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Bread and Curses (Shelach)

The following article outlines very roughly the beginnings of a wide-ranging theory which explores the connection between the story of the “wood-gatherer,” in this week’s parshah; the “blasphemer,” in parshas Emor; and the collection of mann, in parshas Beshalach. Hope to develop it further in the future. Enjoy!

The tale of the the “megadef” (the blasphemer”), recounted at the end of parshas Emor (source #1),[1] is deeply enigmatic. It is the only narrative which appears in a parshah otherwise dedicated entirely to the ritual laws of kohanim, the holidays, and the mishkan. As such, it seems entirely out of place. Two problems, in particular, warrant our careful consideration: (a) What, exactly, led the megadef to curse Hashem? (b) When, exactly, did this incident occur? 

For clues regarding the first question, perhaps we ought to examine the material which immediately precedes the story of the megadef–namely, the law of the lechem hapanim, or “show bread.” The lechem hapanim consisted of twelve loaves of bread, arranged before Hashem each Shabbos in the Mishkan. It is hard to imagine how this law might have in any way prompted the rebellion of the megadef. Nevertheless, Rashi cites a medrash suggesting that these two passages are indeed connected: “The son of an Israelite woman…went out:” From where did he go out? Rabbi Berechiah says: The megadef “went out” of the previous passage. He mocked and said, “[Scripture says], ‘Each… Sabbath day, he shall set it up [i.e. the showbread].’ But surely it is the practice of kings to eat warm [fresh] bread every day! Perhaps cold bread, nine days old?” (source #2).

So, there you have it: Rabbi Berachiah is on record as stating that the megadef was somehow provoked by the laws of the lechem hapanim–the showbread. Yet the exact nature of the megadef’s perturbation, on this reading, is hard to make sense of. It seems that the megadef was annoyed that Hashem does not receive His bread “day by day”–apparently, presenting it “week by week” instead represents a slight to Hashem’s honor. Yet if it is the honor of Hashem with which the megadef is concerned, why does he then go ahead and curse Hashem? The internal logic of this explanation seems inconsistent.

So we’ll return to it later.

Image result for sticks of woodIn the meantime, let’s think about that second question from above–when, exactly, did this incident occur? On this point, Rashi offers us the intriguing suggestion that it took place “at the same time as the incident of the wood-gatherer” (source #2). The incident being referred to here is recorded much later in the Torah, in our parshah: Shelach (source #3). It concerns an individual who violated the Shabbos by gathering sticks in the wilderness (the “mekoshesh”). And, indeed, there are stark similarities between the story of the mekoshesh and that of the megadef. To wit: both focus upon the sin of a private citizen; in both, that individual is unnamed; in both, that individual is then brought to Moshe to be sentenced; in both, Moshe doesn’t know the appropriate legal response; in both, the violator is detained while the law is determined; the violator receives the same punishment in both; etc. To be sure, this parallel has already been widely noticed; and, it would seem that it is upon its basis that Rashi synchronizes the two stories, chronologically.

Of course, if we are to accept this synchronization — if we are to synchronize the story of the megadef with that of the mekoshesh — the question then becomes: when did the latter story occur? Well, the central issue of that story is the act of Shabbos violation perpetrated by the mekoshesh. The sense we get is that the practice of (full-fledged) Shabbos observance is by this point still relatively new to b’nei Yisrael–an intuition which is supported, perhaps, by the fact that nobody seems aware of the appropriate legal response for the violation in question. It sure would be attractive, then, to place this story right after b’nei Yisrael are first commanded to observe the Shabbos in the wilderness; perhaps even to place it right after the very first Shabbos which they are recorded as having attempted to observe.

