Friday, May 11, 2012

Bread in the Temple: What is it to you?

In God’s house, a golden table is set with bowls and spoons. 12 loaves of bread are arranged upon it. Granted, it’s existence might make the sanctuary feel like a little doll house.  It is one of the strangest details of our tradition: Lechem haPanim, the Bread of the Internal. It’s history is full of potent legends: The Talmud tells us that it never went stale, that even the tiniest piece of it was satiating, that the table had to have bread on it, or the world would stop turning. 
Our Parsha, Emor, describes how it was arranged:

And you shall take choice flour and bake it into twelve loaves …. And you shall place them in two rows, six to a row, six to a row, on the pure gold table before the Lord. …
Sabbath day after Sabbath day they shall be laid out before the Lord perpetually on behalf of the Israelites, an everlasting covenant.
And it shall be Aaron’s and his sons’, and they shall eat it in a holy place, for it is holy of holies for him from the Lord’s fire offerings, an everlasting statute. (Leviticus 24:7)
ה וְלָקַחְתָּ סֹלֶת וְאָפִיתָ אֹתָהּ, שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה חַלּוֹת; שְׁנֵי, עֶשְׂרֹנִים, יִהְיֶה, הַחַלָּה הָאֶחָת ו וְשַׂמְתָּ אוֹתָם שְׁתַּיִם מַעֲרָכוֹת, שֵׁשׁ הַמַּעֲרָכֶת, עַל הַשֻּׁלְחָן הַטָּהֹר, לִפְנֵי ה’... ח בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, יַעַרְכֶנּוּ לִפְנֵי ה’ תָּמִידמֵאֵת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּרִית עוֹלָם ט וְהָיְתָה לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו, וַאֲכָלֻהוּ בְּמָקוֹם קָדֹשׁכִּי קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הוּא לוֹ, מֵאִשֵּׁי ה’--חָק-עוֹלָם. (ויקרא כד:ז)

Bible scholars note that all Mesopotamian temples had bread, and the Hebrew Temple was no exception. But while in pagan temples new bread was placed before the deity before each meal, only to be summarily burnt to symbolize the Gods having eaten their dinner, the Hebrew temple transmuted this “Divine food” into food for the priests, and supplanted the basic time unit from “meal to meal” to “Shabbat to Shabbat”.
As a modern reader, one is left slightly flustered when facing these remnants of pagan anthropomorphism. Even Maimonides, the great re-interpreter of the anthropomorphic Torah into rational terms, gave up: “I do not know the purpose of the table with the bread upon it continually, and up to this day I have not been able to assign any reason to this commandment.” (Guide for the Perplexed, III:45).
Thankfully, the gates of interpretation have not closed. Hasidic interpreters play a game: they take strange texts and ask: מהו בעבודה? – What is this in avodah, what relevance and meaning can be given to this teaching in informing our service? How can this idea inform my desire to live a life of meaning? Put differently: What is this to you?
Here then is a fun game to play at your next (Shabbat) dinner party: Why the bread? Why the table? What is the significance of this holy eating? What’s the deal with it always being fresh? Why could the table never be without bread? And why is it called Bread of the Panim – meaning, simultaneously – bread of the Face, Bread of the Inside, Internal bread, Bread of the Presence… What is this in Avodah?
Here’s my take:
As long as the temple existed, the altar atoned for a person. Now, each person’s table atones for them” says the Talmud (Menachot 97). The Talmud here is prescribing a surprising role to eating, and to the home. Redemption happens not despite eating, but through it. The temple is not inherited by the synagogue, but by the home – your dining room table, to be specific. Nowhere is the connection between our tables and the Temple more pronounced then on Shabbat, with meals the focal point of the day (not synagogue…). Obviously, Hallah takes the place of the Lechem haPanim (indeed, Kabbalists would use 12 loaves of challah on Shabbat, just like in the Temple).
Reb Tzadok haCohen of Lublin, the late Hassidic master (died 1900), extrapolates:

The Lechem haPanim was renewed each Shabbat, because the essence of eating in holiness is achieved on Shabbat, as they said in the Talmud and the Midrash and the Zohar: “By keeping Shabbat one is immediately redeemed” – in other words through holy eating everything is rectified, becoming as it was before the brokenness [of the eating from the fruit in Eden] and the harm of the snake. And this is the meaning of “immediately redeemed”. (Pri Tzadik Tu Bishvat)
לחם הפנים בשבת מתחדש, כי עיקר אכילה בקדושה הוא בשבת וזה שאמרו בגמרא (שבת קי"ח ב) ומדרש (שמות רבה כ"ה, י"ב) וזוה"ק (תיקון כ"א) דעל ידי שמירת שבת נגאלין מיד שמתקנים הכל שיהיה כמו קודם קלקול ופגם הנחש ...וזהו מיד נגאלין.

Reb Tzadok’s Shabbat eating is an eating that pervades the entire body. Like the purifying waters of the mikveh, the food rushes through the entire organism, redefining it, bringing it fresh life, resetting our body to the “manufacturer’s settings”. Meir Shalev, in his novel Four Meals describes such an experience:
I couldn’t imagine that food could give such profound and poignant pleasure. Not only my tongue and my palate, but also my throat and my guts and my fingertips sprouted tiny taste buds. The smell filled my nose, saliva flooded my mouth, and even though I was still a child, I knew I would never forget the meal I was eating.  (Meir Shalev, Four Meals, pg. 18)

Reb Tzadok’s Shabbat eating is an eating that is able to “reset” the world, a return to the world of divine and human expectations as they were in Eden, before human weakness was manifested  by the snake. Shabbat eating allows us to return to ourselves the way we imagined ourselves, to our highest aspirations for ourselves. Lechem haPanim is indeed “Show bread” – the bread that shows an ideal image of the world, of ourselves. As we eat it on Friday night, we can again imagine ourselves as our highest selves, and immediately we are redeemed.
And one more thing: Why did the Bread of the Internal never go stale? I know only one kind of bread that doesn’t go stale – wonderbread, the height of the artificial. Indeed, artificial dreams, like artificial bread, seem to stay fresh and shiny. Real bread, like deep dreams and aspirations, become stale ever so quickly, as we become jaded and cynical. Hence the image of an “Internal Bread” that will never go stale is so necessary. On Shabbat we are invited to reach back to the “Bread of the Inside”, that place inside that never goes stale, where dreams are “as warm as when they were baked.” And this is perhaps why the bread can never be taken off the golden table of our psyche: if we were ever to live in a world where the ever-fresh bread did not exist, our life too would become as stale as week old bread.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Emor | Text and the City