. The omer offering, in contrast, is much more refined, since it is sifted 13 times. In light of this, it would be safe to say that the omer offering would not be considered "animal fodder," and neither would barley in and of itself. This dispute between Rashi and Chizkuni in understanding the words of Raban Gamliel revolves around the following question: is barley only animal fodder, or can it be food for humans? Below we will see that there are contradictions in the classical sources. We will attempt to resolve these contradictions with the understanding that even if barley can be considered worthy of human consumption, it is in any case of lesser quality than wheat—and the first question we raise still is an issue, even according to the Chizkuni.

  1. Barley as food for human consumption

Many sources indicate that barley is a source of food for humans. About the important status of barley as food for humans, we can learn first and foremost, by its inclusion in the seven species that the Land of Israel is blessed with: "A land of wheat and barley, grapevines, figs, and pomegranates" (Duet. 8:8).

Another source that seems to indicate the importance of barley is the value of fields, determined in relation to the area in which barley is planted (Levit. 27:16): "If anyone consecrates to the L-rd any land that he holds, its assessment shall be in accordance with its seed requirement: fifty shekels of silver to a chomer of barley seed."
However, it is possible that fields are appraised based on barley fields, since it is possible to grow barley even in areas with little precipitation, conditions that are not suitable for wheat cultivation. This could very possibly be the reason the Torah uses barley fields as an index for the comprehensive valuation of all fields throughout the Land of Israel (Dr. Moshe Ra'anan, Daf Yomi Portal, "Loaves of Barley"). It is also possible that the value of fields is linked to barley since this is the grain that most characterizes—more than all other grains—the nature of the Land of Israel. This is because it is able to make do with little and for this reason thrives best, given the Land of Israel's unstable climate (Prof. Zohar Amar, "Barley in the field and as a symbol in the Book of Rut," Al Atar 2, 5756, pp. 43-47; Heb.).

Barley was served to King David and his army in Machanayim (II Samuel 17:28): "presented couches, basins, and earthenware; also wheat, barley, flour, parched grain, beans, lentils." Since barley is listed alongside the parched grain and lentils, which are foods for human consumption, it would stand to reason that this barley was not intended for animal fodder.
Furthermore, King Solomon committed to supply the woodcutters sent by King Chiram with food, barley included (II Chron. 2:9): "I have allocated for your servants, the wood-cutters who fell the trees, 20,000 kor of crushed wheat and 20,000 kor of barley, 20,000 bath of wine and 20,000 bath of oil." In this verse, too, barley appears as an equal among the list of food types used in that era.

The rest of the omer offering is given to the Kohanim to eat, which further attests to it being edible to humans. In the Book of Rut, Rut gathers sheaves of barley for herself (2:17): "She gleaned in the field until evening. The she beat out what she had gleaned—it was about an epha of barley."

In the times of Elisha the prophet (II Kings 4:42): "A man came from Ba'al shalishah and he brought the man of G-d some bread from the first reaping—twenty loaves of barley bread, and some fresh grain in his sack. And [Elisha] said, 'Give it to the people and let them eat'." And in Yechezkel's prophecy (45:13), relating to the priestly gifts, it states: "And this is the contribution you shall make: One-sixth of an epha from every chomer of wheat and one-sixth of an epha from ever chomer of barley." The text here equates between teruma of wheat and barley. From here we see, also, that barley is considered food for humans, as animal fodder is exempt from teruma.

Even during Mishnaic times, barley loaves were considered a human staple. It is for this reason that the Mishna stresses that the time it is permitted to stay in an afflicted structure is based on the time it takes to eat a certain amount of wheat bread, not barley bread (Nega'im 13:9):
"One who enters a house with a nega … if he was wearing his clothes and his sandals were on his feet and his rings were in his hands, he becomes impure immediately, and they are pure until he stays there long enough to eat half a loaf of bread—wheat bread and not barley bread."
The Mishna's need to exclude barley bread attests to the fact that barley bread was a regular human staple. Rashi (Berachot 41a) explains that it takes less time to eat wheat bread than barley bread.

