I just can’t do it. After many failed attempts to limit my carb intake, I cannot stop eating bread. It is simply too delicious. And too symbolic.
Recently, on the news program “CBS Mornings,” there was a segment about a new bakery and the universal love of bread. The story began by noting that bread is one of the oldest crafts of culinary history, there being evidence of baking it from nearly 14,000 years ago. It’s not surprising, given that bread in one shape or another is part of every culture on the planet. It is certainly part of our Jewish tradition, both ritually and culturally. Who among us hasn’t eaten one or more of the following: challah, bagels, matzah (yes it counts!), rugalach, rye, bagelah…and so on.
Why all this talk about bread? Because bread appears in this week’s Torah portion, Emor. The reference occurs toward the end of the portion, after many verses regarding the regulations governing the lives and service of the priestly class. There we find a description of the lechem ha-panim, “the bread of display.”
The lechem ha-panim is an odd ritual. The priests were to take carefully measured flour, bake 12 loaves and place them in two rows on the table of the Tabernacle that traveled with the Israelites through the desert on Shabbat, along with some spices — and there they remained in place until the next Shabbat. After the week of display, the loaves were eaten by the priests.
Why the wait? Why not eat the bread when it was hot, with that delicious fresh-baked smell and taste? Assuming that the priests didn’t necessarily enjoy eating days-old stale bread, there must be more to this ritual than exhibiting patience and self-control.
Our tradition tells us that when it comes to the lechem ha-panim, the eating is secondary. The preparation and baking of the loaves are of primary importance. In the Mishnah we find that the dough for all the loaves was kneaded together, but the loaves were baked two by two. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German rabbi and philosopher used this teaching to draw lessons about communal unity and responsibility. He wrote: “Each challah — representing each tribe — in its foundational stage (of kneading) merited the same degree of individual attention; but they were solidified (baked) only two at a time. This one with that one and this one for the sake of that one.”
In Rabbi Hirsch’s interpretation, the images of loaves being baked in pairs evokes the strong sense of connection and responsibility that can exist between two people, two tribes or even two communities. The loaves were “shown” all week as daily reminder that each tribe, and ultimately each one of us, is an important part of the community.
Allow me to take the nearly exhausted bread analogy one step further: It is our job to remember that we all come from the same dough — kneaded with the same intentionality and care. Although separated into different loaves for baking, the paring of the challah breads reminds us that we are not alone — we are part of a mutually caring community. As the Talmud states: “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,” meaning “All of Israel are responsible for each other.” (Shevuot 39a)
As we prepare to eat our challah this Shabbat, may we remember the message of the lechem ha-panim as we support and uphold each other. PJC
Rabbi Jessica Locketz is a rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.