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There’s No Business Like Showbread Business

‘Daf Yomi’: Are Jews like olives, crushed for their oil, or like the leaves on the olive branch, enduring through all seasons?

Adam Kirsch
October 16, 2018
Inset image: Rijksmuseum
Jan Luyken, 'Tafel der Toonbroden,' 1683.Inset image: Rijksmuseum
Inset image: Rijksmuseum
Jan Luyken, 'Tafel der Toonbroden,' 1683.Inset image: Rijksmuseum

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

In the early chapters of Tractate Menachot, the Talmud focused on the portion of the meal offering that is offered on the altar. Just as a portion of every animal sacrifice is burned on the altar, we learned, a handful of every meal offering is also burned; the rabbis even specify what fingers to use when scooping flour out of the consecrated vessel. But the burning of the handful is only the initial stage of the offering. What happens to the remainder of the meal, which is meant to be baked into loaves and consumed by the priests?

In Chapter Five of Menachot, which Daf Yomi readers finished this week, we learn the answer to this question. Or, rather, the answers, since there a number of types of meal offering, each of which requires a slightly different procedure. Simply keeping the details straight is challenging—the priests in the Temple must have had excellent memories—but the Gemara also attempts to figure out the logical justification for the differences between types of offerings.

The first rule for meal offerings applies to almost every type: “All the meal offerings come to be offered as matza,” that is, as unleavened bread. Today we think of matza only in connection with Passover; but in Leviticus, it is established that the bread baked from meal offerings must also be matza. Since these offerings were brought daily, the priests’ must have eaten mainly matza throughout the year. Despite the “all” in the mishna, however, there are exceptions: Thanks offerings and Shavuot offerings involve loaves of leavened bread.

In the Gemara in Menachot 59a, we learn another rule that applies to all types of meal offerings: “Anywhere we learned that one brings a meal offering, we learned that one must bring 10 items of the same type.” That is, the flour in the offering—a 10th of an ephah, which in modern units is approximately 3.5 liters—should be baked into 10 loaves.

The next thing to consider is whether the loaves should be baked using oil or frankincense, or both, or neither. Different offerings have different specifications: For instance, the meal offering of the priests uses oil and frankincense, while the peace offering uses oil alone, and the shewbread—the loaves (also known as showbread) that were perpetually on display in the Temple—uses only frankincense. If one makes a mistake and puts oil in an offering that doesn’t call for it, the offering is disqualified, since once the oil is mixed with the flour it can’t be unmixed. With frankincense, which takes the form of a powder, the rule is that if it’s put on the flour mistakenly one should try to scoop it out.

Once the loaves are baked, they must be presented at the altar. This can be done in two ways, by “waving” or by “bringing near,” and once again some types of offering require both or neither. Bringing near means carrying the loaves to the western side of the altar, while waving is performed on the eastern side, and involves holding up the loaves, along with the designated portions of sacrificial meat. Then they would be extended in all six directions—front and back, right and left, up and down—in the same manner that a lulav is shaken on Sukkot.

The reason for this ritual was debated by the rabbis. The rabbis of Babylon gave it a symbolic explanation: It was meant to dedicate the sacrifice to “He to Whom the four directions belong” and “the heavens and the earth belong.” For the rabbis of Eretz Israel, there was a more pragmatic motive: It was “to request a halt to harmful winds and storms that come from all directions,” and to “harmful dews” that come from above. Rav Acha bar Ya’akov gave the ritual his own personal meaning, saying that extending the sacrifice was a way of “shooting an arrow in the eye of Satan.” But the rabbis disapprove of this, because they see it as a way of tempting the devil: If you brag about his defeat, he will “come to incite” the Jewish people even more.

The fate of the Jewish people is the subject of a beautiful homily earlier in the chapter. In Menachot 53b, the Gemara relates that Abraham appeared in the First Temple when it was about to be destroyed by the Babylonians. Abraham pleads with God not to allow this to happen, in a speech clearly modeled on the episode in Genesis where he tries to stop God from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham challenges God: Why are the Jews being punished? God replies that it is because they are sinners. Perhaps they sinned unwittingly, Abraham says, but God says no, their sin was deliberate. Perhaps only a minority of the people sinned? No, God replies, all of them are guilty.

Finally, when Abraham is defeated in the argument, he “placed his hands on his head”—a gesture of mourning—“and was screaming and crying” at the fate of his descendants. At this sign of despair, however, God comforts him by citing a verse from Jeremiah: “The Lord called your name a leafy olive tree, fair with goodly fruit.” “Just as with regard to this olive tree, its final purpose is fulfilled,” when it bears fruit, “so too with the Jewish people, their final purpose will be fulfilled at their end,” God promises.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi expands on this simile: “Why were the Jewish people likened to an olive tree? It is to tell you that just as the leaves of an olive tree never fall off, neither in the summer nor in the rainy season, so, too, the Jewish people will never be nullified, neither in this world nor in the World to Come.” This is a reassuring interpretation; but Rabbi Yochanan has a darker way of understanding the saying. In his view, the Jewish people are like an olive tree because “an olive tree brings forth its oil only by means of crushing,” when the fruit are put in the press. “So, too, the Jewish people return to good ways only by means of suffering,” he concludes. It is an article of faith in Judaism that God will, in the end, redeem His people; but history shows that Yochanan was right to believe that this would not come to pass without a great deal of suffering.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.