  1. Barley as animal fodder

On the other hand, there are many sources that attest to barley's status as animal fodder. One such example is the sotah offering (Mishna Sotah 2:1) as mentioned above, and in the Tosefta (Sotah Lieberman, 3:4): "… and she fed him delicacies, so her offering is animal fodder" (we saw above that this is not necessarily indicative, since we can relate this to the fact that the offering is not sifted, unrelated to the fact that it consists of barley).
Tractate Pesachim (3b) relates that Yochanan of Chakuk did not want to say anything negative about the wheat yield, so when asked about the wheat, he related to the barley: "Yoḥanan from Chakuk went to the villages. When he came, they said to him: Did the wheat crop develop nicely? He said to them: The barley crop developed nicely. They said to him [mockingly]: Go out and inform the horses and donkeys." The Gemara goes on to provide alternative euphemisms he might have used to convey that the wheat crop was not as good, one being: "this year's lentil crop developed nicely." The Gemara supports this choice since "lentils are food for humans." (ibid). From the reply, "go out and inform the horses and donkeys,"; and especially from the alternative, we can infer that barley was viewed and used as animal fodder, in contrast to wheat and lentils, were viewed as food for humans.
Furthermore, the Talmud states (Beitza 29a) that it is forbidden to measure out precise amounts of barley for animal fodder on Yom Tov: "A person may not measure barley and place it before his animal on a Festival, but he may cut out a hole in the pile of grain by means of a vessel of one kav or two kabim, and place the barley before his animal, and he need not be concerned." This, again, is another support for barley as animal fodder.

  1. Barley as a food of lesser value

We can resolve these sources and see that they do not actually conflict; while barley is fit for human consumption, it is still second to wheat, which is of higher quality.

From Berachot (36a) we learn: "Didn't Rabbi Zeira say that Rav Matana said in the name of Shmuel: Over a raw gourd and over barley flour, one recites the blessing of 'By Whole word all things came to be' (shehakol nihiyah bidvaro)." The assumption that forms the basis of this matter is that the quality of barley as food for humans is lesser in quality than wheat. For this reason, the possibility is raised that if the blessing on wheat flour would be "shehakol," then one would not have to make a blessing on barley flour at all.
We can arrive at a similar conclusion from another halacha, which gives precedence to a slice of wheat bread to an entire loaf of barley bread, as stated in Berachot 39b: "Rabbi Yochanan said: The optimal manner to fulfill the mitzvah is to recite the blessing over the whole loaf. However, if the piece was of wheat bread and the whole loaf was of barley bread, everyone agrees that one recites a blessing over the piece of wheat bread, [as the wheat is of superior quality] it exempts the whole loaf of barley bread."

From the stories about the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash, in Gittin 56a, we see that the status of barley bread was of the lowest quality in relation to all other types of bread: Marta bat Baitos, one of the richest women in Jerusalem, sends a servant to buy bread in the marketplace. Only after he cannot find any finely sifted flour, ordinary flour, or course flour, he is asked to bring barley flour. We see here that barley was considered a staple for the poor; "As one would say to a person: why are you eating barley bread? He answered them: Because I have no wheat bread" (Sifre, Num. 89).

On the status of barley bread in relation to wheat bread, we can learn also from the educational statement of Rav Chisda (Shabbat 140b): "One who is able to eat barley bread and nevertheless eats wheat bread violates the prohibition against wanton destruction." And for this reason, in times of plenty—such as during the reign of King Solomon, barley was fed to horses: "They would also … deliver barley and stray for the horses and the swift steeds" (I Kings 5:8). So too, the value of barley is half of that of wheat (II Kings 7:1): "And Elisha replied, 'Hear the word of the L-rd; thus said the L-rd: This time tomorrow, a se'ah of choice flour shall sell for a shekel at the gate of Samari, and two seahs of barley for a shekel'."

