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B'Midbar/Numbers 15:21 From the beginning of your dough, you shall give an offering to the L-rd; for your generations.
The meaning of the word is unclear; suggestions include 'kneading trough' or 'dough', but it is a fp noun with a 2mp ending. Jastrow suggests the singular is either a kneading trough or the amount of dough contained in one trough, derived from the root , "to connect, intertwine or braid", which is not used within the Hebrew Scriptures. This verse follows a similar injunction "you shall set it aside as a gift like the gift from the threshing floor" (B'Midbar 15:20, JPS) aligning baking with threshing - an offering toHaShem is due from both. The Rashbam amplifies the 'first' connection: "Like the gift from the threshing floor, which is 'The firstfruits of your grain, of your wine and of your oil, and the first fleece of your sheep, you shall give him' (D'varim 18:4); this too is the 'first yield' of our baking."
Missing from the text is any indication of how much the offering should be. TheBaal HaTurim points out that "this verse begins and ends ith a ," which has the numeric value of forty. From this he deduces that "the measure of a generous person's terumah consists of one fortieth of the crop." The ancient rabbis disagree; the Mishnah tells us that "one who makes dough for his own use, or one who makes [dough] for his son's [wedding] banquet [that is to say, a large amount for private use] [- must separate] one twenty-fourth. A baker who makes [dough] for sale in the market, and likewise a woman [not a professional baker] who makes [dough] for sale in the market - [they must separate] one forty-eighth" (m. Hallah 2:7). So private bakers - even if making quite a lot of dough - should take out one twenty-fourth, while those making dough for sale - commercially - only half that: one forty-eighth. But that could be quite a lot - and what do we do with it? Rabbi Hirsch explains for today: "The challah which we take now is only a reminder of the real duty and has to be burnt. The smallest quantity suffices for that, but it is customary to take at least the size of an olive."
The text also doesn't say where and when this applies - only in the Land of Israel, or in the Disapora as well? Again, the Mishnah provides the answer: "Rabban Gamaliel says, There are three regions with respect to [the law of] dough offering: from the Land of Israel to Keziv ... from the Keziv to the River and Amanus ... from the River and Amanus and beyond ..." (m. Hallah 4:8). These correspond to Israel when the Israelites returned from the Babylonian Exile, the Land in the days of David and Solomon, and the Diaspora after the Hurban - to say that this is binding everywhere. On a slightly different tack, Gersonides stipulates that it applies to all dough, "of any sort, even if the grain comes from outside the Land." It is not confined just to grain grown in Israel. As to when, Hirsch points to the last phrase of the verse, "for your generations" and explains: "the challah duty goes on uninterruptedly, even in sabbatical or jubilee years, when the tithing rules are not in force for produce grown in that year. Thereby just that phase of G-d's care and provision to which challah pays tribute is marked as being a special idea, different from that which is expressed by its colleague, the grain offering." As we bless G-d for every meal, so we take a token offering from every batch of dough, to remember G-d's provision, each day and every day.
Apart from the first-fruit idea, is there any other reason why we take out the challah from our bread dough? Maimonides, never slow to come forward with an improving answer, suggests that, "all first produces have been assigned to G-d so that the moral quality of generosity be strengthened and the appetite for eating and for acquisition be weakened" (Guide for the Perplexed 3:39). Before we enjoy any of the blessings that G-d has given us, we should first exercise generosity and bless others by giving a portion away - and this will help us not to be greedy and overeat ourselves. Why, thank you, Moshe! Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno offers an alternative proposal: "The Torah instituted [the mitzvah] of challah, so that they would be worthy that a blessing come to rest in their homes, as it says: 'And the first of all the firstfruits of all kinds, and every offering of all kinds from all your offerings, shall belong to the priests. You shall also give to the priests the first of your dough, that a blessing may rest on your house' (Ezekiel 44:30)."
That verse from Ezekiel is important, as it provides a link between his time and ours. Ezekiel (traditionally) wrote during the time of the Babylonian Exile, when the (first) Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, there were no priests in office and Israel was out of the Land. Observance of the mitzvot could only be selective and partial, as people and circumstances allowed - but every Israelite making dough could choose to take a few pinches of dough and drop them onto the floor of the oven as a symbolic token and remembrance of the challah offering that would have been baked and given to the priests. Since the greater dispersion of the Jewish people since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, Judaism has become home-based; while the synagogue exists and is attended, the home has become the mikdash ma'at, the little holiness, where service is offered, Torah is studied and blessing sought for the family. We offer the substance of our homes - the bread that feeds everyone in the household - that a blessing may rest upon the house. All people, at all times, in all places. When we put the L-rd first.
Yeshua points to this when He tells the disciples, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 6:33, ESV). Often taught as applying to our choices - what we want most, how we prioritise, what we value - and that on a large or whole of life scale, it can and should also be read as a matter of sequencing on a daily micro-scale: which activity do we carry out first. How do we start each day - whether in the morning if we are day-time workers/people, or in the evening if we are night workers/people - what comes first. Is it seeking G-d or making the coffee? Moshe told the Children of Israel quite bluntly: "You shall teach [these words] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (D'varim 6:7, ESV). In Judaism, the Modeh Ani prayer is to be said immediately upon waking - "I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great" - and because it does not contain any of the names of G-d, may be said without washing the hands or needing to get out of bed. Our first conscious moments of each day are used to bless G-d for the gift of life.
This principle runs through our lives: choosing our connection and relationship with G-d not just as over-arching principle and direction, important though that is, but making that connection happen first before other things. Take a practical example. When you get your pay cheque each month, what is the first thing you do? Some people pay all the bills, set aside essential living costs and then tithe or give out of what is left. Others take "the L-rd's portion" out first, and then meet their own needs out of what is left. Perhaps there is not enough to live on; this is of significant concern for those with families, young children and dependents to support. If after eliminating all non-essentials, there is still not enough money to go round, then negotiate with the L-rd. Talk it through with someone else who can both advise you and hold you accountable, then lower the amount you give away to make the sums work out, but still make that smaller amount your priority.
Another area to check is the time we spend with the L-rd. Does your quiet time happen in the middle of the breakfast table, sandwiched in between the cereal and the toast - mind you don't get marmalade on your Bible - or perhaps a quick skim over a page of Daily Bread while the other eye is on the clock before you rush out of the house on the way to work or the gym? Then you are not giving the L-rd the first slice, but crumbs out of the leftovers. Again, it's not about the size of the slice - whether you can afford forty minutes to pray, read the Bible, sing, recite a Psalm, or whether you have only five minutes for a couple of verses and the L-rd's prayer - it's about whether you choose to make it happen first, always, for certain, or take what's left after everything else is done, if there is any time left.
Paying attention to the little things - such as the challah from each batch of dough - on a consistent basis enables us to focus on the process of decision making as a routine part of our lives rather than hitting a crisis when a decision comes along. Yeshua spoke to that as well: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others" (Matthew 23:23, ESV). Too often we hear this as being about the legalistic Pharisees who are simply doing the wrong things. But that isn't what Yeshua said. While He does rebuke them for their lack of engagement with the heart principles of the kingdom, He nevertheless affirms that they are right in their attention to detail. May we all wear the heart of the kingdom on our sleeves without leaving our shirt-buttons undone!
Further Study: Nehemiah 10:32-39; 2 Chronicles 31:2-6; 1 Peter 3:8-12
Application: Do you struggle to find time for G-d and to place Him first - does He always have to take second place in your busy lifestyle? Why not try developing a small intentional practice that can help you develop the principle of choosig G-d first? Put Him first and bring a blessing on your house!
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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