Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel


A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

Passover 5758-1998

On Bread, Sacrifice and Political Freedom

Dr. Hanan Eshel

Department of Land of Israel Studies

Growing grain and making bread in the biblical period were not easy tasks. Farmers had to plow, sow, reap, bring their grain to the threshing floor, crush the kernels with a threshing sled, winnow the grain in the wind, sift out the grain from the chaff, weigh their produce and distribute it to granaries where it was stored until used for baking or sowing the next winter's crop. Every morning, grain was taken from the granary and ground on a millstone, then kneaded and baked in the oven. All these operations had to be performed to "bring forth bread from the earth."

Thus in biblical times the curse "by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread" (Gen.3:19) was not metaphorical in the least; rather it was a simple description of the daily routine of the peasant, a large part of whose seasonal agricultural work and daily activities revolved around baking bread. Even the tension that went with sowing wheat was known to all, and the contrast between the tears at sowing and the joy at harvest (see Ps.126:5) was a straightforward depiction of the farmers' anxieties lest the wheat crop be poor and he and his family suffer hunger. This brief account should help us realize that the ideal then (as now) was to be able to eat bread that was leavened, had risen properly, been baked well, and was easy to eat and digest.

In view of this, it is surprising to read in last week's Parasha, Tsav, that the meal offering, the korban minha, "shall not be baked with leaven (hametz)" but "shall be eaten as unleavened cakes (matzot) [Lev.6:9-10], and that "no meal offering that you offer to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord" (Parashat Vayikra, Lev.2:11). One might have presumed that the preferred offering to bring would be the finished product, namely bread. Indeed, further on we read that the "thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being," the korban todah, should have "cakes of leavened bread added" (7:13). From this we conclude that the insistence on not bringing leaven into the Sanctuary had to to with sacrifices that were not for thanksgiving.

With regard to the offering of first fruits, a public offering detailed in Parshat Emor, it is written, "You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering; each shall be made of two-tenths of a measure of choice flour, baked after leavening" (Lev.23:17). It follows that even when giving collective thanks for good crops, the duty was to bring leavened bread to the Temple.

With regard to the Paschal offering, the korban Pesah, it appears that the injunction, "you shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the sacrifice of the Feast of Passover shall not be left lying until morning" (Ex.34:25) stemmed from the notion that the person bringing the sacrifice should know that he had not yet reached the point where he could sit back and rest on his laurels, he had not yet reached the ideal that is represented by leavened bread. When Amos visited the wealthy inhabitants of Samaria who lacked nothing and were accustomed to saying, "Bring, and let's carouse," he noted that they burned "a thank offering of leavened bread" (Amos 4:5). It seems the wealthy Samaritans thought they had attained the ideal state. Therefore Amos threatened them, saying, "I, on My part, have given you cleanness of teeth in all your towns, and lack of food in all your settlements" (Amos 4:6).

Unleavened cakes, matzah, thus expresses a stage short of the ideal. The first unleavened bread was baked because the people "took their dough before it was leavened,"(Ex.12:34) and these unleavened cakes, removed from the oven before they turned into bread, were generally what was brought to the Temple.

Leavened bread was forbidden not only in the Temple, but also on Passover, throughout the settlements of the Children of Israel, "for whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel." Beginning with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, fifty days are counted and at the end of this time two loaves are brought as an elevation offering (tenufa) to the Temple. The proscription against eating leaven during Passover and the obligation to count fifty days are symbolic of the notion that the festival of freedom does not express the ideal state, since it was precisely on this festival that leavened bread was forbidden throughout the Israelite's settlements.

Beginning with the Feast of Unleavened Bread preparations commence for the day when the two loaves will be brought by the public to the Temple. The political freedom we received with the exodus from Egypt is not the end of the process, rather the beginning. After liberation one must count and prepare for the day when one is permitted to bring complete thanks, a thanksgiving offering of leavened bread, to the Temple. We learn from this that political freedom alone is not the ultimate ideal, only the first stage in a long process, at the end of which we arrive at our destination.

For further reading, see: Y. Ben-Nun, "Hametz u-Matza be-Fesah, be-Shavuot, u-ve-Korbanot ha-Lehem," Megadim 13 (1991), pp. 25-45.