Traditional Jewish comfort food, with history more ancient and undoubtedly more venerable than the ubiquitous “Jewish penicillin” – chicken soup, Mushroom Barley soup was served in my family during the holiday of Sukkos, the final one of the series of High Holidays. The end of October – beginning of November was already pretty chilly, so a thick, hot,and filling soup was always welcome, as the Sukkos meals are supposed to be eaten outside, in the booths especially constructed for this purpose. However, there are many other fall and winter soups, just as comforting and filling, so why barley?
The real reason goes back to the Torah, where the land of Israel is called “a land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive and honey.” This interesting combination of two grains and five fruits, known as sheva minim (seven species), was celebrated two times during the year: first on Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, and the second time on Shavuos, the giving of the Torah festival. Shavuos is one of the three most important holidays of the year, when the entire population was expected to make pilgrimage to the Temple and bring the first fruit of the new harvest of seven species cultivated in the land of Israel. It was both the end of barley harvest and the beginning of wheat harvest. The actual wheat harvest was concluded and celebrated on Sukkos.
Besides the agricultural timing of the two harvests, there is a much deeper connection between the two holidays, and the seven species are not simply the ones that grew in Israel. There were quite a few other grains and fruit, and a bunch of vegetables as well, that were cultivated on that small but very fertile slice of land. These seven, though, have been singled out for their special holy properties. They represent the seven areas of human lives, the modes and characteristics that make us what we are. Barley is our material, animalistic instinct for self-preservation, for food and shelter, for a warm bed and a nice car, and a bigger house, and a larger bank account. Wheat, on the other hand, is the constant striving to grow and develop, to nourish the human in us, the higher “self.” And there was that first moment, “the early wheat harvest,” when the Jewish people, fresh out of slavery in Egypt, exclaimed in one voice,” Give us the Torah! We will do it! All your commandments we will do and we will hear!” That was on Shavuos.
We all know what happened there. Unfortunately, when Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the commandments, the materialistic, animalistic instincts, combined with crowd mentality, took over, and the people created a golden calf. And if this shiny idol is not a symbol of today’s corporate world, I don’t know what is!
Moses, who had spent 40 days on top of the mountain, literally and figuratively, came down, saw this spiritual disaster, smashed the tablets of the Law, turned around and went back up. When he came down, another 40 days later, the crowd was sufficiently repentant. Yet, just a few days later, they started complaining again! The entire account of 40 years wondering in the desert is a story of Jewish quetching: give us water, give us meat, what kind of food is manna that doesn’t even look like food! It is also the story of spiritual growth, from the lower level of barley-fed selves to the highest level of wheat-nourished human beings. As a reminder of this thorny and challenging process, we eat barley while celebrating the end of wheat harvest.
Just like our ancestors in the desert before accepting the Torah, I start preparing the night before. I soak barley and chick peas together overnight. In the morning, I rinse them and start cooking. I first bring it to boil stove top.
Once it’s boiling, I add cut mushrooms, celery, grated carrots, diced tomatoes, and pareve soup powder. Then I season it with salt and pepper, and add a dash of cinnamon. I bring it to boil again and transfer to the crock pot.
If you are in a hurry, you can, of course, simmer it stove top, if you have the time and patience to stand over the stove and stir your soup non-stop. Barley does have a tendency to thicken and stick to the bottom! You can also cook it in the crock pot on high setting, and it’ll be done in a couple of hours. I prefer to spend a few minutes in the morning to start it, and then leave it in the crock pot on low for 8 – 9 hours. This way, the flavors blend, barley thickens, and the soup becomes creamy and rich. You still have to stir it occasionally and add water if it becomes too thick.
On Sukkos, we eat in a booth. It is the only holiday when we are surrounded by a tangible, materialistic fulfillment of a commandment that, at the same time, imbues us with higher spirituality for the entire year. The round chick peas remind us of the cycle of Torah reading, completed and started again on Simchas Torah, the last day of Sukkos, and this delicious soup envelopes us with the comfort of physical and spiritual contained in one bowl.
- 1 cup pearl barley
- 1 cup dry chick peas (1/1/2 cup frozen or 1 can)
- 1/2 lb fresh mushrooms, cut into bite size pieces
- 1/2 cup grated carrots (1 medium size carrot)
- 1/2 cup diced tomatoes
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 heaping tablespoon soup powder
- A dash of cinnamon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Fresh parsley or cilantro to garnish
- Soak barley and chick peas overnight. Rinse, place in a pot with 2 quarts of water, bring to boil.
- Add the rest of ingredients, stir, bring to boil.
- Transfer to crock pot, add water, cook on low for 8 – 9 hours, on high for 2 – 2 1/2 hours. Stir occasionally, add water if necessary.
- Garnish with sprigs of fresh parsley or cilantro.