In the Book of Deuteronomy, we read: [God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat. . . in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone. . . (Deuteronomy 8:3). This passage draws a connection between the consumption of bread and the human spirit, as it seeks to remind us that there is more to eating than the mere cessation of hunger.
Most of us can fully relate to this concept, and we articulate it on a regular basis when we say, “Oh my God! This is delicious.” Others, like me, could actually “live on bread alone” and be very content. All kidding aside, food and faith go hand in hand in Judaism, and bread in particular plays a very central role (pun intended). Bread not only fills the belly, it also enriches the human spirit. Every culture has bread. Every faith includes bread in ritual practices.
In Judaism, bread holds a sacred place in every single meal we eat. Traditionally, there is a special blessing (the Motzi) that is recited ONLY when bread is going to be consumed. For any meal or snack that does not include bread, shorter blessings are recited before and after the meal.
Bread is also associated with the study of Torah. Our sages saw each as being part of a daily diet for the body and mind when they taught, “Im ain kemach ain Torah – Without flour (dough) there is no Torah.” In other words, physical and spiritual nourishment are inextricably linked.
Indeed, few foods provide more emotional sustenance than bread, and for this reason references to bread linking us to God are found throughout the Bible. One such reference occurs in the Book of Numbers, as God commands the Israelites to leave a portion (challah) of thick dough as a sacrifice from every loaf of bread they eat.
When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat the bread of the land, you shall set a portion [challah] aside as a gift to the Lord. . .You shall make a gift to the Lord from the first yield of your baking throughout the ages. (Numbers 15:20-21)
Here, bread serves as a form of daily sacrifice. The word challah means “portion,” referring to the portion of bread that was sacrificed to God as a gift of gratitude. This commandment became a formalized practice, and during Temple times, one twenty‑fourth of any dough being baked would be removed and given to the priests on the Sabbath. Today, Jewish bakers uphold this tradition and tear a small lump of risen dough from any type of bread and burn it while reciting a special blessing.
This simple ritual has remained an ongoing way for us to express gratitude for the bread we eat in a very physical way. Most of us, however, do not bake our own bread and for this reason, this ancient sacrifice is rarely experienced by the vast majority of modern day Jews.
Another bread-related sacrifice which is rarely practiced today is called the “Counting of the Omer.” The Torah commands us to count bundles of grain (the omer) every day for seven weeks from the second day of Passover to the festival of Shavuot. It is a custom which, once again, connects spiritual sustenance to physical sustenance. Today, Counting of the Omer has more to do with cultivating the human spirit than it does with cultivating the barley harvest, and Jews who observe it use this period as a formal way to count their blessings on a daily basis.
We are currently in this period of ritual counting, and among the many blessings we count, bread should be included. After all, our week-long abstention from bread during Passover serves to remind us how much we miss bread when we cannot have it. Yet, our abstinence each year is voluntary. There are countless people in the world and millions in our own country for whom a single serving of bread is a blessing which is never taken for granted.
At this season, where ritual sacrifice and food are so central to our holiday observances, we need to consider ways to translate the mandates of our faith into changes in the world. Perhaps these archaic rituals can help us renew our ancient covenantal relationship between the consumption of bread and personal sacrifice. Perhaps our age old traditions can provide us with a way of addressing the pains of human starvation in the world.
There are countless organizations and causes which strive to alleviate hunger. During this period of the Counting of the Omer, please consider supporting at least one. Thus, as we count our blessings, we can be a blessing to those who are literally living on bread alone.