Bread, whether we enjoy it as a sandwich or with a meal does more for us than merely satisfying our hunger. If we pay attention, it lets us taste the histories of civilization in every bite as it nourishes our bodies and spirits. In evolving as we do; from fertility to growth, maturity and decay, bread is an apt metaphor of life itself.
In the Books of Exodus (16:1-36) and Numbers (11:1-9), bread, in the form of a mysterious substance called manna, was ‘given’ to the early Israelites during their desert tenure. The manna was ground and baked into cakes which purportedly tasted like honey or any other food one wished to imagine. Though no one knows what manna actually was, its etymology and physical form invited speculation that ran the gamut from coriander seed to ‘kosher’ locusts’, hallucinogenic mushrooms and bdellium, a sort of resin, perhaps from the tamarisk tree. This form of ‘bread’ appeared only until they reached and settled in Israel where they learned to cultivate grains. Eventually, grain-based bread was incorporated into religious ritual and made its way to our tables to symbolize the Temple altar. The bread we call ‘challah‘ was named for the piece of dough that was separated from the unbaked loaf and given to the Temple priests to burn as ‘minhah’, a sacrificial offering. According to rabbinical commentary on the Book of Numbers (15:19), it was to be made only from one of the five species of grain (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye) though some commentators differed on which grains were indicated. Absent the Temple, destroyed in 70 C.E., this custom is now largely followed by religiously observant women who bake bread at home. Technically there are two words in Hebrew for bread; challah, an egg-based bread and lechem, bread baked for daily use. In biblical times, the Sabbath bread was probably a form of the pita we enjoy at Middle Eastern restaurants and bakeries.
While the long, complex history of bread and bread-making is worthy fodder for the myriad culinary tomes out there, I will be brief here, as the goal of An Illumination Of Blessings is to visually extract the essence of how bread came to us and the ways by which we honor it and our Creator. Accordingly, the two blessings on this page address all forms of bread and grain-based baked goods. Among the five species of grain that form the borders of my illustration is a stalk of rice. I’ve included it here both for its esthetic beauty and to represent its use in the Spanish or Sephardic Jewish tradition which basically adheres to Orthodox customs with differences in interpretation.
The process of bread-making from harvesting to oven to table is embodied in two figures. There is a woman carrying a sheaf of wheat standing beside an upper hand-stone and lower grindstone or quern. These were used to grind (mill) the grain until more efficient devices were developed. Grinding was a difficult, time consuming task commonly assigned to women. In ancient times, each household stored its own grain and it is known that at least three hours of daily effort were required to produce enough flour to make bread for a family of five.
In the lower right corner, a baker is standing behind a sack of flour and pantry scoop. Under one arm are two baguettes and a challah. The round challah is of a type used on the Rosh Hashanah holiday to signify the wish for a long life. The baguettes are there simply because they remind me of the delicious breakfast served in the pension where my husband and I stayed on our first visit to Paris. The oven paddle or ‘peel’ in his right hand is a tool that has been in use since ancient times to move loaves of bread and baked goods in and out of hot ovens. It symbolizes one of oldest hand crafts in the world. On a visit to the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum some years ago, I saw some actual 5,000 year old loaves of bread and stalks of wheat that, if they could speak, would tell of ancient summers in the Land of the Pharaohs.
The ‘ha-motzi’ blessing at the top of the page is for any bread made from the aforementioned five grains, while the blessing below it is the ‘mezonos’ recited over baked goods such as cakes, pastries, cereals and cooked grain goods like pasta or couscous. Online are many lists that specify which products require this blessing. One of these is: http://oukosher.org/guide-to-blessings/
Since baker’s products are as many and varied as their cultures, customs and their imaginations permit, I’ve chosen just a few representative samples of both bread and dessert items. In addition to the challah and baguettes mentioned above, there are bagels, pita and a croissant for breads. Two types of rugelach, apple strudel, sufganiyot (jelly donuts popular in Israel and the US), macaroons, hamentaschen (for the Purim holiday) and mandel brate (almond bread) with fruit and nuts stand for desserts.
There is one last detail for this blessing. If you look closely, the challah at the center of the page bears a tiny number 78. Students of Hebrew mysticism may know that the gematria (numerical equivalence of letters and words in Torah) of bread or lechem is 78; the letter lamed =30, the letter chet = 8 and the final letter mem = 40. One of the lessons learned by the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt was that their bread/manna, was a ‘heaven-sent’ daily miracle. And in many ways, it still is. While we no longer subsist on manna, we understand the thought process around this miracle as the basis for agricultural laws which we continue to develop, perhaps with divine guidance. Consequently, we are expected to recite Grace after each meal thanking G-d for sustaining us in this way. In gematria, the numerical equivalent for G-d’s Name is 26 and it appears each time in the Birkat Hamazon or Grace After Meals. Three times 26 = 78 to bring us full circle as we acknowledge our Creator and the miracles of life.
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Tags: ancient, baker, barley, bdellium, Birkat Hamazon, bread, cake, croissant, desert, dessert, donuts, Egypt, Exodus, gematria, grace, grains, ha-motzi, kosher, lechem, mandelbrate, manna, mezonos, Numbers, oats, rice, rugelach, rye, sacrifice, sheaf, spelt, strudel, sufganiyot, Temple, wheat