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Lag b'Omer: A Jewish Holiday That Is A Picnic

Originally published May 8, 2009. Reprinted April 27, 2012.

What holiday is not mentioned in the Torah or any other Jewish source until the 13th century and has no particular foods associated with it? The answer is Lag b'Omer.

The Torah does command us, in Leviticus 23:15-16, to begin on the second night of Passover to count the Omer, the seven-week period between Passover and the next ancient pilgrimage holiday, Shavuot. The word omer means sheaf and was a measure of grain from the new barley harvest cutting that the ancient Israelites brought to the Temple on the second day of Passover. The barley was processed into flour; some of it was burned and the rest was eaten by the priests.

mmm kebabs! food on sticks!
Wait ... kebabs? I thought this holiday was about barley!

Counting the days between the two holidays provides a bridge between Passover, the day commemorating the Israelites being freed, and Shavuot, the day commemorating the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

The seven-week period is a period of mourning when many traditionally observant Jews do not shave or get haircuts or hold marriages or public festivities. The "lag" in Lag b'Omer is a combination of the Hebrew letters lamed, which stands for the number 30, and gimmel, which stands for the number three. The date was significant in the second century Jewish rebellion against the Romans under the leadership of Bar Kochba, though the retelling of the event in the Talmud is confusing. In that story, students of Rabbi Akiva, who supported the rebellion, were supernaturally healed from a plague on the 33rd day of the Omer.

Since Jewish holidays nearly always have symbolic foods associated with them, why didn't anyone create something with barley or flour for this holiday? We'll never know. Instead, we have another food tradition. Joan Nathan, in her Jewish Holiday Cookbook, calls Lag b'Omer "a time for picnicking." She suggests roast chicken, eggplant salad, German potato salad, Moroccan carrot salad, fresh fruit and cookies.

Of all my many Jewish and Israeli cookbooks, the only one in my collection that actually devotes an entire chapter to Lag b'Omer food is A Taste of Tradition by Ruth Sirkis. She says the traditional bonfires of Lag b'Omer mark the beginning of the outdoor cooking season and recommends pickle dip, tehinah dip, mini relish trays, mixed grill (shishlik and kabab), pita, baked potatoes, baked corn, fruit and lemonade.

Here are some tips and recipes for grilling on a skewer:

Kebab Tips

  • Flat or square skewers will keep food from revolving.
  • If you spray the grill with vegetable spray before cooking, foods will not stick.
  • Partially cook vegetables before threading on a skewer so foods cook in the same amount of time.
  • If you use wooden skewers, soak them in tepid water for at least 30 minutes beforehand.
     

Meat and Potatoes Shishlik
6 servings

  • 2 lbs. cubed beef
  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp cilantro or parsley
  • 12 small red or white potatoes
  • 2 small onions, quartered
     

In a plastic bag, combine balsamic vinegar, oil, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, herbs, soy sauce and meat. Close and let marinade 2 hours or refrigerated 8 hours.

Place potatoes in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook for 15 minutes. Drain and place in a bowl.

Pour off some marinade into the bowl of potatoes and toss. Thread six skewers with meat cube, potato, meat cube, onion quarter, meat cube, potato, meat cube.

Thread remaining potatoes and onions on extra skewers. Grill skewers 3 inches from the heat, 5 minutes on each side (for medium rare), more for well done, basting with marinade before turning.

Lamb Kebab
6 servings

  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 ½ tsp Dijon mustard
  • 2 ½ lbs. cubed lamb
  • 2 red bell peppers
  • 2 green peppers
  • 2 quartered onions
  • 12 mushrooms
  • ½ cup chopped cilantro
     

Place olive oil, vinegar, garlic, mustard, herbs and lamb in a plastic bag, close, shake and set aside.

Core and seed peppers, cut into 1x2 inch (2x5 cm) pieces. Add to marinade along with mushrooms. Place in refrigerator at least 4 hours.

Place onion quarters on a plate and brush with some of the marinade.

Thread meat on skewers, alternating with vegetables and allowing 3 pieces of lamb per skewer.

Grill 3 inches from the heat for 5 minutes per side for medium rare, brushing with marinade when turning.

Grilled Vegetables
8 servings

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • ½ tsp dried basil or oregano or Italian seasoning
  • 2 quartered red onions
  • 1 red bell pepper cut in 1 ½-inch strips
  • 1 green pepper cut in 1 ½-inch strips
  • 4 halved plum tomatoes or 8 cherry tomatoes
  • 4 zucchinis or summer squash cut in ½ inch pieces
  • 1 eggplant cut in ½-inch pieces
     

In a plastic bag, combine olive oil, wine vinegar, garlic, mustard and spices. Add vegetables, close bag, toss and let marinate at least 3 hours.

Using one skewer for each vegetable, thread onto skewers allowing ½ inch (1 ½ cm) between each.

Grill 3 inches (7 ½ cm) from heat source 3 to 5 minutes, carefully turning.

Place marinade in a bowl. Slide cooked vegetables off skewers into marinade and toss.

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew term for a unit of dry measure, it was used to measure barley and is sometimes translated as "sheaf" (as in, "sheaf of barley"). Omer now refers to the period of 49 days from Passover to Shavuot. Today, instead of bringing an omer of barley to sacrifice, the days are counted ("counting the Omer"). It's also a period of semi-mourning, when traditional Jews will refrain from partying, dancing, listening to live music, or cutting their hair.
Sybil Kaplan

Sybil Kaplan is a food writer and cookbook author who lives in Jerusalem.

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