That story, by the way–the story of the “first Shabbos”–happens to be recorded in parshas Beshalach, back in Exodus 16 (source #6). It arises in the context of the mann-episode, during which Hashem commands b’nei Yisrael not to gather their daily bread on the seventh day, because that day shall be celebrated as a “Shabbos.” Yet just as the mekoshesh violates the Shabbos, so do those bidden not to gather the mann on the Shabbos violate their charge. And just as the violation of the mekoshesh is brought to the attention of Moshe, so too are the violations of the mann-gatherers. Moreover–and as Ezra Zuckerman-Sivan has noted already–there are a series of subtle verbal links which further underscore these stories’ interconnection: “[i]n both cases, something (the manna, the gatherer) is put aside (הנחה) for safekeeping (משמר); 2 and in both cases, the violation of Shabbat that occurs is described as a matter of ‘finding’ (מצא)—the manna in one case, and the gatherer in the other.”

Thus, it seems highly likely that the story of the mekoshesh took place around the time of the mann-episode, back in parshas Beshalach. And, truth be told, Rashi all but states this explicitly–for, in his commentary upon the story of the mekoshesh, he cites a medrash claiming that this incident occurred on “the second Shabbos in the wilderness” (source #4). The Gur Aryeh, commenting upon this gloss, explains: “the ‘first-Shabbos’ referred to here means the first time that the term ‘Shabbos’ was used by scripture [in the context of b’nei Yisrael’s wanderings in the desert], which is the Shabbos of the mann-episode” (source #5).[3] So, there you have it: by following the literary clues, we’ve discovered that the story of the megadef took place on the same Shabbos as the story of the mekoshesh–that is, one week after the episode of the mann.[4]

With that, perhaps we are ready to return to Rabbi Berechiah. Recall, after all, what Rabbi Berechiah had taught us: he was the one who argued that the rebellion of the megadef was somehow induced by the “law of the showbread” which immediately precedes it in the text of the Torah. Suddenly, that kind of fits–doesn’t it? Because it means that the megadef’s violation, on the “second Shabbos,” was sparked by the same issue as the Shabbos-violation of the mann gatherers: namely, the allotment of daily bread. What irked the mann-gathers was the notion that they could gather each morning only as much bread as they needed for that day. And what irks the megadef, a week later, is that Hashem does not seem to be following His own rules! For unlike b’nei Yisrael, Hashem does receive His “bread” on the Shabbos; and, unlike b’nei Yisrael, Hashem receives the entire week’s allotment at once. Perhaps that is how we ought to interpret the complaint placed in his mouth by Rabbi Berechiah: “but surely it is the practice of kings to eat warm bread every day.” It’s a grievance issued cynically and sarcastically, and it’s import is: if Hashem feeds us our bread in daily rations, why isn’t that good enough for Him?

Image result for challahOnce here, it’s worth returning, as well, to the story of the mekoshesh. For, when we do, we notice that there, too, the question of “bread-allotment” seems to be hovering in the backdrop: shortly before the mekoshesh gathers his sticks, Hashem commands Moshe concerning the mitzvah of challah–of separating a portion of one’s bread to give as a gift to the kohen (source #3).[5] Perhaps, then, the dissent of the mekoshesh is also triggered by the issue of bread allotment; it troubles him that the kohen receives more than the daily ration of bread apportioned to all others, just as it troubled the megadef that Hashem receives more than the daily ration of bread apportioned to all others.[6]

Taken together, then, the central issue which shapes the three incidents in our “trilogy”–that is, the stories of the mann, the megadef, and the mekoshesh–is, roughly, that of distributive justice. Like many societies, b’nei Yisrael is faced with the question of how to fairly apportion the excesses of economic production. Hashem sets the tone on the “first Shabbos” by insisting that (a) none shall be made to labor indefinitely (hence, the Shabbos laws); and (b) that none shall draw from the commons beyond the dictates of his or her immediate needs (hence, per Zuckerman-Sivan, the laws of the mann). These are relatively modest proposals. Yet the institutions of the lechem hapanim and of the challah, introduced before the “second Shabbos,”[7] are far more radical: unlike the laws of Shabbos and of the mann, which limit the pursuit of wealth, these latter laws actually mandate the redistribution of wealth which has already been gathered; they re-direct a portion of Israel’s material abundance towards the preservation of its religious institutions–and, thus, of its spiritual character. But here, the mekoshesh and the megadef take umbrage: the mekoshesh, by taking from the commons to compensate for that portion of his own private wealth which he must now reallocate; the megadef, by cursing the God who, it seems to him, benefits hypocritically from the levy He imposes upon His people.[8]

