Saturday, May 28, 2016

Baking Bread, Learning Torah

Parashat Behukotai 5776

Lag BaOmer has passed. The air is clear and a glimpse of Sinai is visible on the horizon. Two weeks from tonight, with God’s help, we will reach it.

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments” (Leviticus 26:3) – Rashi interprets this verse to mean that we should labor in Torah in order to preserve and keep it.

At Mount Sinai, the Eternal revealed Godself to God's people and gave us the Torah. According to the tradition (TB Shevuot 39b) we were all witnesses to that event; that said, we still do not agree about what happened – or did not happen – on that day. Even the written Torah contains different and contradictory[1] accounts of speech, [2] thunder and a variety of pyrotechnics but also a soft murmuring sound (I Kings 19:12), kametzalef אָah. [3]

Yet many Shabbat mornings, we stand in front of the open ark while a Bnai Mitzvah teacher reads: “Moses received Torah on Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders, etc. (Pirkei Avot 1:1) ending with the name of a new Bar or Bat Mitzvah and then passes the scroll to the family’s generations. The reception of Torah that began at Sinai (perhaps even before) continues today and will continue until the end of time, as long as we continue to study, to teach, to explicate and to observe. By learning Torah, we express our acceptance of and connection to it. If we want to be an active part of the Jewish tradition, to renew it and transmit it to the next generation, we must take our own Torah study with appropriate seriousness.

Therefore, I would like to share with you my personal perspective on learning Torah. The following midrash is part of a work in progress; it incorporates traditional midrashim, modern scholarship and my own thoughts.

Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski[4] wrote that “Torah from heaven” should be understood like “bread from the earth.” Actual bread has never sprung nutritious and tasty from the earth. As Ben Zoma would say: “How much labor must a person invest before eating bread: plowing, sowing, harvesting, bundling, winnowing, sorting, grinding, kneading and baking. Only then can the bread be eaten” (TB Berakhot 58a).

Land, seed and water represent the sounds, lightning and kametz–alef–ah of Sinai. [5] 


Baking bread – for which we thank God – requires a significant amount of human labor, labor in which many participate. Even someone who bakes bread at home, buys the flour at the end of a long chain of production and supply. Very few people grind their own flour, and an even smaller number grow wheat for home consumption. Everyone works on the basis of the knowledge developed by our ancestors throughout the centuries, with roots reaching back to ancient Egypt from where we have our earliest evidence of leavened bread. [6]

This applies to learning Torah as well. Moses and the Israelites who left Egypt absorbed sounds, lightning and kametz–alef–ah at Sinai and began processing these materials until Torah emerged. Revelation provided raw materials, but these could not nourish the people in that state. [7] Only a complex process of mutual, long-term cooperation can bring Torah into the world.

Eating matza on Passover symbolizes the initial break from Egypt, and is also simple like the cereal fed to young babies. But nourished on cereal alone, a baby cannot grow to healthy adulthood. Total disconnection from life experience and world culture leads to a thin, weak Torah. After a transition period, the manna ceased, the people entered the land and real adult life began.

After Passover, I took a small amount of the special flour for baking matzah that remained, and added water, stirred it and left it, not for 18 minutes but for 36 hours. Then I continue to process the batter and build (that’s the jargon) a new starter, on the basis of written Torah I received from expert teachers[8] who came before me, and my own accumulated experience. The building process requires adding, stirring, removing, and waiting; and then repeating the process, time and again. 

Usually the process is successful, but not always. Sometimes external conditions (like a hamsin) causes it to spoil; sometimes, a lack of sufficient care does the damage. Then we must admit failure, discard the spoiled dough and begin again. This, too, is like learning Torah. Very slowly and with significant investment it is possible to grow and enrich Torah firmly based on the foundation that we received, but sometimes we do need to acknowledge our false starts.

On Shavuot (and only on Shavuot) leavened bread was brought to the Temple (Leviticus 23:17). For Shavuot I hope to bake Challah from the sourdough starter and remaining Passover flour, as a a milestone on the journey [9] to bread from the earth and bread from heaven. If there is no flour can be no Torah (Pirkei Avot 3:17).

It is never too late to begin – remember the story of Rabbi Akiva [10] – as we approach Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of Torah, let us continue together on adjourning of receiving and learning Torah.
 Kehillat Hod veHadar




[1] Compare Exodus 19-20, 24 to Deuteronomy 5 and see also Benjamin D. Sommer, “The Source Critic and the Religious Interpreter,” & “Revelation at Sinai in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Theology
[2] Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:12; 10:4.
[3] “I heard from the mouth of the great rebbe of Rumanov, our Master and Teacher Menachem [Mendel] of blessed memory, who commented on the verse, “God said one thing, and I understood two]” [Psalm 64.12] that it is possible that we heard directly from God’s mouth only the aleph of the
word אנכי [=I]; these words from the mouth of the wise one are beautiful.” Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz, Zera Qodesh.
[4] Jakob J. Petuchowski (1958) “Not by Bread Alone.” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, 7(3). Thank you to Rabbi Jonah Rank for sending me a copy.
[5] For comparisons between Torah and natural phenomena, food and other objects, see Shir Hashrim Rabbah 1:19
[6] Dr. Tova Dickstein, “A new look at Hametz, Matza and everything in between”‎; Dr. David Kraemer, “Leavened or Unleavened: A History.”
[7] What is the difference between the written law and the oral law? To what can they be compared? To a king who had two servants and loved them both. He gave each of them a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax. The wise servant took the flax and spun a cloth. He took the wheat and made flour. He ground, kneaded, and baked the flour. Then he set it on the table, covered it with cloth, and waited for the king to return. The foolish servant did nothing at all. After some days, the king returned and said to the servants, “Bring me what I gave you.” One servant presented bread covered by cloth, pleasing the king. The other, now disgraced, displayed the wheat still in the box covered with a bundle of flax... When the Holy One gave the Torah to Israel, He gave it only as wheat, for us to extract the flour, and flax, for us to spin a garment. –Tanna DeVei Eliyahu Zuta 2:1
[8] Maggie Glezer (2004), A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World. King Arthur Flour (founded in 1790 and now a 100% employee-owned company) Sour Dough Starter Recipe.
[9] I would like to thank my guides and companions on this journey, the participants in my classes at Hod veHadar, Rabbi Jason Rubenstein of Mechon Hadar and Project Zug for the course Rumors Of Revelation: Reflections on the Torah, and its Ability to Unite and Divide Jews, my steady Project Zug study partner Reb Joni Brenner; Blair Nosan, “To Celebrate Pesach, We Must Learn to Bake Bread
[10] How did Rabbi Akiva begin? He was 40 years old and an ignoramus. One day he was standing by a well and he saw a stone with grooves in it. When he asked who had made the grooves, he was told that it was the water that fell on it day after day. He thought for a while and asked himself: “Is my heart harder than a stone? If water can make grooves in this stone, the words of the Torah can surely inscribe themselves on my heart.” Immediately he began to learn. – Avot deRabbi Natan 6

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