May this last Shabbat before Passover be a blessing. If you are like us, you are having leaven with your Shabbat dinner. A nice loaf of challah. A chocolate cake (we have two of them). A few donuts. Leaven yourself up because you are about to do without.
But I didn’t write this meditation merely to entice you with fattening leaven dishes. I write because the subject of leaven was thrust upon me in a meaningful way this afternoon.
I was reading the Parasha over one more time before services tomorrow. I noticed something that I had missed or skipped over in earlier readings:
And the rest of it [the grain offering] Aaron and his sons shall eat. It shall be eaten unleavened in a holy place. In the court of the tent of meeting they shall eat it. It shall not be baked with leaven. I have given it as their portion of my food offerings. It is a thing most holy, like the sin offering and the guilt offering. –Leviticus 6:9-10 (16:16-17 in English).
I knew that most grain offerings were unleavened (there is an exception which I will mention in a moment). I did not know that the priests were to eat their portion unleavened also.
I have an annotated version of Rashi’s commentary. This is what the editors say, referencing the Talmud at Menachot 55a:
The Torah has already prohibited that which is leavened to be offered on the mizbe’ach [the altar, see Lev. 2:11]. “Talkam” (their share) is juxtaposed here with a repetition of the above commandment to teach that the prohibition applies to the remainder of the flour; which is eaten by the Kohanim [priests].
In other words, the Torah goes out of its way to make clear that even the larger portion, to be eaten by the priests, was to remain unleavened. This is a rather strong command. It strikes me that not only what was burned, but also the holy portion left for the priests to eat could not have leaven.. That means the priests mostly would eat unleavened bread year-round.
Several things strike me about this:
1. Some of us whine having to eat so much Matzah for just one week. They ate Matzah year-round.
2. The holiness of the portion given to God extended not only to what was offered up in smoke, but also to the portion left for the priests.
3. Why no leaven?
There are three unusual things about the grain offering:
1. It can have no leaven (Lev. 2:11).
2. It can have no honey (Lev. 2:11).
3. It must have salt (Lev. 2:13).
First, let me say that honey means fruit honey primarily (date syrup, fig jam) although the rabbis extend the prohibition to bee honey. Few people realize that “land of milk and honey” means milk and date syrup and fig jam.
Second, the adding of salt has to do with ancient covenant customs. The nature of salt as a preservative made it an item symbolizing enduring covenants. I do not think we specifically know of salt being used in covenant customs, but the Torah assumes it in Lev. 2:13. Also, this related to the modern custom of putting salt on a piece of challah at the Sabbath meal.
Finally, let me note that leaven and honey are not always prohibited on God’s altar. Lev. 2:12 and 23:17 specifically mention leaven and honey being in the firstfruits grain offering.
Therefore, leaven and honey are not inherently bad or evil. They should just not be the norm.
Jacob Milgrom notes that leaven is forbidden because of the Torah theme impurity which is a symbol of death. Leaven is fermentation, part of the process that comes after death. All of the impure things in Leviticus are related to death or loss of life. I am not aware of a rationale for forbidding honey in the offering.
So why is this my Sabbath meditation?
Well, in the first place, studying Torah for Torah’s sake is always good for the soul. So even if you think this a petty detail, it does your soul good to meditate on Torah.
Furthermore, we are about to enter the week of Passover and live without leaven. I hope this teaching of Torah, and the knowledge that the priests ate mostly unleavened bread year-round, helps you get more out of your Passover week. Leaven is not inherently bad, but it does symbolize impurity. As Paul says, “Get out the old leaven” (1 Cor. 5:7-8) and let the Matzah this next week remind you of your duty to remain pure.
Finally, I was simply blessed to think about the idea of eating unleavened bread. If the priests ate mostly unleavened bread year-round, I think I will eat it a little more often. Some good whole wheat Matzah will be good for me in July and September, just as it is in April. And we grind our own grains at the Leman house. I can’t wait to try different recipes for unleavened bread. Maybe I’ll even build a clay oven and try baking some biblical style.