During the times of the Mishna, the cost of barley was half of that of wheat (Mishna Pe'ah 8:5): "One must not give less [ma'aser ani] to the poor from the threshing floor than half a kav of wheat and a kav of barley." The Tosefta similarly valuates wheat as twice the value of barley in the context of leasing farmland (where the leaser pays a fixed percentage of the yield to the field owner). If one decides to plant barley in a wheat field, one would have to pay the owner twice the value of the barley (Bava Metzia 9:10 Lieberman).  

It is highly possible that in arid regions where wheat did not grow, barley was considered food for humans, while in highly irrigated areas barley was used for animal fodder (Yossi Shfeiner, "Grain cultivation dispersion in the Land of Israel," Al Atar 10 (Elul 5662), p. 89). We also know that during times of drought, even the wealthy needed to suffice with poor man's bread baked from barley flour (Zohar Amar, ibid.).


If so, why do we bring barley flour for the important omer offering, as it is either animal fodder, or low-quality food for humans?


The Omer Offering from Barley: the Positive Side

  1. A spiritual upgrade: from barley to wheat

The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehuda Loew) explain that the Torah specifically commands us to offer barley to highlight the connection between Pesach and Shavuot, the transition from the physical vessel to the spiritual content (Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 25): "Since the barley are physical, since it is animal fodder. And it symbolizes the physical receptacle. For this reason, on the first of the fifty days the omer offering is brought from barley grains, which is a course, materialistic food. This corresponds with that which carries the Torah, which is the beginning of the Torah. On the fiftieth day, Atzeret, the two loaves (shetei halechem) are offered from wheat. Food derived from wheat is conducive to human intelligence, in particular, as it states in tractate Horayot: 'five things are conducive to study: one who eats wheat bread'."

The Maharal here follows his general outlook that the world was created in the form of giving and receiving. Even at Creation, the dimensions of giving and receiving are present: G-d is the giver and influencer, and the materialistic world was created as the receiver, through the creation of the human being. In the marriage relationship, too, the Maharal views the husband as the giver and wife as the receiver (particularly in a biological sense). This pattern also fits the relationship between Pesach and Shavuot, which symbolize the bond between the Jews and the Torah. The giving party is always spiritual and lofty, while the receiving party is material. For this reason, the omer, consisting of barley, highlights the role of the physical receiver, manifest in the Jewish People. The shetei halechem on Shavuot, consisting of wheat, emphasize the lofty spiritual nature poured into this physical vessel. What we see here is that the barley omer offering symbolizes the physical Jewish People are now worthy to receive the lofty Torah, which is compared to wheat.  

The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles, Rosh Hashana 16a), too, views the omer offering as the gradual spiritual growth the Jewish People achieved from the exodus from Egypt to the Giving of the Torah. Upon leaving Egypt, the Jews lacked mitzvot and were not worthy of Divine knowledge; to this end, we offer barley, which is animal fodder. Then, on Shavuot, we bring an offering from wheat: "After counting seven weeks when they were preparing for Knowledge, when offering a food made of wheat, since then they received the Torah."

A different type of spiritual ascent is described by the Ner Tamid (Rabbi Yosef Schogerweight, Mo'adim, Pesach, p. 97): the omer offered after Pesach teaches us that it is possible and necessary to infuse worldly matters with G-dliness. This is why following Pesach, it is precisely a barley offering, "which is a very course food, to show that it is possible to elevate it by bringing all of man's physical matters close to G-d." He adds that the barley omer offering comes only from the Land of Israel, "since the place causes the elevation and sanctification of all material matters."

The Yeriyot Shlomo (Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Leib ben Ben Zion HaLevi Levitan; §83) views all of the festival-related verses in parashat Emor as a trek of ascension from the human to the Divine. The first step is on Pesach, since only then were the Jews freed of physical bondage, so a physical barley offering is brought. The ascent continues during the sefira, through Shavuot, where wheat, a human food, is brought, fitting for the Giving of the Torah. On Rosh Hashana we continue to rise and coronate G-d as our king, and Yom Kippur is a completely sacred day, where the Kohen Gadol enters the inner sanctum. This process culminates with Sukkot, which is dedicated to rejoicing before G-d for seven days, since even the fronds that make up the sechach are imbued with sanctity.

