What can you
say about a culture that uses the same root
(lamed, het, mem) for both bread
(lehem, accent on the first syllable) and war, (milhama)?
(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
(laham) means not only "he did battle" and "he ate bread"
but also "he joined together."
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,
(milhama). Bread, he adds, suggesting perhaps that it is considered
highly nutritious, is "compact food." Voilà for bread,(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
(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
(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,(lehem).
Adam is banished from the Garden of Eden with the malediction(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 blessing(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 the(lehem
bikkurim), "bread of first fruits" brought to the Temple on
Shavu'ot, and the(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,
(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
(mishneh), from the word meaning "two," can also be read
"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
(lo al ha-lehem levaddo yihyeh ha-adam), "Man does not live on
bread alone." The Book of Ecclesiastes observes:
(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:
Perhaps the greatest piece of Jewish wisdom related to bread is also the most
poetic. The advice: (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
every morning wouldn't be a bad reward at all.
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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