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It has been called the Staff of Life, and for good reason. It nourishes our bodies, as well as our souls, and is a staple in the diet of cultures all over the world. It can take many forms: rolls, crescents, loaves and can be soft or crusty, white or dark — but whatever form it takes, bread remains an important part of our daily food habits.
In the Bible, bread is a prominent metaphor. It stands for nourishment and survival, as well as spiritual salvation. In biblical times, the production of food was dependent on nature. Droughts and disease all played havoc with crops. Time and again in the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites were warned that if they did not follow God’s ways, then God would not send rain to water the crops and then there would be no grain to grow. In the middle paragraph of the Shema, the Jewish prayer of faith, this admonition is spelled out. Clearly God’s wrath for disobedience was a big factor for the writers of the Hebrew Bible, and there are numerous writings to this effect throughout the Old Testament.
In Genesis, the first humans are told that they must now make their way in the world by the “sweat of their brow,” through hard work in order to earn their bread. (Gen. 3:19) No longer would food be provided for them in the Garden of Eden.
The Israelites, during their journey in the desert, often rebuke Moses and complain about their wanderings. In Exodus 16:3, they wish to return to Egypt, where they “sat by the flesh pots and where they ate bread to the full.” Later on in Deuteronomy, they are reminded that man (or woman) does not live by bread alone. They were to be reminded of all the acts, promises and miracles that God performed for them since leaving Egypt and that their souls needed nourishment as well.
In Judaism, bread is an important symbol for every holiday except fast days. There is special bread for the Sabbath called challah, a form of egg bread, which is braided and blessed at the Sabbath meal. Two loaves are traditionally placed on the table to represent the double portion of manna, the miraculous food gathered by the Israelites while in the desert. The double portion was allowed only preceding the Sabbath, when no gathering or work was allowed.
On the High Holidays, the challah is baked into a round shape to symbolize the cycle of life, the seasons or even the crown of God as king of the universe. The loaf is often studded with raisins to make it sweet to promote the blessing of a sweet New Year.
For Passover, unleavened bread is eaten. Called matzah, this special bread is baked in commemoration of the Israelites’ quick flight from Egypt, when they had little time to let their bread rise. Knowing that they most likely would not encounter any C-stores along the way, the Hebrew slaves had to make haste and take their starter dough with them so that they would have provisions for their journey to freedom.
In the Temple in Jerusalem, two loaves of bread were put on a table near the altar. They were called “show bread” and were given to the priests, since their livelihood was service to God and they did not farm the land.
The Psalmist reminds us (Ps. 104:14, 15) that God creates grass for cattle, plants for food, wine that gladdens man’s heart … and bread, which strengthens his heart. With this idea in mind, Jews bless the bread at their meals with the blessing that “God brings forth bread from the earth.”
The Hebrews realized very early how dependent they were on the providence of God and his mercy in order to survive.
Let those among us who are prosperous share our daily bread with those who are less fortunate. Let us remember and be generous to our local food banks. In this land of plenty, may no child go to bed hungry nor in want for sustenance. And may we all sit down together and eat in peace.
Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Ocala with her husband, Phil. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.