And if that is the case, then it sheds new light, as well, upon an incident recounted much later in Tanach: the incident of the mekosheshes–the widowed “wood-gatherer”–which appears in I Kings 17 (source #8). This widow is approached by the wandering Eliyahu Ha-Navi with a request that she feed him her last morsels of bread, which she does. The scene is unquestionably connected to that of the mekoshesh; this, too, was noted by Zuckerman-Sivan, who cogently articulates the point of contrast as follows: “Whereas the wood-gatherer raids the commons for his own benefit and thereby threatened the fragile social stability of his community and a nascent social institution that was the primary instantiation of its faith in God, she is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of life-giving private property in order to help a stranger and his strange God, even at the risk of her son’s life.”  

To this compelling interpretation we might add, in line with our analysis, but one more piece–a piece of challah, that is. For Eliyahu, after all, was not just a Navi; he was also a Kohen. And, as such, his right to the widow’s bread accrued not merely on account of her magnanimity; by dint of the challah law, Eliyahu, in some sense, actually held a normative claim to that bread (though, to be sure, such a claim would not have been legally actionable). So it isn’t just that the mekosheshes neutralizes the selfishness of the mekoshesh–it’s that she does so by participating, voluntarily, in that very institution which irked the mekoshesh in the first place: the institution of challah. (And, by the way: if indeed the motif of challah is lurking in the background of this story, it lends new irony to the fate which befalls the widow’s son shortly after she surrenders her last morsels to Eliyahu: “ויהי אחר הדברים האלה חלה בן האשה”– “and it was, after these events, that the son of the widow grew ill”–Hebrew: chalah!)

Much more to be said here than we’ll ultimately have time for–perhaps some will make its way into the comments section. In the meantime, some closing thoughts by way of orientation: (a) The Torah tells us that the megadef was the son of an Egyptian father. It seems that this is an important detail, but our analysis has thus far not really taken into account the role played by his lineage. It should, though–particularly as Chazal separately identify the mekoshesh with Tzlofchad (source #9), thereby implying that both the megadef and the mekoshesh were, in some ways, of socioeconomically disadvantaged background. (b) Meanwhile: Rashi (source #2) identifies the megadef as the son of the Egyptian man killed by Moshe in parshas Shemos (source #10). As is often the case (and we’ve seen several examples in this essay already), this claim seems to be based on subtle textual similarities between the two episodes.[9] (c) Meanwhile: that story–the story of Moshe’s killing the Egyptian–finds its sequel in Exodus 5, when Moshe demands that Pharaoh free b’nei Yisrael. And Pharaoh’s reaction to that demand–sending the people to “gather” their “daily quota” of “straw” and forbidding them the right to a “sabbath” (source #11)–seems to serve as the model for the mann-laws several chapters later–a point we noted a while back, and whose meaning Zuckerman-Sivan has (yet again) interpreted most compellingly. (d) Note that it is also in that section of Exodus where we find perhaps the most sustained interest in the “name” of Hashem: Moshe wonders how he should refer to Hashem if b’nei Yisrael ask for the identity of the God who appeared to him; Hashem offers several cryptic responses; and then, upon dispatching Moshe, Hashem once again addresses at length the subject of His proper appellation (source #12). It may be no coincidence that the next time in the Torah where we find the issue of Hashem’s “name” feature so prominently is during the story of the megadef–the man who curses Hashem’s name. (e) According to Rashi, Dasan and Aviram (those of Korach’s rebellion–see Num. 16)[10] were the ones who, in parshas Shemos, witnessed Moshe kill that Egyptian–that is, the father of the megadef. Rashi further claims, in that same gloss, that Dasan and Aviram were the ones who, in parshas Beshalach, hoarded extra portions of mann (source #10). We’ll explore briefly that latter claim, in its own right, next week; but there’s probably a way in which it’s connected to the larger analysis we’re putting together here, too…

Shabbat shalom!


