Recently, I went on a trip with my son’s kindergarten to a local farm. Their class had been going monthly since the beginning of the school year, getting their hands dirty doing all sorts of nature-y activities. On the day I went, we were making flour.
First, we hiked up to the field of wheat stalks. Every child held the scythe (with adult supervision) and cut down a bundle of wheat. We returned to our shaded area and sat down with the wheat stalks, where our guides showed us how to rub the stalks of wheat in between our palms to separate the stalk from the kernel. Once that was done, we lay the wheat kernels on a sheet and lifted the sheet into the air. The gentle breeze separated the chaff from the kernels. After separating, we gathered the kernels and placed them in between two flat, round, heavy rocks. Each child turned the upper rock, thus grinding the kernels into flour. Once we had fine flour, we all got to put a little on our finger and take a lick. It was a powerful experience, engaging all of our senses in preparing this food.
It was no coincidence that this activity was planned for the week before Shavuot. Shavuot celebrates our acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, of course, but also marks the beginning of the wheat harvest. One of Shavuot’s biblical names is as “chag hakatzir,” the holiday of reaping. During ancient times, Jews brought their bikkurim, the first fruits of the harvest, to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Each of the major holidays (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot) has an agricultural theme as well as a religious theme. But the agricultural aspect often gets lost in the shuffle. Who has time to reflect on harvesting and reaping and gathering—things that are so foreign to our modern way of life, anyway—when there is a sukkah to build or a seder to prepare for?
But during Shavuot, at least, there are fewer demands on our time and energy. What a perfect opportunity, then, to reflect on and study our connection to our land. There is a tradition to stay up learning all Shavuot night, called tikkun leil Shavuot (according to the story, the Jews overslept on the day of receiving the Torah, and we need to make up for their lack of zeal). This Shavuot night—or anytime over Shavuot, if you’re not the insomniac type—take some time to discuss and think and learn about where our food comes from before it ends up in our pantry. Agriculture is still integral to our lives, despite how disconnected we’ve become from the process.
For example, dedicate some of your tikkun leil Shavuot to studying the 39 melachot (areas of work) that are prohibited on the Sabbath. Many of these prohibitions are related to food preparation—cutting, reaping, separating the chaff. Or stock up on some books that detail the “farm to table” process. There are versions for both kids and adults. I personally enjoy the children’s books—what’s not to like about accessible language and colorful pictures?
Throughout the Torah, we see clearly the high value God places on the land and caring for it properly. We need to increase our awareness of the agricultural lessons of our holidays. Reconnecting with our land and the food it provides, whether through reading books, visiting a farm or making an effort to buy locally grown products, reminds us that our food did not originate on a supermarket shelf. Rather, its origins are out here, waving blissfully in the wind.