You’d never guess it, but barley, that lowest of all grains that you can’t even make challah out of, much less cut with a challah knife, has tremendous religious and dietary significance to the land of Israel and the Jewish people. On the second day of Passover, a strange ceremony takes place. It is called the cutting and the waving of the Omer, which is a measure of barley that is a tenth of an Ephah, which if you don’t know what it is, then you probably didn’t live 3,000 years ago, which is normal.
The dietary significance of the Omer is that any grain that grew before the second day of Pesach and the cutting of the Omer may not be eaten. Once the Omer is cut, all new grain is permitted. This Biblical law centers around agriculture in the land of Israel and does not apply to outside the country. If we think about it, it becomes clear that this law strengthens the intimate connection between the land of Israel and the people of Israel, i.e. the Jewish nation. If an entire people is forbidden from eating all new grain, they all become focused and centered around the cutting of the Omer, become united around the ritual, and of course become more conscious of their God and His role in their dietary lives.
Of course, in Jewish Law it is forbidden to eat certain unkosher animals, but the are many more requirements when it comes to food. Donations to the priests in the time of the temple, donations to the Levites, and donations to the poor are all Biblically mandated by a fixed percentage. The cutting of the Omer is another piece of the puzzle, and the fact that it is done during the Passover holiday is no coincidence.
With families just finished with their Passover Seder and having just cleared off their Passover Seder plate, and the nation at a peak of unity, the cutting of the Omer takes place and suddenly a whole store of grain that has been growing for an entire year becomes permitted for consumption. It is the ultimate plenty after the ultimate dinner of the year. It is a time to whip out the Challah boards complete with sterling silver Challah knives and thank God for the blessing and plenty of the land of Israel.
But why barley? Barley is the lowest of all grains. The answer is that even this high point is not the highest. After the cutting of the Omer is the counting of the Omer, when the Jewish people count up 49 days, 7 full weeks, until the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, when finally, wheat is offered on the Holiday of Shavuot.
Physical plenty is fine, it’s great, it’s happy. That’s why the cutting of the Omer is so joyous. But it is still lowly, like barley. The full state of happiness only happens after our spiritual fulfillment, after the giving of the Torah on Shavuot 49 days later.