Growing Barley for Passover

Close up of barley plantA stalk of my small barley crop ripening just in time for Passover!

In ancient times, Passover was associated with the ripening of the barley crop. If you plant barley seeds after Sukkot in the fall, your crop will be nearing maturity by Passover. Having done this twice, I assure you, this is an absolutely amazing experience! I grew the plants in a few flowerpots in our greenhouse, but you could do just as well in any sunny window. A pot of barley looks great on the Seder table and will certainly prompt questions. But be careful not to bring harvested barley stalks indoors during Passover, because it is one of the five kinds of grain that can become hametz.

Planting directions: Use a flowerpot that is about ten inches deep and ten inches in diameter at the top. Fill with potting soil to about two inches from the top. Moisten soil. Evenly space about 6 seeds in flowerpot and cover lightly with about a quarter inch of soil. Water lightly and keep moist until seeds sprout, probably in a few days. Water daily or every other day as needed, and do not allow the plants to sit in a saucer of water. If necessary, stake up the plants to prevent flopping. The first heads on barley may form in late winter, and the second group of heads may form in early spring. If barley heads have matured by Passover, stop watering. If not, water for a few more weeks. Allow the plants to dry out and turn yellow. Harvest barley heads and remove seeds for next years’ crop! (Actually, after having had a few years’ experience, I think you’ll get a better crop if you plant seeds you’ve bought rather than seeds you’ve grown. If you store the seeds you’ve bought in a cool, dry place, they will keep for at least several years.) To order barley seeds, click here.


Moshe said to the people, “Remember this day on which you went out from Egypt the house of serfs; for by strength of hand YHVH brought you out from here: no fermentation is to be eaten. Today you are going out, in the New Moon of Ripe Grain [chodesh Aviv]” (Exodus 13:3-4).

In modern Hebrew, “aviv” means spring. In the Bible, “aviv” means: “the point of grain’s maturation in which it has formed ears,” “barley ear,” “fresh,’’ or “green.” Aviv was also the name of the month in which the spring equinox fell. After the Babylonian Exile, the name of this month was changed to Nisan. In the Ancient Near East, this was a time when many cultures avoided fermented products.

Since calendars in the ancient Near East marked the beginning of each month with the appearance of the new moon, the fifteenth corresponds to the full moon. The Bible carefully sets the first Passover at the full moon near the vernal equinox. Why does Exodus 13:10 tell us to “keep this law at its appointed time?” Because otherwise, Passover and all the other Jewish holidays would have fallen in their appointed months, but those months and their festivals would have wandered through the seasons, just as the Muslim festival of Ramadan does. The complexity of the Jewish calendar–which reckons months by the moon and years by the sun, and adds an extra month to the calendar seven out of nineteen years–derives precisely from this specification: that Passover must come “at its appointed time”: at the full moon of the vernal equinox when the barley has just begun to ripen.

In ancient times, the Northern Kingdom of Israel placed great emphasis on a spring grain holiday, the seven-day festival of Matzot that began at the full moon before the harvest. Just after the first cereal crop–barley–had begun to ripen, farmers held a sacred feast to ensure a bountiful wheat harvest, still some weeks away. Leaven, or sourdough, a sour-smelling culture of yeast and bacteria grown from the old crop, was avoided to express hope for a healthy crop and to avoid contamination of the new crop by the old. The moldy rot that leavened bread can develop was similar to what farmers feared could devastate their crops. Excessive rain and heat could destroy a barley crop with a fungal disease now known as smut. Celebrated with unleavened bread from the previous year’s crop, the festival marked the time after which the community could begin to consume grains from the new crop. It may be that this holiday developed later than the Pesach sacrifice, when formerly nomadic shepherds made the transition to sedentary agriculturists. Similar festivals occurred throughout the ancient Near East.