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Flour Power

In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ Talmudic rabbis—debating the origins of the omer—explore the sanctity of different forms of wheat. Plus: Can seeds found in elephant dung be made clean by replanting?

Adam Kirsch
October 23, 2018
Inset image: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
Sifting wheat.Inset image: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
Inset image: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection/Library of Congress
Sifting wheat.Inset image: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection/Library of Congress

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

This week’s Daf Yomi reading, in Chapter Six of Tractate Menachot, focused on a particular type of meal offering: the omer. The Torah prescribes that an offering of barley must be brought on the second day of Passover, the 16th of Nisan, as a “first fruits” sacrifice, marking the beginning of the new harvest. It is not until the omer is sacrificed that it is permitted to eat from the new year’s crop. The word “omer” itself is simply a unit of measurement, equal to one-tenth of an ephah; the exact equivalent in modern units is disputed, but one estimate is 3.5 liters. Since this is the standard amount of flour involved in every meal offering, one could say that every day involves sacrificing an omer.

But when the rabbis discuss “the omer,” they are referring specifically to the sacrifice brought on the second day of Passover, which differs from standard meal offerings in important ways. While most meal offerings are made with wheat flour, the omer consists of barley grains, which are roasted whole—“grain in the ear parched with fire,” as Leviticus describes it. One of the requirements of the omer is that it must consist of fresh grain, which is why the barley used in the sacrifice was usually harvested from fields close to Jerusalem—it could be brought to the Temple while it was still soft.

But as the rabbis discuss in Menachot 63b, this raises a problem when the 16th of Nisan falls on a Shabbat, when harvesting is ordinarily forbidden. The rabbis all agree that the mitzva of the omer supersedes Shabbat, so that it is permitted to harvest the necessary amount of barley. But they differ about whether the manner of harvesting is different on Shabbat than on a weekday. Should the work be kept to a minimum, in order to lessen the infraction of Shabbat?

That is the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael. Ordinarily, he says, in order to produce the required amount of barley flour, one would have to reap five se’a of grain. (A se’a is equal to one-third of an ephah.) But when the date fell on Shabbat, only three se’a were reaped. Similarly, Rabbi Chanina—always identified by his title, the deputy High Priest—says that ordinarily it would take three men to reap the stalks, while on Shabbat the work would be performed by one man. But the rabbis reject both of these limitations, saying that even on Shabbat, the barley should be harvested in its normal amount and fashion. To do otherwise, they suggest, would result in an inferior product.

But why should it ever happen that the omer must be brought on Shabbat? After all, Leviticus 23 says that the omer should be sacrificed “on the morrow after Shabbat.” But it turns out that the interpretation of this passage was a matter of acrimonious disagreement between the rabbis and the members of the sect known as Boethusians. Like the Sadducees, the Boethusians rejected the authority of the rabbis and offered their own interpretations of the Torah, especially on matters of the calendar and Temple rituals.

In this case, they believed that Leviticus should be read literally, so that the omer would be brought on the day after the first Shabbat after the first day of Passover. This would have important consequences for the whole Jewish calendar, since Shavuot, the next major holiday, always takes place on the 50th day after the offering of the omer. Counting the days between the omer and Shavuot is specifically commanded in the Torah: “You shall count … seven weeks shall there be complete.” Therefore, if the date of the omer varies from year to year, the date of Shavuot will vary also.

The rabbis, on the other hand, understood the words “the morrow after Shabbat” to refer not to an ordinary Shabbat—what the rabbis call a “Shabbat of Creation,” commemorating God’s resting on the seventh day—but simply as a “day of rest,” which can also refer to a festival. In this case, they say, it refers to the first day of Passover. This means that the omer is always offered on the same calendar date—the 16th of Nisan, the second day of Passover—and so Shavuot is always on the same date, 50 days later, which is the sixth of Sivan. (The Christian calendar marks the same period under different names: The 50th day after Easter is known as Pentecost, from the Greek word for “50.”)

Because the dispute with the Boethusians had to do with a matter of such importance to Jewish communal life, the rabbis wanted to make sure that the Jewish people knew which calendar method they should be following. To ensure this, they publicized the omer offering “with great fanfare,” in the words of the mishna in Menachot 65a. This involved a call and response between the emissary of the court and a large crowd of witnesses. At each stage of the harvesting—the marking of sunset, the presentation of the sickle, the cutting of the sheaves—the emissary would ask the crowd if he should proceed, and they would cry out “yes.” When this took place on Shabbat, that circumstance too would require public approval, in order to refute the Boethusians’ error.

Only once the omer was sacrificed in the Temple was it permitted for the Jewish people to begin consuming grain from the new year’s harvest. “Once the omer was sacrificed,” we read in the mishna in Menachot 68a, “people would emerge and find the marketplace of Jerusalem full of the flour from the parched grain of the new crop.” This implies that farmers and merchants had already harvested and ground the flour before the offering took place, so that flour would be ready for purchase immediately after.

But was this done with the rabbis’ permission or without it? Authorities differ on this point: Rabbi Meir says that it was done against the sages’ wishes, while Rabbi Yehuda says the opposite. The reason why the sages would have opposed the advance preparation of grain is that they might have been concerned that “perhaps someone might come to eat from it” before the omer was offered. But Rabba explains that the prohibition was so well known that there was no concern any Jew would violate it: “He will remember,” he insists.

As the discussion proceeds, the rabbis end up considering some far-fetched questions, of the kind the Talmud loves to contemplate. For instance, can barley kernels found undigested in the dung of an animal be used as part of the omer? The Gemara immediately answers no: “It is obvious that they may not,” on the principle that nothing may be offered to God that one would hesitate to offer to a human ruler. If grains from dung are too disgusting to serve a king, they are too disgusting for the king of kings.

But what if you found barley grains in dung, extracted them, and planted them in the ground? Is the new crop that grows from these grains still objectionable? Or “since he sowed them,” perhaps “their disgusting quality has left?” Here the rabbis don’t know what to answer: Teiku, they say, using the formula for “let it stand unresolved.”

This raises another, related question about animal digestion. What if an elephant eats a wicker basket that is ritually impure, and then excretes it whole—does it retain its tumah after being inside the elephant’s digestive tract? Or what if the elephant eats palm leaves and excretes them whole, and these leaves are then used to make a new basket—is that vessel capable of contracting tumah, or does it qualify as a vessel made of earth, which cannot become ritually impure? Surely harvesting leaves from elephant dung was not a common practice, but this is just the kind of thought experiment that the rabbis like to use to test their principles and categories.

A similarly unlikely question arises in Menachot 69b. What about “wheat that fell from the clouds”? Can such wheat be used to bake the two loaves that are offered on Shavuot, even though the Torah says that the wheat must be brought “out of your dwellings”? That phrase is usually interpreted to mean that the wheat must be grown in the Land of Israel—but does wheat that falls from the sky above the Land of Israel count?

It’s reassuring to find that the rabbis themselves find this a bizarre question: “But is there a case like this?” the Gemara objects. Since when does it rain wheat? But apparently it did happen at least once, to a man named Adi the Arab: “It rained down on him wheat of a height of one handbreadth spread over an area of three parasangs.” The notes to the Koren Talmud suggest that such a phenomenon could be accounted for by a tornado that lifted the grain from one spot and dropped it at another. But perhaps this is best understood as one of the Talmud’s tall tales—not something to be taken literally, but a kind of thought experiment, designed to carry legal debates to their logical, or illogical, conclusions.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.