[1] Note: All sources cited in this essay can be found here.

[2] This detail, we might add, is true also of the story of the megadef.

[3] Note that the Gur Aryeh also takes pains to show how the acts of the mann-gatherers did not technically constitute a “desecration” of the Shabbos–an interesting issue, but not ours for now.

[4] This may provide context for the particular punishment chosen in both incidents; compare with Exod. 17:4 wherein Moshe cries, “עוד מעט וסקלוני” – “a little longer, and the people shall stone me!” (source #7).

[5] It should be noted that the incident of the mekoshesh is not immediately preceded by the law of challah; in between them lie details regarding offerings for unintentional sins (source #5) Yet the positioning of this intermediary passage may also serve to connect the mekoshesh with the megadef; indeed, its climax appears to directly address the case of the megadef: “‘But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes [megadef] the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel, because they have despised the Lord’s word and broken his commands, they must surely be cut off; their guilt remains on them.”

[6] Sure enough, Rashi tells us that the portion of challah due to the kohen is modelled directly upon the portion of mann which b’nei Yisrael received each day! (source #4).

[7] At this point, it is worth noting that the literary connection that we have traced between the stories of the mann, the mekoshesh and the megadef can be maintained regardless of whether or not one accepts as literally true the strict chronological scheme which the midrash develops as its way of implying this connection. There are, to be sure, attractive reasons to adopt this chronology, as we touched upon in the body of the essay. But there are also reasons not to: among these are the fact that the Torah itself does not present these incidents sequentially; and the fact that the mishkan was not introduced until many weeks after that “first Shabbos,” rendering it unlikely that the laws of the challah or of the lechem hapanim were, either. Perhaps, then, the incidents of the megadef and of the mekoshesh did not transpire until a while after the episode of the mann; but they occurred in reaction to that episode, inasmuch as the laws of the challah and of the lechem hapanim–which served as their proximate trigger–brought to the surface the contentious issues raised by that earlier episode.

[8] To be sure, though, it is not merely the “re-distributive” element of Hashem’s socioeconomic program which the mekoshesh and the megadef undermine. While the trigger for their defiance may have been the “bread laws,” both ultimately weaken the more fundamental institution of Shabbos itself: the mekoshesh, by explicitly violating the Shabbos; the megadef, by criticizing the fact that the lechem hapanim was presented on Shabbos. That the theme of Shabbos is central to the story of the megadef, just as it is to that of the mekoshesh, may be further evidenced by the fact that it is juxtaposed, at its other book-end, by the laws of the sabbatical years–laws which forbid the gathering of grain, and thus the production of bread, every seventh year (Source #13). [Ezra Zuckerman Sivan has observed, in personal correspondence, that the language of מעט/הרבה connects many of the “social competition” stories we are discussing here — the mann; Korach; Tzlofchad; etc. It may be instructive to note, in that vein, the presence of this language in the laws of the shemittah cycle as well: לפי רב השנים תרבה מקנתו ולפי מעט [השנים תמעיט מקנתו כי מספר תבואת הוא מכר לך

[9] This connection, by the way, works both ways: it is probably the basis for Chazal’s claim that Moshe killed the Egyptian by cursing him through the articulation of God’s ineffable name (source #10).

[10] Note also that Korach’s rebellion against the priesthood occurs almost immediately following the incident of the mekoshesh–further support, perhaps, for the notion that the grievance of the mekoshesh stems, in some ways, from the privileges associated with the priesthood.


1 Comment

  1. EWZS says:

    Shavua tov Alex!
    This is fantastic.
    I wrote up an idea and some notes in response, but it got long so I put them here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/va1kymqu0ny51qq/Quick%20response%20to%20Alex%20Maged%20on%20bread%20and%20curses.pdf?dl=0

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