Hebrew lesson: L-H-M/ Dr. Joseph Lowin

What can you say about a culture that uses the same root — graphic Hebrew (lamed, het, mem) — for both bread graphic Hebrew (lehem, accent on the first syllable) and war, graphic Hebrew(milhama)? Dographic Hebrew (lehem) and graphic Hebrew (milhama) really come from the same root? It's a good question, and to answer it one must invoke a third use of the root. It seems that graphic Hebrew (laham) means not only "he did battle" and "he ate bread" but also "he joined together."

fencingUsing this third meaning, Ludwig Koehler, in his 1953 Dictionary of the Hebrew Old Testament, opines that our root originally had the connotation of "to be closely packed together" and that that meaning is the common denominator. In war, says Koehler, soldiers often engage in hand-to-hand combat in close quarters. Voilà for war, graphic Hebrew (milhama). Bread, he adds, suggesting perhaps that it is considered highly nutritious, is "compact food." Voilà for bread,graphic Hebrew(lehem).

In a different way, medieval Hebrew grammarian Rabbi David Kimhi (the RaDak) offers a metaphorical explanation for the coincidence of bread and war in one root: War is called graphic Hebrew (milhama) because "the sword eats up the belligerents on both sides." The allusion here is quite likely to the Akedah (binding of Isaac) story, in which Abraham's knife is called a graphic Hebrew (ma'akhelet), from the word "to eat."

As interesting as these conjunctures may be, they do not begin to exhaust the fascinating developments of the Hebrew word for bread,graphic Hebrew(lehem). Adam is banished from the Garden of Eden with the maledictiongraphic Hebrew(be-ze'at apekha tokhal lehem), "you will eat lehem by the sweat of your brow." Clearly, since bread does not grow on trees (neither on the Tree of Life nor on the Tree of Knowledge), lehem is used here in a generic sense, to mean "food." From the blessinggraphic Hebrew(ha-motsi lehem min ha- arets), "who brings forth bread from the earth," it may be deduced that the root has both a specific and a generic meaning. After reciting this blessing, one may eat a piece of bread and then partake of a whole meal.

Our word is found in a number of biblical contexts, such as thegraphic Hebrew(lehem bikkurim), "bread of first fruits" brought to the Temple on Shavu'ot, and thegraphic Hebrew(lehem atslut) "bread of laziness," that the proverbial Woman of Valor does not eat. The expression describing the double portion of manna provided on Fridays for the Israelites in the desert,graphic Hebrew (lehem mishneh), accounts for the custom of putting two loaves of hallah on the Shabbat and festival table. It also serves as a pretext for an interesting rabbinic explanation for the use of hallah in the first place. According to Rashi,graphic Hebrew (mishneh), from the word meaning "two," can also be read as graphic Hebrew(mishuneh), "different." Thus, we eat hallah because its taste and smell are different from those of ordinary, week-day bread.

Not surprisingly, bread is a central theme in Jewish folk wisdom. The Book of Numbers reminds us that graphic Hebrew (lo al ha-lehem levaddo yihyeh ha-adam), "Man does not live on bread alone." The Book of Ecclesiastes observes: graphic Hebrew (lo la-hakhamim lehem), loosely translated, "Don't expect to get rich if you're planning on being a scholar." The Talmud provides a nutritionist's slant when it observes that while honey is an appropriate food for infants and oil is good for the elderly, the best food for youths is bread:graphic Hebrew (la-ne'arim lehem).

Perhaps the greatest piece of Jewish wisdom related to bread is also the most poetic. The advice: graphic Hebrew(shelah lahmekha al penei ha-mayim), "Cast your bread upon the waters." If you perform good deeds randomly, there's a good chance you'll be rewarded, or see positive results. Jewish folk hero Bontshe the Silent knew what he was talking about when he taught us that a nice, warm roll — graphic Hebrew(lahmaniya) — every morning wouldn't be a bad reward at all.


B&N buy the bookDr. Joseph Lowin is Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew Language (NY). He has written extensively (in both popular and scholarly formats) on Jewish narrative, modern Jewish literature, and Hebrew language. His most recent book is Hebrewspeak: An Insider's Guide to the Way Jews Think (Jason Aronson, 1995).

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