Crackers for God

Vayikra | Pesah Shabbat Hahodesh By :  William Friedman Posted On Mar 16, 2015 / 5775 | Main Commentary

What kind of gift would you give a king? In the interests of both respect and self-preservation, probably the nicest thing you could afford! And if you’d give this to a human king, how much more would you give to the King of Kings of Kings? And yet the Torah prescribes that any grain offered in the Temple cannot contain either yeast or honey. That’s right: the only appropriate grain offering for God is matzah—the tasteless cracker that is about to become the source of so much complaining on Passover! Why would the Torah tell us to do such a thing?

Let’s sharpen the problem even further. The first chapter of Leviticus lists all sorts of animals that can be brought to the Temple—delicious, meaty, expensive gifts. As we might remember from the story of Cain and Abel, God definitely prefers fleishigs (Gen. 4:3-5). So who would dare bring a flour-based offering? As Rashi points out in his commentary to Lev. 2:1, this is the offering of a poor person who can’t afford to bring anything else. And yet this poor person isn’t even allowed to make her grain offering taste good! What is so bad about leavened bread that the Torah is willing to humiliate poor people by only allowing them to bring matzah?

One possibility is that matzah is in fact the bread of poor people, which is one way of translating “לחם עני” (lehem oni, often rendered as “bread of affliction” in English, Deut. 16:3). So in an attempt not to further humiliate people unable to afford any nicer an offering, the Torah restricts the grain offerings to matzah. But that doesn’t quite work, for two reasons. First, the matzah brought to the Temple must be made of solet flour, usually understood to mean semolina, a high-quality grain, something not every poor person would be able to afford. Second, and more crucially, the grain offerings must be kept free of leaven even after the offerer has left (Lev. 2:11)! Why should the priests not be able to turn the poor people’s offering into something more palatable?

To answer that question, we need to detour to Pesah. Why do we eat matzah on Pesah? The usual answer, rehearsed at the seder, is that the Israelites were expelled from Egypt so quickly that there wasn’t time for the dough to rise. And, indeed, that is the Torah’s explanation in Exodus 12, verses 34 and 39. But much earlier in the chapter, in verse 11, God tells Moses to tell the people to eat the Passover sacrifice with “your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your stalves in your hands.” That’s not a people cast out with no warning. That’s a people packed up for a journey, ready, willing, and eager to get out of town. So why didn’t they think to start rising the dough just a little earlier?

The rabbis offer a possible answer. In the tannaitic (Mishnah-era) midrash to Exodus, Mekhilta Derabbi Yishmael (Pisha, 7), the anonymous editor interprets the phrase “eat [the Passover sacrifice] like this” to mean “like people about to embark on a journey (keyotze’ei derakhim).” Perhaps matzah was not simply an after-the-fact concession to an unexpectedly quick exodus. Instead, perhaps matzah is in fact the kind of food that travelers embarking on a long journey would plan to take with them. Bread that is leavened or sweetened molds relatively quickly; matzahlasts forever, as the boxes in my pantry from last Pesah attest!

We can now propose a possible answer to the question. The grain offerings brought to the Temple must be made the same way as the poor-quality but long-enduring traveler’s bread eaten on Pesah. This jibes well with the requirement that all offerings be salted (Lev. 2:13). Nahmanides understands this in light of salt’s preservative properties (see Num. 18:19’s reference to an eternal salt covenant): the sacrifices are about the relationship between God and Israel; salt preserves things indefinitely; therefore salting the sacrifices implies that the covenant will last forever.

Perhaps we can take this in a more literal direction. Salt acts as a preservative, and adding it to the traveler’s bread only enhances its stability. There might even be a further level of symbolism here: even though God now dwells—when God chooses to—in a physical place (albeit, in Leviticus, a portable one), God is ultimately the God of a nomadic, traveling people, and will accompany them no matter what happens. (I owe this and several other insights here to my teacher Rabbi Elisha Ancselovits). Perhaps we can even challenge Rashi’s notion, mentioned above, that the grain offerings are the cheapest of the sacrifices, and argue that the grain offerings are, in fact, the most central of them, for they demonstrate that God’s fundamental allegiance is with the poor and displaced—which itself is the central message of Pesah, and of the Torah as a whole.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).