My littlest niece is named Maya Yetta. Her unusual middle name, unusual for a 7 year old and not a 170 year old, is for my great grandmother Yetta Steiglitz who thanks to her longevity and odd name had no one named for her. And my baby brother Dan is a soft touch. Mama, as we called her made the most amazing chocolate cake – light, moist, good crumb, simple and delicious. It was a staple at family functions and it was all hers. Over the years many aunts and cousins had asked her for the recipe, which wasn’t written down. She would dictate but inevitably an ingredient would be left out or the amounts incorrect and it never turned out like Mama’s. One cousin even watched her make the cake, measuring the ingredients as they fell from her hand and recording them and even then it didn’t turn out correct. Mama died when I was in high school and one last chocolate cake was left which we put in the freezer and ate at the family Rosh Hashanah gathering almost a year later. I’ve eaten and made many chocolate cakes in the decades since then, but they’re never like hers which has been lost except in memory.
This week we begin a four week period in which we read the narrative in the Torah containing the instructions for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle built by the Israelites in the desert and which was the predecessor of the Temple in Jerusalem. The instructions for building the mishkan include a table, “And on the table you shall set the bread of display to be before Me always.” Ve natata al ha shulkhan lechem panim lifanei tamid. (Exodus 25:30) among the necessary accessories of the Mishkan was the lechem panim, which literally means the “bread of the face”. It was bread that we were to put in God’s face. Many of our texts more elegantly translate the lechem panim as the bread of display or the showbread.
What the book of Exodus calls lechem panim, the book of Leviticus calls by a more familiar name Challot. This bread was presented as an offering on a table inside the sanctuary where it was viewed and accepted by God. They were made from choice flour and specially arranged on the table every Shabbat day. Both the verses in our reading and the verses from Leviticus make explicit that this instruction was a commitment for all time. This is what the Torah says when it wants us to understand how a Biblical commandment was enacted in those times 3500 years ago but was intended to endure even until today, albeit in altered form.
The Talmud explains that 12 loaves of lechem panim were set out in 2 equal rows for the entire week until Shabbat, when they were replaced by freshly baked loaves. The old loaves belonged to the kohanim, the priests who would eat them within the sacred places at the Temple mount.
Our challah thankfully is not required in quantities of a dozen each week and also thankfully is not a week old when we eat it, except as French toast. But like the lechem panim, it too plays a significant role in Jewish life today. It is not just a food item but it is a ritual, one of which elevate the eating experience on Shabbat and festive days. As in the Mishkan, its presence adorns the table and transforms the dining table into an altar to God. And in many homes it means that even the pickiest eaters have something to feast on at the Shabbat table. Quite an amazing feat for a simple loaf of bread.
If I asked you to describe the challah that was on your table last night for Shabbat dinner or that will be brought out in about 20 minutes at the end of our service, you would not have any trouble doing so. It is so ubiquitous and recognizable that its golden braids can be seen on the Food Network, in Wegmans, heck even the Superbowl winning New England Patriots have eaten challah bread at Robert Kraft’s Shabbat table. Let’s hope they don’t choke on it.
But we would have a much more difficult time describing the lechem ha panim which sat the table in the Mishkan. This is because in second Temple times, the lechem panim loaves were baked by the ancestors of my great grandmother Yetta, Beit Garmu. The reason I think they were related to Mama is that according to the Mishnah (Yoma 3:11) Beit Garmu had a monopoly on baking the lechem panim and they did not teach anyone else how to bake the loaves. As a result of their secrecy, we lost the recipe of the loaves and the knowledge of what they looked like. Just a few short years later the Rabbis of the Talmud were already arguing over whether the loaves were shaped like a “V” or with a flat bottom. (Rabbi Lewis Warshauer on Teruma in “Rabbinic Fellow Parshah Commentaries, p. 23-24)
There are two important lessons that we learn from the lechem panim that have become our challot.
The first is the importance of freshness in our rituals and religious institutions. Our rabbis say that a great miracle happened in the Tabernacle, namely that the lechem panim never got stale. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that this is not to be understood literally but rather that the magic of the sanctuary in the wilderness was that the rituals themselves never became stale or obsolete. The presence of challah on our tables each week reminds us that boredom and habit can be a danger to our own religious institutions. And we keep our religious rituals fresh to help them stay beloved.
The second lesson that we learn from the loaves is the importance of history and shared and inherited traditions. Because Beit Garmu did not teach others how to bake the loaves the tradition was lost. When we do not pass along our wisdom whether of the perfect chocolate cake or the way Shabbat is celebrated in our families, the secrecy costs us our very history and family narratives.
This is the reason that our rabbis teach that there should be two items on our Shabbat table each week, one old and one new. Each Shabbat table has wine which is best when it is “old, often the older it is the better it is. Each Shabbat table also has Challah which is best when it is “new”, the newer it is the fresher it is. On the Shabbat table the old and the new come together as a prayer, “Ha yahsan yithadesh ve ha hadesh titkadesh.” Let the old be renewed and let the new be made holy.