“Bread Alone”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As the name of the parasha, “Shelach lecha“–send for yourself, indicates, this week’s parasha focuses on the 12 scouts that were sent by the people of Israel to check out the land of Israel. As is well known, ten of the scouts returned with a negative report resulting in G-d’s decision to prohibit entry into the land of Israel by the entire generation of male Israelites, twenty years old and upward.

After the conclusion of the episode with the scouts, in order to underscore the centrality of the land Israel, the Torah focuses on two mitzvot that apply specifically to the land. Numbers 15:1-16 records the laws of sacrifice and the libations that accompany the sacrifices that are to be brought in the Temple (for more information, see analysis of Shelach, 2003).

The second mitzvah cited that applies specifically to the land of Israel is found in Numbers 15:17-21. G-d tells Moses to speak to the Children of Israel and tell them that when they come into the land to which G-d will bring them (Israel), when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion for G-d. The text in verse 20 reads: “Ray’sheet ah’ree’so’tay’chem cha’lah tah’ree’moo t’roo’mah,” the first of your kneading you shall set aside as challah–a portion, just as you set aside the Terumah of the threshing-floor.

As a linguistic aside, it is intriguing to note that there are a number of mitzvot that have assumed colloquial names that are not truly accurate, and yet these mitzvot are regularly refered to by these names. So, for instance, the word mezuzah really means “doorpost.” Nevertheless, we commonly refer to the scroll that we place on the doorpost as a mezuzah. Brit literally means “covenant,” and yet the rite of circumcision is generally referred to as brit, rather than the sign of the brit (covenant). The word payah means a “corner,” and since it is forbidden to use a razor to shave any of the five corners of the beard, the sideburns at the top of the jawbone are generally referred to as payot.

In the case of challah, the practice is reverse. The portion of the bread which is removed and given to the Cohen is known in the Torah as challah, and yet Jews traditionally called their Sabbath breads challot. This underscores the devotion that the Jews have to the Torah and to the mitzvah of challah. The commitment to the mitzvah of removing a portion of the dough is so great, that we call our bread by the name of the commandment with which it is associated!

As is stated in Numbers 15:20, the practice of taking challah from the dough is similar to the practice of removing Terumah, the heave-offering from the agricultural produce. Although the Torah does not specify an amount required for the giving of Terumah, the practice was for the average Jewish farmer to remove 1/50th or 2% of his fields’ produce and to donate that to the Priest (the Cohen). The portion of the dough, known as challah, was similarly donated to the Cohen. The parameters of this ancient law required that whenever a Jew mixed the ingredients for his bread from wheat, barley, spelt, oats or rye, in an amount that was the equivalent of at least 43 1/5 eggs (approximately two pounds, 10 ounces of dough), he was required to designate a part of that dough as challah for the Priest. The Torah does not specify the amount that the baker had to present to the Priest; however, the rabbis designated the minimum quantities as 1/24th of the dough for a private individual, and 1/48th of the dough for a professional baker.

While the Torah in Numbers 15:18 specifically declares “B’vo’ah’chem el ha’ah’retz ah’sher Ah’nee may’vee et’chem sha’mah,” when you come to the land [of Israel] to which I bring you, indicating that the law applies specifically in the land of Israel and only when all the Children of Israel live in Israel, our rabbis have decreed that the practice of taking challah continue even when there is no Temple and even when Jews reside outside of Israel, so that these laws not be forgotten.

Since there are no ritually pure Priests today who are qualified to eat the challah, it has therefore become customary for anyone who bakes a minimum of 2 pounds, 10 ounces of dough, to remove an olive-sized part and to burn it. Those baking larger amounts (somewhere between three pounds, 10.7 ounces and four pounds 15.2 ounces), are required to recite a blessing when they remove the dough. The formula for the blessing is: “Blessed art You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to separate challah from the dough (l’haf’rish challah min ha’ee’sah).

The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in thirteenth-century Spain) proposes two interesting reasons for the practice of the laws of challah. He suggests that since bread is the staple of the meal and is eaten daily, it is an easy way of incorporating a mitzvah into the everyday routine of a person’s life. By giving part of one’s daily food to the Priest, the Jew sustains both body and soul at the same time.

The author of Sefer Ha’Chinuch also notes a fundamental principle that applies to all gifts to the Priests, as well as, in part, the gifts to the Levites who assisted the Priests. Because of their many sacred duties, neither the Priests or the Levites were given a portion of the land of Israel among the twelve tribes. The Levites were given 42 cities, but were not given extensive agricultural tracts. They, therefore, relied heavily on the generosity and beneficence of the People of Israel.

With the Levites serving as assistants, the Priests conducted the service in the Temple, offering the various daily sacrifices and holiday sacrifices. But in addition to their ritual duties, the Priests, and to a certain extent the Levites, had spiritual duties as well. The Priests and Levites became the de facto rabbis and the educators of their generation, teaching and preaching the word of G-d. In order to maintain the elevated educational and spiritual status of the Jewish people, it was important that the Priests and Levites be sustained adequately. That is why the Priests shared in certain parts of the animal sacrifices that were brought by the people. They also received the first fruits of the season and the first shearing of the sheep, as well as certain items designated and dedicated to the Temple as a free-will offering by any Israelite.

The Levites were sustained by being given 1/10th of the produce of the Jewish farmers, and the Levites in turn were required to give 1/10 of what they received to the Priests. It was in this way that the Jewish people ensured that their rabbis and teachers were properly sustained.

In the case of the challah, says the author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch, it was not only a gift of dough to the Priest that sustained the Priest, it was also its form, since receiving the gift in the form of dough made it unnecessary for the Priest and the Priest’s family to engage in the time consuming process of harvesting, cleaning, sifting, and grinding the grain, as well as kneading the flour into dough before baking. By receiving a gift of challah, ready dough from the people, most of the hard work had been done for the Priests, and all they had to do was to take the gift, bake it and eat it.

But the people of Israel cannot live by bread alone. They require their spiritual sustenance that is to be provided by the Priests. Similarly, neither can the Priests live on spirit alone! The leaders and educators of Israel need to be adequately sustained so they can properly fulfill their functions. It is therefore particularly notable that our rabbis insisted that the practice of taking challah be maintained to this day, even though we have no Temple, so that it will not be forgotten, not only in Israel, but even in the diaspora, even in galut.

Sustaining our educators and our spiritual teachers must be a foremost priority.

May you be blessed.