  1. Barley: the uniqueness of the Jewish People

The Penei Menachem (Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter of Gur, Naso, p. 57) sees in the offering of barley the special quality of the Jewish People: even at the lowest level, when acting like beasts, "they are always called sons" (Kiddushin 36a, according to Rabbi Meir, whose opinion we follow). "And in every Jew there are good thoughts and desires," and the unique quality that allows him to overcome physicality—even when it seems impossible to overcome one's animalistic nature.

The Si'ach Yitzchak (Rabbi Yitzchak Yerucham Brodiansky, Ge'ulat Mitzrayim, p. 133) views the offering of barley as the ultimate expression of G-d's love for the Jewish people: G-d did not want to make them wait until Atzeret to bring the first wheat crop, which would mean that the barley yield, whose harvest had already begun, would still be prohibited until that date. In this way, bringing the barley offering earlier on shows G-d's great love for His people.

The Beit Genazai (part 3, Rabbi Refael Moshe Luria, Pitchei Tefillah, p. 292) views the barley offering a deeper manifestation of the essence of the Jewish People, who cleave to G-d blindly, even without thought or understanding; as Yermiyahu states: "You followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown" (2:2). This quality is not necessarily a fault. On the contrary: even when lacking comprehension, like an animal, the Jewish People cleaves to G-d due to their very essence and because they are partly divine (chelek eloka mima'al), and everything is drawn to its roots.

  1. The omer offering from barley is likened to the offering of the sotah who was tested and found innocent

The Yesod Yosef (Rabbi Yosef of Pozna; Taharat Yom Tov, part 4, p. 101) views the barley offering from the perspective of its common denominator with the sotah offering. As we know, the sotah—the suspected adulteress—brings her offering to clear her name of suspicion. If tested and found innocent, her righteousness comes to light and she is greatly rewarded. Such was the position of the Jewish People in Egypt; there were aspersions cast on all of the women that they were intimate with the Egyptians. If the Egyptians had physically enslaved them, it was believed, they surely controlled the women as well.

To clear their name, the Jews were commanded to follow the sotah procedure: to drink the bitter waters of Mara. At Mara it is stated "And G-d showed him a tree," (Exod. 15:24) and G-d's name was written upon it. When Moshe threw it into the bitter water, G-d's name was erased, just as His name is erased on the piece of parchment dipped in the sotah water. The bitter water became sweet and had healing properties, since the Jews were sacred and pure and had observed G-d's covenant. So for the generations to come, the bringing of the barley offering would hint to the sotah who is checked and found to be innocent.

The Yesod Yosef adds that Mordechai studied the portion relating to the omer on 16 Nissan in order to cancel Haman's edict. Haman believed that the Jewish women had been "contaminated," and that the gentile nations controlled the Jewish wives; for this reason, he believed they were not worthy of redemption. Mordechai, who studied the omer offering, hinted to Haman that this barley offering is just like the sotah offering, where the suspected woman is found innocent and pure. And on 16 Nissan, the day we bring the omer offering, the purity and innocence of the Jewish People was proven, and all suspicions were waived. It was on this day, right after Seder night, that the tide turned for Haman, and the evil man was hung on the gallows.


Both the omer and sotah offerings are composed of barley. According to the Gemara in tractate Sotah, barley is animal fodder; or, as we have illustrated, even if it is also a food for humans, it is of a lesser status than wheat. Yet there is a big difference between the barley offering the sotah brings, which symbolizes her fall from the level of a lofty human to that of "engaging in animalistic behavior"; and the omer offering, which actually indicates the beginning of a spiritual ascent. When the Jewish People left Egypt, they did not yet have the Torah, and the offering they brought indicates their ascension from their lowly stature to the loftiest level of spirituality. The barley offering also symbolizes G-d's great love for the Jewish People because of their essence.  It also indicates their praise, as they followed G-d blindly. Finally, it also proves to the world the Jew's purity and righteousness, as they were cleared of suspicion of immorality.

See the article with comments, here